Issue #25, 2004

What's the Story #24/25

The Creative Nonfiction Police?

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #24/25

I am giving a reading at St. Edward’s University in Austin, Texas. It is a Thursday evening after a day of classes and questions about essay writing, but now, in the auditorium, the audience is sparse, perhaps sixty or so in a space that seats nearly two hundred and fifty. My host is embarrassed; she informs me that a popular Latino poet is reading on campus at the same time, so the potential audience is divided. I have a feeling that I am the lesser of the two. This is a city with a high percentage of Mexican-American residents. And poetry is written to be read aloud, unlike nonfiction, supposedly, which is factual and informative, and which, students might assume, can be tedious and boring.

Of course, I am a creative nonfiction writer, “creative” being indicative of the style in which the nonfiction is written so as to make it more dramatic and compelling. We embrace many of the techniques of the fiction writer, including dialogue, description, plot, intimacy and specificity of detail, characterization, point of view; except, because it is nonfiction—and this is the difference—it is true.

But writing nonfiction so that it reads like fiction is challenging and extraordinarily difficult, unless, as some critics have pointed out, the author takes certain “liberties” which then may corrupt the nonfiction—making it untrue, or partially true, or shading the meaning and misleading readers. A comment from John Berendt, the author of Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, is frequently cited as indicative of this danger. Berendt made up transitions in order to move from scene to scene in his book. Most creative nonfiction writers will refrain from imagining and reporting that which did not happen, even in transitions, but Berendt was making the experience easier for himself and more enjoyable for his readers, a process he called “rounding the corners.”

This, then, is the subject we are discussing in the auditorium after my reading—what writers can or can’t do, stylistically and in content, while walking that thin, blurred line between fiction and nonfiction. If you are encouraged to use “literary techniques,” straying from the literal truth for the sake of a more vitalized narrative can be easy and not necessarily an ethical violation. But how to be sure you are on safe ground? The questions pile up, one after another; the audience is engaged. “How can you be certain that the dialogue you are remembering and recreating from an incident that occurred months ago is accurate?” asks one audience member. Another demands, “How can you look through the eyes of your characters if you are not inside their heads?”

I am answering as best I can. I try repeatedly to explain that such questions have a lot to do with a writer’s ethical and moral boundaries and, most important, how hard writers are willing to work to achieve accuracy and believability in their narratives. Making up a story or elaborating extemporaneously on a situation that did in fact occur can be interesting but unnecessary. Truth is often more compelling to contemplate than fiction. But the dialogue goes on and on. After a while, I throw up my hands and say, “Listen, I can’t answer all of these questions with rules and regulations. I am not,” I announced, pausing rather theatrically, “the creative nonfiction police!”

There is a woman in the audience—someone I had noticed earlier during my reading. She is in the front row—hard to miss—older than most of the undergraduates, blond, attractive, in her late thirties, maybe. She has the alert yet composed look of a nurse, a person only semi relaxed, always ready to act or react. She has taken her shoes off and propped her feet on the stage; I remember how her toes wiggled as she laughed at the essay I had been reading.

But when I announce, dramatically, “I am not the creative nonfiction police!” although many people chuckle, this woman suddenly jumps to her feet, whips out a badge, and points in my direction. “Well I am,” she announces. “Someone has to be. And you are under arrest.”

Then she scoops up her shoes and storms barefoot from the room. The Q and A ends soon after, and I rush into the hallway to find the woman with the badge. I had many questions, beginning with “Who the hell are you? Why do you have a badge? And how did you know what I was going to say, when I didn’t have any idea?” I had never used the term “creative nonfiction police” before that moment. But she is gone. My host says the woman is a stranger. We ask around, students and colleagues. No one knows her. She is a mystery to everyone, especially me.

The bigger mystery, however, then and now, is the debate that triggered my symbolic arrest and the set of parameters that govern or define creative nonfiction—the concepts writers must consider while laboring in or struggling with what we call the literature of reality, beginning with the difference between fiction and nonfiction.

Most fiction, on some level, is true. How much doesn’t matter, since fiction must be believable—but not necessarily true.

But how, exactly, is the truth in nonfiction determined? How much of what is being told should be true? And who is the final arbiter of truth—that “policing” figure I had referred to? The line between fiction and nonfiction is often debated, but is there a single dividing point or an all-encompassing truth a writer is supposed to tell?

