Creative Nonfiction Q & A with Jerald Walker

by Colin Hosten

A Sequence of Extraordinary Events
Talking about Time in Creative Nonfiction with Jerald WalkerJerald Walker describes himself as a private person—“borderline reclusive,” in fact. Yet his powerful book, Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, published by Random House in 2010, peels back those layers of privacy to expose the stark and often shameful scandals—including drug addiction and gang violence—of a decidedly troubled era in his life. He does not seek the reader’s pity. He writes from the sober perspective of a new, completely transformed era in his life. This is his way of affirming his humanity. No wonder the book has been hailed by Nikki Giovanni as “a powerful read for everyone who cares about the questions and the quest that being a human require.” In sharing the sequence of extraordinary events that make up his life, Jerald Walker sets himself up as fundamentally human, just like the rest of us—which, he astutely notes, “could very well be the ultimate expression of privacy.” He shared his time with Mason’s Roadto give his perspectives on the experience of writing about one time period of his life from the viewpoint of another.

Q: Your book, Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemptiontakes a nonlinear approach to time. How does this approach impact the reader’s overall impression of your story? Does a nonlinear approach afford the writer more control in building the basic elements of a narrative (character, conflict, setting, and so on)?

A: The nonlinear approach I took to time was designed to create both tension and cohesion between the two lives I’ve led, which is to say my “street” life and my “post-street” life.

Q: What were some of your main considerations in deciding the sequence in which the essays appear in your book? How much does the final sequence reflect the order in which the essays were actually written?

A: Once it was decided that the book would be a memoir, the essays/chapters had to tell a story in a way that’s consistent with the memoir form, which is, actually, consistent with the novel form: conflict, rising action, climax, denouement. The order of the chapters in the book isn’t faithful to the order in which they were written; many of the chapters in the beginning, for instance, were written long after some of the chapters near the end.

Q: Are there advantages to taking a nonlinear approach to time specific to works of creative nonfiction? Would you have taken a different tack if this were a fictional story?

A: I think content rather than genre should dictate structure. I hoped to give the reader a sense of the parallels and continuities of the two seemingly disparate experiences, and that would have been my intent had I written my story as a novel.

Q: Creative nonfiction writers often address specific events that happened in the past, especially in memoir. How important is it for creative nonfiction writers to verify their memory of actual dates and chronologies with an objective account of history?

A: Tobias Wolff once said that memoir “is a work of memory, and memory has its own story to tell.” I couldn’t agree more, and the last thing memoirists should be concerned with is verifying every date and chronology in their work, particularly against someone else’s memory. But I also believe that some dates and chronologies, especially those that are important to the narrative by the virtue of being accurate, should be verified, if possible.

Q: What were some of the challenges you faced in reconstructing the events of your own life to write your memoir?

A: The greatest challenge is to avoid as much collateral damage as I could. When writers commit to putting their life on the page, they accept that what the readers see may not always be positive or flattering. But friends, family, and acquaintances who are included in the work are typically there without consent. And so I had to balance my goal to have an honest story with my goal of being protective of other peoples’ privacy.

Q: What is the one thing that aspiring writers of creative nonfiction should not do when crafting their own narratives?

A: Embellish. Always stick to the “facts” as you understand them.


 

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A graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Jerald Walker has published in magazines such as Creative Nonfiction, The Missouri Review, The Harvard Review, Mother Jones, The Iowa Review, and The Oxford American, and he has been widely anthologized, including multiple times in The Best American Essays. Walker is the author of Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion, and Redemption, recipient of the 2011 PEN New England/L.L. Winship Award for Nonfiction and named a Best Memoir of the Year by Kirkus Reviews.

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