Maraniss makes the additional point that if a journalist expects truth from a source, it is vital to demonstrate “patience, directness and honesty” when dealing with that source. He uses the example of Clark Welch, whose testimony was essential to what became They Marched Into Sunlight: War and Peace, Vietnam and America, October 1967. Welch did not want to cooperate unless the author promised to portray his company of soldiers positively in print. Maraniss could not make that promise while his reporting was still under way. Yet he finally managed to win Welch’s cooperation without compromising the integrity of his work—a process he explains in detail.
On that occasion, Maraniss began his reporting without Welch’s cooperation. “I’ll let you know what I’m finding along the way,” he told his reluctant source. “But I can’t promise you that I’ll be good to your boys because I don’t know what I’ll find.” The author kept his part of the bargain—and in doing so, he won Welch’s trust. “He eventually shared virtually everything with me,” Maraniss recalls, “including his deepest feelings as well as his letters.”
A third lesson concerns the limited nature of human memory, around which reporters must constantly work. These limitations are especially acute when sources “try to recount the precise chronology of events, something particularly important to writers of nonfiction narrative,” Maraniss says.
Over and over, he ran afoul of such limitations when he tried to describe warfare in Vietnam. As he admits, he “could not rely on interviews with the survivors about the timing of what happened as they marched into the jungle.” To some of the veterans, seconds had seemed like hours and hours like seconds. The pressure of battle had distorted their perceptions—and the distortions often increased, not decreased, through the years. As a result, the author stresses the importance of locating contemporaneous written accounts. An eyewitness, even with the best of intentions, can prove to be astoundingly myopic.
Maraniss says that “the world of nonfiction writing is a continual graduate school.” On the basis of the many lessons to be found in this stellar collection, I would happily nominate him as professor of the year.
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