News / February 14, 2023

An Extraordinary Centennial

Happy Valentine’s Day to All—and Especially to a Creative Nonfiction Pioneer on his Valentine’s Day Centennial

Back in the early 1970s when I first started teaching, nobody was talking about creative nonfiction as a genre or talking about it at all in any serious way—or so I thought.  Yes, there were a few refences to creative nonfiction in book reviews and a few one-off courses called creative nonfiction, but most people in the academy thought that the name was funny or off the wall, and that the genre, generally, was . . . let’s just say . . . unnecessary.  Except for a lone professor in the English Department at the University of Utah, Edward Lueders, who believed in the potential of the genre long before almost anyone else.

In 1972, Lueders attended the Associated Writing Programs (AWP) annual meeting at the Library of Congress. His “contribution,” as he put it, was a recommendation that creative writing programs add to their offerings courses called “creative non-fiction”—“updating the good old personal essay.”

At the time, there were very few people in the academy who had any interest in updating “the good old personal essay,” but Lueders persisted, talking up the idea of the genre to colleagues in Utah and at other conferences he attended over the next few years–until a first breakthrough.  In 1979, “creative nonfiction” emerged as one of six sections of interest at the annual AWP conference, in addition to fiction, poetry, script and playwriting, translation, and children’s literature. But, despite the intended focus on creative nonfiction there was, as it turned out, only one event devoted, (sort of) to creative nonfiction, chaired by Lueders and featuring the memoirist Geoffrey Wolff, whose book The Duke of Deception, had been published earlier that year.

But when Wolff and Lueders met to discuss their event, Wolff chose to focus on “autobiography”—not creative nonfiction–which was, Wolff thought, “a diverse catch-all classification,” Lueders remembers. Wolff, of course, was quite right, although Lueders and a few others considered “a diverse catch-all classification” a good thing, although “catch all” wasn’t particularly accurate or complimentary. But it did reflect the ambivalence of many writers in the academy at that time.

Not a lot people showed up, only around eight or nine, but it was “highly informal, unstructured and lively.” And in his follow-up report from the annual meeting, Lueders urged his colleagues to recognize—no matter how lacking in academic identity—the potential of creative nonfiction and the opportunities it offered to student writers to think, reflect and write beyond normally accepted boundaries.  Looking back, Lueders was way ahead of his time—even with his colleagues in Utah.

I had never heard of Lueders until a conversation I had in 2019, right before the pandemic hit, with John McPhee. We were discussing the ways in which nonfiction, early on, had lacked credibility in most English and journalism departments and McPhee mentioned, offhandedly, that sometime in the middle 1970s he had been invited to speak at the University of Utah—and then, a few days later, disinvited because of the resistance to the genre in the department. I was kind of taken aback. Feelings about nonfiction, creative nonfiction, have certainly changed in the years since then, but McPhee by that time was a regular contributor to the New Yorker and had published among other books, The Pine Barrens, Oranges, and Levels of the Game.

After a rather time-consuming search for writers who had taught at Utah during that period, I found Lueders and his AWP report about the Wolff event, secured his phone number and telephoned him. We had quite a nice and lively conversation; he was then 98 years old, legally blind due to macular degeneration (he calls himself a “macular degenerate”) using an array of voice software to read and write.  He confessed that he might have been the guy who invited McPhee and then, after pushback from colleagues, rescinded the invitation.

Lueders himself is a genuine card-carrying creative nonfictionist, in addition to being a jazz pianist and a performer (in the early 1980s, he and fellow English professor Kenneth Eble performed in a two-man show, portraying Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau, playing to audiences as far as Chicago). At the time of his possible run-in with McPhee, he was struggling to find a publisher for his new book, The Clam Lake Papers. Mostly a reflective narrative about a long winter spent in an isolated cabin in Minnesota, the book included verse, philosophical ruminations and scientific observations, not unlike Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Before it was finally accepted by Harper & Row, he racked up more than twenty rejections, all of which related to the publisher’s inability to figure out a way to market the book—the classification—since hardly anyone at the time knew what creative nonfiction, which is how he categorized it, was. In a review in the New York Times in 1978, Doris Grumbach described his book as “profound and thoughtful.”

When we spoke, Lueders mentioned that he had recently been invited to introduce his friend and most beloved former student, Terry Tempest Williams, who was to be the keynote speaker at “The Idea of Nature” series at Boise State University. I had not known—there was no way I could have known—that Lueders had mentored Williams, who had eventually followed in Lueders’s footsteps as an early champion of the genre in her many books, including Refuge: An Unnatural History of Family and Place. The Williams-Lueders link represents what was beginning to happen in creative nonfiction at that time in the academy—a very few forward-thinking professors gradually pushing the genre forward, sharing and encouraging succeeding generations of writers and teachers.

Terry Tempest Williams returned to teach at the University of Utah sometime later and mentored the essayist Brenda Miller, now a professor of English at Western Washington University, who is in turn mentoring and introducing the genre to her students. Miller is a boundary breaker, one of the first of now many writers to earn a PhD in creative nonfiction. Working with Williams, she designed her own curriculum—none was available. She is co-editor of one of the most popular books focusing on the creative nonfiction genre, Tell It Slant, now going into its third edition.

I am telling you this story now on Valentine’s Day because on that day Edward Lueders will be celebrating his 100th birthday.  We all should celebrate with him and for him—and in our way thank him for his work and persistence.  The idea he had in 1972—the relevance and importance of creative nonfiction, which he pursued in many different ways for many years– should be appreciated, remembered and hailed by all of us who have made creative nonfiction a livelihood and way of life. 

Edward Lueders hasn’t stopped writing despite his age and his inability to see, even after 14 published books.  He is now circulating a book to publishers, which he has written with his voice software which, he says, “is piling up publishers’ rejections,” reminiscent of  his Clam Lake Papers more than 50 years ago.  But just like 50 years ago, he has no intention of giving up.  Despite the rejections he told me, despite his age and his loss of sight, he will not be deterred.   “I will,” he said, “persist.”