A difficult question, to be sure. Truth is neither universal nor verifiable. The editors at Creative Nonfiction, the journal from which all of these essays have been selected, will fact-check controversial or litigious essays before publication. Notes from a Difficult Case by Ruthann Robson was among a few essays that delayed for nearly six months the publication of the issue in which they initially appeared, a special issue about health care in America. Our editorial board had to work with attorneys to determine what could be said about this dicey debate between a patient and her doctors, what names and places could be legitimately disguised and what names and places should be omitted. The danger here, of course, was building such a strong wall of protection against litigation by disguising detail that the essay becomes what the writer has been trying to avoid: fiction.

And then there’s the idea that we all actually own our own truth. Although we are pretty certain that the information provided in Notes from a Difficult Case is factually accurate, we also know that Robson’s truth, which is about almost dying from cancer treatment and suffering the arrogance of her physicians, might be different from her doctors’ truth. Her doctors’ stories may reveal an entirely different and legitimate spin on the same situation.

Does this sound fair, to only present one side of a complicated story? Traditional journalists might not think so. But Robson and the other writers appearing in this collection, such as Andrei Codrescu, whose essay reveals the bigotry of his father-in-law, or Terry Tempest Williams, who lambastes ranchers and lawmakers for their disregard of the value and rights of the prairie dog, are not in any way attempting to achieve balance or objectivity. This is a significant way in which creative nonfiction differs from journalism. Subjectivity is not required in creative nonfiction, but specific, personal points of view, based on fact and conjecture, are definitely encouraged.

Another point: journalists (and historians, anthropologists, attorneys, etc.) rely on sources—documents and interviews and testimonies to assure truth and accuracy—but how do they know if the documents are accurate or the witnesses’ perceptions valid? Witnesses in court will usually tell what they see or remember as the truth—but how many innocent people have been convicted based on the testimony of a sincere and objective bystander who is, unwittingly, mistaken? In All the President’s Men, Woodward and Bernstein insisted on the corroboration of two sources before they published anything in the Washington Post or, subsequently, in their book, but who is to say two sources are enough? A good historian or social scientist exhausts the available sources, but sooner or later must make decisions about which to accept or reject.

And why, I wonder, are critics and journalists always questioning the ethics and parameters of creative nonfiction writers? Are there no ethical boundaries in poetry or fiction? Are we more deceived by Truman Capote, who supposedly relied on memory to retell the horrible story of the murder of the Clutter family in In Cold Blood, or Michael Chabon, who disguised real characters and situations in his novel Wonder Boys? Many writers in Pittsburgh knew the facts of the story Chabon dramatized as intimately as Chabon, perhaps more so, but considered it improper and potentially hurtful to the characters and their families to write about it. David Leavitt’s career was significantly damaged when, in his novel While England Sleeps, he described the esteemed poet Sir Stephen Spender, masked by another name and body, in a way that endangered his reputation. Spender initiated litigation in England, successfully, to halt the distribution of Leavitt’s book.

The ethical boundaries of the narrative are not, however, a new dilemma or debate. Henry David Thoreau lived for two years on Walden Pond while documenting only one year. Which part of those two years did he choose, and how often, in his painstaking process of revision, did he combine two or three days—or even four weeks—into one? This technique that Thoreau evidently employed, by the way, is called “compression”—meaning that multiple incidents or situations are combined or compressed in order to flesh out the narrative—allowing a writer to build a more compelling, fully executed three-dimensional story.

In her book about Jeffery Moussaieff Masson, In the Freud Archives, Janet Malcolm combined a series of conversations about the same subject or incident into one. Malcolm did not admit to altering the facts of the conversations—only to the act of disguising when and how the conversations occurred. Does this violate some sort of ethical or moral bond with the reader or subject? Probably not, as long as the information is not manufactured—which is the question that allowed Masson’s suit against The New Yorker and Malcolm to climb all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. Masson was initially contending that Malcolm manufactured quotes; he may not have been aware of the use of compression or would not have been disturbed by it had his attorneys not questioned the technique while investigating information subpoenaed by Malcolm. Compression was not the issue that concerned the court, however. Some of the quotations, it turned out, were not accurately reported. Malcolm was scolded, but eventually she and The New Yorker were absolved of guilt and responsibility for damages.

