Why Creative Nonfiction Matters

Unlike big, glossy magazines, “little” or literary magazines like Creative Nonfiction are often labors of love—underfunded, understaffed, and often, for these reasons, short-lived. A while back, Charles McGrath pointed out in the New York Times that “the typical lifespan for a literary magazine appears to be roughly that of a major household appliance: anything over 10 years is gravy.”

Incredibly, as we write this Creative Nonfiction is celebrating its twentieth year of publication. That’s pretty good for a magazine that started at a dining room table in Pittsburgh and which, even today, is put out by a small, part-time staff with the help of a few unpaid interns. It’s not been easy, and in fact, there’s more than a little heartache in our history; Lee tells the story of the struggle at the end of this book, in “The Fine Art of Literary Fist-Fighting.”

If you’re unfamiliar with Creative Nonfiction, allow us to offer a brief introduction: CNF is a quarterly magazine with nearly 3,500 subscribers around the world, and a total circulation of 7,000. Every issue includes between five and ten new works of creative nonfiction (often addressing a specific theme), as well as experimental work, micro-essays, interviews with writers and editors, and more. At the moment, we’re working on the 52nd issue of the magazine—and we have plans for many more issues beyond that.

Creative Nonfiction is more than just a magazine, though; it’s a community—a home not only for the writers whose work has appeared in the magazine’s pages, but for anyone who loves this incredibly compelling and versatile genre. Unfortunately, despite our best efforts over the past twenty years, “creative nonfiction” is still not an entirely mainstream term, and we’ve been happy to welcome the many writers who’ve shown up at our virtual doorstep, arms flung wide, proclaiming, “I’ve been writing this stuff my whole life, but I never knew what to call it!”

We believe that more important than what you call it is what it is—and that’s actually pretty straightforward: true stories, well told. You can’t make stuff up and the writing has to be top-notch, but beyond that, creative nonfiction is tremendously flexible, allowing for plenty of experimentation in voice, style, subject matter, and structure. There aren’t many rules around here.

In 20 years, we’ve published brand-new nonfiction by more than 500 writers—some of them famous, but more of them not (or, rather, not yet). We’re especially proud of our track record in giving writers their first significant byline; you’ll have a hard time finding a literary magazine that doesn’t say it’s “looking for new voices,” but almost every issue of Creative Nonfiction has included someone’s first publication. How does this happen? Here’s how a little magazine generally works (or how ours works, at least): writers send unsolicited submissions—essays and stories they’ve struggled through and sweated over, work they believe in—and we read them. All of them. And then we publish what we like best. There are, after all, some advantages to being little; we’re not beholden to any big organizations or corporate interests, which means we can more or less do what we like. (That said, if you know of a corporation or a big organization that would like to sponsor a literary magazine … call us!)

Now, in this book, we’re publishing the very best of the best—the stories that have stuck with us and that we’ve been unable to forget. Some of them—Brian Doyle’s “Two on Two,” Jim Kennedy’s “End of the Line”—make us a little weepy, even after multiple readings, while Harrison Scott Key’s “The Wishbone” has not yet lost its power to make us laugh out loud. Jennifer Lunden’s “The Butterfly Effect” and Chet Phillips’s “Chasing Lions,” both originally published in a special “Animals”-themed issue, make us grapple with our place in the world, while other stories, such as Pria Anand’s “Far, Far Away” and Caitlin Horrocks’s “Pesäpallo,” take us to far-away lands. Marilyn A. Gelman’s “Scrambled Eggs” and Meredith Hall’s “Without A Map” and Jerald Walker’s “The Heart” and Jane Bernstein’s “Rachel at Work” help us experience and maybe even understand, at least briefly, other lives. There are even a few stories here—Todd May’s “Teaching Death” comes to mind—that have quite literally changed our lives.

Perhaps they’ll change yours, too. That’s what a good story can do. And that’s why magazines like Creative Nonfiction matter—even if they are little.