Having recently won a national award for my own creative nonfiction, I wondered what the phrase “creative nonfiction” really meant. The term does not sit well with everyone; some find it pretentious, while others obviously think it ridiculous. Yet it is a phrase that I am comfortable with, and a term I associate with my old literary rabbi, nemesis and mentor, the late Seymour Krim, certainly one of the form’s best practitioners. J.R. “Dick” Humphreys coined the expression to describe the course that Seymour Krim was to teach at Columbia University in the late 1970s. Krim wanted a descriptive title for his nonfiction writing workshop that would distinguish the course from a run-of-the-mill journalism or expository writing course, and he had suggested calling it “imaginative nonfiction.” Humphreys then suggested the word “creative,” making clear to students that it was a creative writing course. I remember because I began to teach in the writing program in 1977 and taught there, on and off, for 14 years, most of them spent with Humphreys as the director and with Krim as a colleague. But as I noted at a memorial at Columbia that was held for him after he died in 1989, I had known Seymour Krim—much to the surprise of other faculty who knew both of us—since the mid-1960s on the Lower East Side. This man might not be the most famous or fashionable practitioner of this prose form, but he was one of its earliest and finest examples.
Seymour Krim and I had a rocky, even combative, relationship. Each begrudgingly admired the other’s writing and, occasionally, we were cordial and seemed almost like friends, though he preferred that I be the student and he the teacher, even if our educational nexus was not a traditional one, and had been formed a lifetime ago. I first met him when I was 20 years old, and he ran a workshop at St. Mark’s in the Bowery Poetry Project in the mid-1960s. Before our fortuitous encounter, I was involved in the poetry workshops given by Joel Oppenheimer, the director of the Poetry Project, and Sam Abrams and Joel Sloman, his assistants; there were also workshops offered by Ted Berrigan, but, for reasons I don’t understand today, I had ideological differences with the second and third generation New York School of Poetry writers.
Since I was homeless—that was not the term in those days, so it might be more correct to say I was without a home—I took the liberty of making an extra set of keys when Joel asked me to open the building for him one night while he had one more shot of bourbon and a glass of beer for the road at the R.O.K. Ukrainian Bar up the block on Second Avenue. With that extra set of keys, I nightly returned to the Old Courthouse after all the workshops ended, and I held court and slept in the room where the writing workshops were held, rolling out a sleeping bag I stashed in the library across the hall and sleeping on the workshop table. Living and crashing in that room is how I met Krim.
It was a wretchedly damp and cold winter night and I came back to the Old Courthouse early—or maybe the prose workshop was running later than usual. At any rate, instead of coming home to a locked building with all its lights out, the door was open, and the workshop room’s lights were on, and when I went to investigate, my sleeping quarters were filled with strangers, Krim sitting at the head of the table talking about prose style. It was a meeting of the fiction— it was really a prose—workshop. I sat and listened, telling myself, a poet, that I could write prose better than any of these people. That’s how I used to size everything up: I may be a piece of crap but I’m better than any of you. The fact that I had a pocketful of poetry let me think that I wasn’t a Bowery bum, although at that point in my life, I did look like a bum, bathing irregularly, broke, without a home, and dreaming a lot of what if and if only scenarios in my head. What if I become the biggest thing to hit the American literary landscape? They’ll be sorry for how badly they treated me. I was never sure who “they” were or just how I was going to become so big. But I sat through the workshop, telling myself that I was going to write a story myself and bring it back to these people next week and show them a thing or two about good writing.
You see, I had this literary hierarchy—after all, I was raised a Catholic and hierarchies came easily to me—in my mind, in which poetry was king, after which came playwriting, followed by fiction, nonfiction, and then journalism. Poetry was king because it was the highest form of literary expression, and I believed that poets were the arbiters of the soul and, as in the ancient days of Celtic rule, they literally were the kings, just as the seanachies in Ireland had been poet-kings. I considered playwriting second best to poetry because it was the grandfather of the form, where Western poetry originated, back in the time of the classical Greek drama and, secretly, I wanted to write a play, too, but I was too shy to approach any theater people, and then, what would I do if they liked my writing and wanted to develop it? God forbid, but I would have to work with them, and I was too much of a loner to work with anybody. True, I attended these writing workshops on the Lower East Side, but that was for my own benefit as a writer, and I rarely socialized with any of the other writers, and if I did, it was always in the context of drinking, either in a bar or at the workshop table, swigging down bottles of cheap wine or quart bottles of beer. So playwriting was out for the time being.
Yet I went back the following week with a story I had written and got typed up on a girlfriend’s typewriter, and there I was, a wolf among the prose writers, a spy in their house of love. My story was meant to show how much better a writer I was than anyone else but also to shock them. It was a lyrical piece about a young boy who eats cardboard, but who rationalizes this by explaining that his friend Sappho Milton eats shit. Seymour Krim and the group liked it very much. In fact, Krim was a contributing editor to Evergreen Review at the time, and he took the piece to them for consideration and, while it was not accepted, my first short story that was published was the result of Krim—it was in the Provincetown Review and the story, a talking blues, was called “Red Black & Whitey Greene”—and a few years later, thanks in part to Krim, Evergreen began to publish me with some regularity.