But recently a number of journalists have been discovered and disgraced for fudging the truth. In 1997, Stephen Glass admitted to fabricating parts of twenty-seven articles for the New Republic, the New York Times, George, and Harper’s magazine. He even provided fake supporting material, including self-created Web sites, to outfox his fact checkers. And we’ve all read too much about the exploits of Jayson Blair of the New York Times and Jack Kelley, USA Today’s star reporter, who allegedly bribed people to confirm stories—or pretend to be part of stories—that he had fabricated.

Despite its own problems—or perhaps because of them—the media remains skeptical of creative nonfiction—not only because of the potential to fudge but also because of the kind and depth of fact and truth that some creative nonfiction writers choose to tell. Recently Harper’s magazine, Poets & Writers magazine, and Salon.com published articles critical of the genre. But the most heated attack took place a few years ago in Vanity Fair magazine. In “Me, Myself, and I,” James Wolcott called creative nonfiction “confessional writing” and took to task as “navel gazers” nearly any nonfiction writer who had been the least bit self-revelatory in their work. “Never have so many [writers] shared so much of so little,” Wolcott wrote. “No personal detail is too mundane to share.” He referred to me as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” because of the journal I founded and my many activities supporting the genre, a label I have enjoyed exploiting.

While Wolcott’s attack was ill conceived and may well provide a certain insight into his own discomfort concerning self-revelation, his basic assessment of creative nonfiction—that it was or could be narrative of a very personal (maybe too personal?) nature—was on the mark. Creative nonfiction encourages personal reflection about events and ideas that affect our lives in a number of universal ways—not necessarily as therapy for writers, but so that more readers might understand and relate to the larger issues which connect to the personal stories.

Lauren Slater’s essay, Three Spheres, is an example of how a personal story, vividly and candidly revealed, can shed light on a more complex societal problem. And Meredith Hall’s memoir, Shunned, in which a small town in New Hampshire humiliates and rejects a teenage girl because she is pregnant, is taut with tragedy and suspense and illustrates a sense of isolation and rejection with which all readers can empathize. In Judyth Har-Even’s Leaving Babylon, a woman living in Israel petitions for a divorce from her husband under primitive Orthodox Jewish law. The story is deeply personal and self-revelatory, yet journalistic in its informational quality: a perfect combination of style and substance—which is the driving force of the best creative nonfiction in this collection.

To tell her story, Judyth Har-Even devoted many hours to research, as did John Edgar Wideman and Sherry Simpson in Looking at Emmett Till and Killing Wolves, respectively. The same applies to the essays of Phillip Gerard, Ntozake Shange, Francine Prose, Gerald Callahan, Mark Bowden, and Madison Smartt Bell. These essays burst with narrative and read like fiction, yet their styles are vehicles through which ideas and information are dramatically, vividly revealed.

Which doesn’t mean that Shunned is devoid of fact because it is so personal—only that facts in this situation are somewhat refined. The nonfiction or informational part of Shunned (and many of the other essays in this collection, including The Brown Study by Richard Rodriguez, Mixed-Blood Stew by Jewell Parker Rhodes, and Delivering Lily by Philip Lopate) is personal and anecdotal. It is the fact of a life lived in New England during an age of denial.

The information in Shunned, although not retrieved through interview or unearthed in an encyclopedia, opens a window of enlightenment onto a time and place in America and a particularly painful point of view, bolstered by an intimate and rare interpretation. Shunned, Mixed-Blood Stew, and The Brown Study, among others, provide a higher or three-dimensional truth—a deeper truth—that simple fact and reportage sometimes doesn’t allow. Or as Gay Talese described the “new journalism” in the introduction to his landmark collection, Fame and Obscurity: “Though often reading like fiction, it is not fiction. It is, or should be, as reliable as the most reliable reportage although it seeks a larger truth [my italics] than is possible through a mere compilation of verifiable facts, the use of direct quotation and the adherence to the rigid organizational style of the old form.”

