Sage Advice for Learning on the Job

It’s the first day of the new term and you are sitting in your first ever publishing lab ready to take on life at a teaching press. As the room fills up, you start eavesdropping, hoping to pick up something useful. The people to your left are talking about a P.N.L. (or is it P and L?), the group behind you is arguing about what to put in a press kit, and somewhere, someone is loudly complaining about how long it took them to fix their XML coding over the summer, and all of that is before the meeting starts. If you weren’t nervous before, you probably are now, but don’t panic! This particular teaching press is Ooligan, and at Ooligan, there is no such thing as sink or swim (even if the first day feels a little like being pushed face-first into the deep end). So sit back and relax while I lay out some sage advice on how to negotiate this crazy, awesome journey of experiential learning.

  • Immersion is everything. Like every industry, publishing has its own vernacular, and the sooner you jump into it, the faster you’ll learn it. But it’s not just the language you should be paying attention to. Publishing is a many-layered ecosystem with dozens of projects circulating at any given time. The best way to understand the industry at large is to know every step of the process and how those steps interact. The point of a teaching press like Ooligan is to give each student the opportunity to customize their education based on their interests. So, jump in, see what’s happening, and swim over to get involved.
  • Try everything, and try it twice. Even if it isn’t something you think you’ll want to do in the future, it’s a good idea to dip your toes into every available opportunity, if only for the experience. Volunteer to create the web page for Ooligan’s new title, to help with the XML coding, to do an ebook proofread, or to put together a P&L. You’ll be given all the instructions and support you’ll need to complete every assignment and volunteer project, and there are plenty of other people who know what to do if you get stuck. And then, once you’ve tried something, do it again! Practice makes perfect, and it also looks great on your future resume!
  • If you don’t know, ask. No one expects you to know everything on the first day, and more likely than not you’ll be asked to complete tasks that you’ve never done before. Ooligan has dozens of resources to help you, from lessons on marketing plans and copyediting to examples of previous work, not to mention all of the knowledge of your peers in the program. No question is too big or small when you consider that all the work you do for the press has a tangible impact on the success of a real book that was written by a real author who is expecting the press to sell real copies for real money. Ask every question, ask it early, and ask as many people as you can until you feel comfortable and confident in your work.
  • You’re in charge, so act like it. The purpose of a teaching press is to give every student applicable real-life publishing skills that are directly transferable to working at another publishing house. Take ownership of the power you hold within the ecosystem of the press. Your work directly affects the success of the press, so feel entitled to find the place within the press where your skills and interests will be the most useful.
  • Sharing is caring. Publishing is a very interactive industry, especially in a small press like Ooligan, and the need for people with diversified talents and interests is strong. Chances are, you were selected for the program because you’ve already demonstrated practical skills, so feel free to show them off. Just remember that Ooligan is a teaching press where everyone is coming to learn, and the best way to learn is peer-to-peer, so don’t be hesitant about taking knowledge for yourself or teaching your skills to someone else.

With these five tips in mind, you’re all set to get started at Ooligan. You’ve already taken the dive, but don’t forget to enjoy the swim!

Memory and Truth: How to Classify Nonfiction Titles

I stared at a tattered childhood Christmas picture. It was the living room of my grandparent’s old house in Atlanta. Wrapping paper covered the floor, my aunts and uncles were still young, and my grandparents were still alive. I took in every detail, hoping the picture would be the catalyst that would allow me to mine forgotten memories. I began to remember little things: the smell of the house, the pattern of the linoleum, the weeping willow in the front yard, and eventually, a story emerged. The question is, are memories true? Can I verify that the events I mined and cobbled together are how things actually happened? Can anyone? If we can’t verify how the events occurred, how can we classify a memoir as nonfiction?

Nonfiction is generally considered anything that is not fiction. This includes reference books, travel books, cookbooks, self-help books, and narrative nonfiction (to name a few). Narrative nonfiction is often misunderstood, as it is fact that reads like fiction. It’s also called literary journalism, fact-based storytelling, and creative nonfiction. The word “creative” can be misleading as it implies storytelling, which is often misconstrued as fiction or historical fiction. Unlike an academic paper, reference book, or journalistic article, in a narrative nonfiction piece the research is seamlessly woven into the storyline. It tends to have characters, a plot, an arc, high stakes, compelling writing, and many other characteristics of fiction. However, a narrative nonfiction writer is not allowed to fill in the blanks with anything that isn’t true.

The two predominant forms of narrative nonfiction are the essay and the memoir. The essay is a conversational examination of a topic or idea and often incorporates research, experiential accounts, interviews, and anecdotes. The memoir is the story of a life, a section of a life, or an event. The memoir is usually written as one sweeping true story or a collection of true short stories. It is a factual account told in a story or narrative format.

If that’s the case, why does nonfiction allow something as unreliable as memories? The idea is that the writer is truly recounting the memory, not whether or not it actually occurred. The experience is born out of the memory of the event. A memoir is a recounting of memory. It has to be a truthful recounting of only what is remembered and what is researched.

While the autobiography offers an encompassing picture of the subject’s life, the memoir offers a glimpse, or pieces, or a complete accounting of a certain part of a life. Trauma narratives such as Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl can shed a new light on atrocities. Travel narratives such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck can give the readers a snapshot of a place in time. Immersive writing such as Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger is another form of narrative nonfiction where the author immerses themselves in a place for an extended period of time.

Historical fiction is often confused with narrative nonfiction. There is an ongoing debate as to where one ends and another begins. Historical fiction is a researched story based in facts, but the blanks are often filled in with a fictional account of what the character was thinking or feeling, made-up dialogue, and scenes that happened behind closed doors.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is a well-known example of historical fiction. It is based on a factual account of the civil war. However, Mitchell made up characters, scenes, dialogue, etc. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is an excellent example of narrative nonfiction. Skloot wrote an investigative and historical account of the He-La cell. She traced the cells back to their origin—a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Skloot expertly laid out a factual account based on nearly a decade of research, while seamlessly creating a compelling narrative.

From the beginning of time, people have written true stories. Whether they are documenting events, examining a topic, or remembering the lilt of their grandmother’s dialect, narrative nonfiction allows writers to creatively craft the truth of their experience.