Issue #9, 1998

What's the Story #9

The "Truth and Consequences" of Creative Nonfiction

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #9

A few years ago, we received an essay by a talented young writer about her affair with a high school classmate. When I contacted her about publishing the essay in Creative Nonfiction, I learned that she had been out of contact with the woman about whom she had written for many years, but that through mutual friends she had learned that the woman was now married, the mother of two young children. “So she doesn’t know that you’ve written about your relationship?” I asked. “No,” the writer told me. “But in the essay, I’ve changed her name and disguised the location of our high school. She’ll never find out.”

But what if she does? I wondered. Or what if her husband, who may be unaware of her past life, reads the essay? Or one of her children, sometime in the future? Or, even though names and locations have been altered, what happens if a friend, relative or classmate recognizes the author’s name—and puts two and two together? “What do you think your friend would say if you got back in touch and told her that an essay about your affair will appear in a nationally circulated journal?” I asked.

“She’d be nervous, maybe defensive.”

“How would her husband feel—or her children?”

“They’d probably be hurt and angry.”

“Actually, they could sue the writer—and Creative Nonfiction,” my attorney told me later. “What happens if the story isn’t completely true,” he continued. “And if, by revealing this, the woman in question loses her job? Or her husband? Litigation is entirely possible. The plaintiff could sue the writer for slander—and Creative Nonfiction for publishing it. “Besides,” he added, gesturing down at the manuscript on the table in front of us, “aside from the people directly involved or implicated in the story, who cares?”

This is the best question nonfiction writers can ask of themselves and their work. Other than the writer and the people about whom he or she has written, what will readers think? How will readers relate to the essay, article, profile in question? Who will care? This is one of several standards of evaluation by which material is accepted for publication in Creative Nonfiction. We want the essays we publish to strike a universal chord—establish a special place, register an insight, moment or idea that might be shared and appreciated by a larger readership.

At the same time, we feel that as editors and publishers we have a responsibility to care about people other than writers—the people about whom writers write—and whom the work we publish might involve: parents, relatives, employers, lovers included. Over and above the legal culpability is the moral responsibility of protecting the unwitting victims of a writer’s need (or obsession) to tell a story. And even if the story being told is true, we have to ask, Whose truth?

Is this truth worth telling? And who, no matter how indirectly, might an essay affect? Needless to say we did not accept the essay referred to at the beginning of this editorial, although we encouraged this writer, worked with her and eventually published another essay—her first.

This has been a cornerstone of Creative Nonfiction’s editorial vision, as well: To discover new voices. Megan Foss and Priscilla Hodgkins are publishing nonfiction for the first time in this issue.The truths being confronted in this issue of Creative Nonfiction touch an intimate yet universal chord. Jill Carpenter and Priscilla Hodgkins delicately and precisely document the declining days of their once vigorous parents, while Raymond Abbott and Robert Coker Johnson discuss interesting people—and distant friendships. Megan Foss’ truth, as seen from behind prison bars, is discovered in the power of language and the liberation that the reading and writing of stories can provide. And Brian Doyle’s truth exists in a special coming of age in which his past and his future are suddenly and gloriously blending in a single ecstatic moment of time. Some of the essays in “The Universal Chord” are less personal and more informational, such as “Shitdiggers, Mudflats and the Worm Men of Maine” by Bill Roorbach, which is the dirtiest story (literally) we have ever published, as well as Jeff Gundy’s “Scattering Point,” which profiles a place to which he is indelibly linked. A.D. Coleman’s “Sea Changes” captures the profound experience of the Staten Island Ferry. Ntozake Shange’s passion for food (“What is it We Really Harvestin’ Here?”) and Madison Smartt Bell’s ongoing relationship with Haiti ("Sa’m Pèdi") are ideal examples of the ways in which writers can be dramatic and factual—simultaneously.

We hope that all of the essays in this issue of Creative Nonfiction will also make our readers care—about a place, a time of life, a friend or loved one, about the things for which these writers share a special devotion. We tell true stories in Creative Nonfiction, which is what the genre of creative nonfiction is all about—but not, when possible, at the expense of the privacy and the dignity of other people.

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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