***

While Talese and Tom Wolfe are equally responsible for the popularity of the “new journalism,” nobody actually knows who coined the term “creative nonfiction” or when exactly it came into vogue. Since the early 1990s there has been an explosion of creative nonfiction in the publishing and academic world. When I started teaching in the English Department at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1970s, the concept of an “artful” or “new” nonfiction was considered, to say the least, unlikely. My colleagues snickered when I proposed teaching a “creative” nonfiction course, while the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences proclaimed that nonfiction in general—forget the use of the word “creative”—was at its best a craft, not too different from plumbing. As the chairman of our department put it one day in a faculty meeting while we were all debating the legitimacy of the course: “After all, gentlemen [the fact that many of his colleagues were women often slipped his mind], we’re interested in literature here—not writing.” That remark and the subsequent debate had been precipitated by a contingent of students from the school newspaper who marched on the chairman’s office and politely requested more nonfiction writing courses—“of the creative kind.”

One colleague, aghast at the prospect of this “new thing” (creative nonfiction), carried a dozen of his favorite books to the meeting—poetry, fiction, and nonfiction—gave a belabored mini-review of each, and then, pointing a finger at the editor of the paper and pounding a fist, stated: “After you read all these books and understand what they mean, I will consider voting for a course called creative nonfiction. Otherwise, I don’t want to be bothered.” Luckily, most of my colleagues didn’t want to be bothered fighting the school newspaper, so the course was approved—and I became one of the first, if not the first, to teach creative nonfiction on a university level, anywhere. This was 1973.

When I started Creative Nonfiction in 1993, twenty years later, it was to provide a literary outlet for those journalists who aspired to experiment with fact and narrative. I wrote for an editorial statement, put out a call for manuscripts, and waited for the essays to pour in. Which they did. Many dozens of nonfiction pieces arrived in our mailbox over the first few weeks, more and more as the work spread, and our first few issues were published.

And this was as I had expected. I had been confident that there were great creative nonfiction writers everywhere waiting for the opportunity to liberate themselves—all they needed was a venue. But I soon began to realize, as I spread the essays out on the floor in my office, as I tended to do when selecting and choreographing an issue, that most of the best essays were not written by journalists, but by poets and novelists. Writers crossing genres seems to be another significant hallmark of the creative nonfiction genre and a reason for its popularity. Half of the writers in this collection, including Madison Smartt Bell and Charles Simic, along with some I have already named, made their mark in other genres first.

The first issue of Creative Nonfiction featured a rare interview with John McPhee by Michael Pearson, who was surprised and challenged when McPhee made him put away his tape recorder and just take notes, like an old-fashioned reporter—a detail that captured the spirit of the journal as I had first conceived of it: good old-fashioned reporting—facts, plus story and reflection or contemplation.

It took eight issues over a period of three years to persuade McPhee to contribute an original piece to the journal, and surprisingly, when it happened, it was uncharacteristically personal. McPhee is obliged by contract to offer all work to The New Yorker first, and when then-editor Tina Brown saw Silk Parachute, a story about teenaged McPhee’s relationship with his mother, she grabbed it and published it immediately. Now, a half dozen years later, with help from McPhee, we are finally publishing the McPhee Album Quilt segment with Silk Parachute included, as originally intended. Because the profile of McPhee anchored our inaugural issue more than ten years ago, it is especially satisfying to feature McPhee in In Fact.

And the fact that McPhee, a Pullitzer Prize-winner author, perhaps The New Yorker’s most prominent and respected reporter, is writing a memoir, is indicative of the inroads and the impact of the new genre of creative nonfiction, introduced and championed over those ten years in the pages of Creative Nonfiction. To this point, McPhee has pretty much kept himself and his life out of his narratives. As an example, in his 60,000-word book The Deltoid Pumpkin Seed, he uses the word “I” (in reference to himself) twice. McPhee’s work is distinguished by his ability to see the world through the points of view of other people and communicate them intimately and intricately. But he also recognizes the compelling nature of personal history and the insight into the character and the human condition it can provide.

***

I said at the beginning that I wasn’t the creative nonfiction police or the literary judiciary. But I am “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” after all, according to Vanity Fair. I have been doing this for a long time: through more than a dozen published books and twenty-five years of teaching—and then the groundbreaking journal. So I would like to recommend a code for creative nonfiction writers—kind of a checklist. The word “checklist” is carefully chosen. There are no rules, laws, or specific prescriptions dictating what you can or can’t do as a creative nonfiction writer. The gospel according to Lee Gutkind doesn’t and shouldn’t exist. It’s more a question of doing the right thing, following the golden rule: Treat others with courtesy and respect.

First, strive for truth. Be certain that everything you write is as accurate and honest as you can make it. I don’t mean that everyone who has shared the experience you are writing about should agree that your account is true. As I said, everyone has his or her own very precious and private and shifting truth. But be certain your narrative is as true to your memory as possible.

Second, recognize the important distinction between recollected conversation and fabricated dialogue. Don’t make anything up and don’t tell your readers what you think your characters are thinking during the time about which you are writing. If you want to know how or what people are or were thinking, then ask them. Don’t assume or guess.

Third, don’t round corners—or compress situations or characters—unnecessarily. Not that rounding corners or compressing characters or incidents is absolutely wrong, but if you do experiment with these techniques, make certain you have a good reason. Making literary decisions based on good narrative principles is often legitimate—you are, after all, writers. But stop to consider the people about whom you are writing. Unleash your venom on the guilty parties; punish them, as they deserve. But also ask yourself: Who are the innocent victims? How have I protected them? Adults can file suit against you, but are you violating the privacy or endangering the emotional stability of children? Are you being fair to the aged or infirm?

Fourth, one way to protect the characters in your book, article or essay is to allow them to defend themselves—or at least to read what you have written about them. Few writers do this because they are afraid of litigation or ashamed or embarrassed about the intimacies they have revealed. But sharing your narrative with the people about whom you are writing doesn’t mean you have to change what you say about them; rather, it only means you are being responsible to your characters and their stories. I understand why you would not want to share your narrative; it could be dangerous. It could ruin your friendship, your marriage, your future. But by the same token, this is the kind of responsible action you might appreciate if the shoe was on the other foot.

I have on occasion shared parts of books with people I have written about—with positive results. First, they corrected my mistakes. But, more important, when you come face to face with someone in your story, you are able to communicate on a different and deeper level. When you show them what you think and feel, when they read what you have written, they may get angry—a reaction in itself that is interesting to observe and even to write about.

Or they may feel obliged to provide their side of the situation—a side you have been hesitant to listen to or interpret. With the text in the middle, as a filter, it is possible to discuss personal history as a story somewhat disconnected from the reality you are universally experiencing. It provides a way to communicate as an exercise in writing—it filters and distances the debate. Moreover, it defines and cements your own character. The people about whom you have written may not like what you have said—and may in fact despise you for saying it—but they can only respect and admire the forthright way in which you have approached them. No laws govern the scope of good taste and personal integrity.

The creative nonfiction writer must rely on his or her own conscience and sensitivity to others and display a higher morality and a healthy respect to fairness and justice. We all harbor resentments, hatreds, and prejudices, but that doesn’t necessarily mean that because we are writers, we are being given special dispensation to behave in a way that is unbecoming to ourselves and hurtful to others. This rationale sounds so simple, yet it is so difficult. The moral and ethical responsibility of the creative nonfiction writer is to practice the golden rule and to be as fair and truthful as possible—to write both for art’s sake and for humanity’s sake. In other words, we police ourselves.

By saying this, I do not feel that I am being overly simplistic. As writers we intend to make a difference, to affect someone’s life over and above our own. To say something that matters—this is why we write, after all. That’s the bottom line: to have and impact on our society, to put a personal stamp on history, to plant the seed of change. Art and literature are our legacies to other generations. We will be forgotten, most of us writers, but our books and essays, our stories and poems will always, somewhere, have a life.

Wherever you draw the line between fiction and nonfiction, remember the basic rules of good citizenship: Do not re-create incidents and characters who never existed; do not write to do harm to innocent victims; do not forget your own story, but while considering your struggle and the heights of your achievements, think repeatedly about how your story will affect and relate to your reader. Over and above the creation of a seamless narrative, you are seeking to touch and affect someone else’s life—which is the goal creative nonfiction writers share with novelists and poets. We all want to connect with another human being—or as many people as possible—in such a way that they will remember us and share our legacy with others.

Someday I hope to connect with the woman with the badge and the bare feet, face to face—the person who actually inspired this essay. But the truth is I have never forgotten her. She has, in some strange way, become my conscience, standing over me as I write, forcing me to ask questions about my work that I have recommended to you. Perhaps she is here today, as I write this introduction to In Fact. I hope we all feel her shadow over our shoulder each time we sit down, address our keyboard, and begin to write.

Author Bio

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more

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