Krim’s prose workshop was probably the best writing workshop I ever attended. It was not affiliated with a college or university, and I needed that lack of affiliation to make me want to participate in the experience. I was devoted to my own sense of anarchy besides wanting to be a writer, and I would not have been able to endure any kind of formal writing setting. I had dropped out of a state university after three years so that I wouldn’t end up a high school English teacher and, so, footloose and, if not fancy-free, then zoned out and asocial, angry and with a real attitude, amid the love children of the Lower East Side, but also amid the grifters, crooks, con men, drug addicts and pushers, the motorcycle bandits and the misfits of the world, I could pursue becoming a writer. The workshop was streetwise and informal, like all the workshops at St. Mark’s, and it reflected the radical neighborhood in which it was offered—political revolutionaries, drug culture and edgy street life. I was part of the last group, I guess, though even there rny loyalties were shaky. Though I came from a poor family in Brooklyn and farther out on Long Island and had run away from home by the time I was 15 years old, I continued to exude, even with my filthy clothing and boozy reek and drugged-out eyes, a sense of prep-school rebellion, a false sense of affluence that I think derives from my maternal grandfather, who, when penniless, continued to affect the airs of a wealthy man. I never seemed to come off as a working-class Irish Catholic kid from a large family in anything other than my writing, though I think what interested Krim was that I also had some kind of quality that usually got stated as being tragic-comic Irish, a sense of the ridiculous combined with a more formal sense of life. Thinking about it retrospectively, I affected an air of mystery about where I lived and who I was because I never told any of them that I lived in the workshop room and slept on the workshop table.
Krim had a reputation, not as a fiction writer, but for his essays in a book entitled “Views of a Nearsighted Cannoneer,” a ‘50s underground classic of American prose that would be reissued by Dutton (1968) as a paperback during those years I attended his workshop on the Lower East Side. But try as I might to like him, Krim, in my own street way, always struck me as being kind of square, no matter how hard he tried to be hip and, believe me, his life was nothing if it was not devoted to being the coolest writer who ever lived and, like a lot of people from the Beat era, his own honesty and sincerity—and this man overflowed with both—was vitiated by
that ultimately meaningless posture of being cool. Still, I was no dope or mere ingrate with him. And he singlehandedly got me admitted, when I was 21 years old, into the MacDowell Colony, because Seymour, ever the worried Jewish mother, was concerned, if I remained on the Lower East Side in the state of booze and drug addiction and without shelter, I would not make it to my 22nd year and ever write more than the few pages I had already produced. At the beginning of 1968, I left the Lower East Side, St. Mark’s Poetry Project, and the workshops there, and took a bus northward to Peterborough, N.H. By the middle of March, the first draft of my first novel already written, I was arrested as the accessory to a drug bust in nearby Keene, N.H., and the MacDowell Colony and I parted ways acrimoniously. Actually, they threw my clothes, manuscripts and books out into the snow and told me get out of there as quickly as possible and never come back, and when I tried to argue with them that due process had not been served, that they were presuming me guilty before my trial began, I was told, just like in the old Wild West movies, to be out of town by sundown.
During a period in 1968 when I went to San Francisco, I lost touch with Krim, but I did hear, upon my return, of his going off, first to London for a spell, and then later to Iowa. Years later, I heard how he coined the phrase “creative nonfiction” for a course he taught at Iowa in order to distinguish it from a pedestrian nonfiction course or one in traditional journalism, and how he introduced the course at Columbia. But, of course, that was not true. The course title came into being through Dick Humphreys, director of the writing program, used as a descriptive for Krim’s own Wild West, urban wacko kind of creative writing. I suppose that Hunter Thompson’s gonzo journalism is the same thing. But creative nonfiction seems so appropriate to Seymour Krim. In that true Krim sense, the phrase was infelicitous and mellifluous, meaningful and meaningless, a mouthful and just right, a paradigm and an oxymoron, but I would only make those conclusions recently, certainly not during the lifetime of my relationship with him. Creative nonfiction was Krim’s thing, I would think, not giving it a second thought, one of his adjuncts of the new journalism, another kind of aberration—I would have called it an abomination in the old days—on the literary battlefront.
I was a poet who wound up writing prose, thank you, and that’s how I defined myself and how I chose to look at the world, and rny interest in Krim’s prose developed slowly, phrase by phrase, until it amounted to my reading a full essay, then a couple of them, and finally today when 1 look back on this forebear of creative nonfiction, not only with nostalgia and respect, but even a little bit of awe and wonder.
Prior to those encounters with him at Columbia in the late ‘70s, our paths crossed occasionally in the 1970s at readings I gave at bars in both the Village and East Village, places such as the Tin Palace and Remington’s and, once in a while, keeping up with our belligerent natures, we would get into arguments. Usually Krim would complain to me in this nonliterary way of how I had sold out and gone straight—for the life of me I still don’t understand what the hell he was talking about since from then to now I’ve never enjoyed anything like an establishment position and I’ve never made more than a marginal income from writing or teaching or anything else and, at any rate, my limited amount of teaching never even brought me close to a middle-class existence. What I think he really objected to was the fact that when he met me on the Lower East Side I was a genuine street urchin, an honest-to-God down-and-outer, drunken and disorderly, a fringe personality, slightly dangerous, though mostly comic relief, a ranting lunatic, an angry imbecile, a poetry-writing, prose-spouting thundermouth, a gyrating verbal explosion, a bundle of raw nerve, emaciated, seething, stinking, furious, unsheltered, angry, malcontent, mistreated, malformed, grandiose, and, yes, unpredictable. By the mid-1970s, I was married and had published a few books, one of which derived some literary attention; I was better dressed, fuller in the body, relatively content in marriage, employed, and even somewhat educated now; I bore no resemblance to that mound of emotional confusion and false street-mythologizing from the Lower East Side.
Krim, like so many of the Beats, was a deep romantic and, in those old days on the Lower East Side, I was nothing if not romantic, trying to out-Rimbaud Rimbaud, and now I had become some kind of ordinary citizen of the realm, deeply interested in writing and literature, yes, but no longer concerned with my self-image and how I projected myself upon other people. I had married a Korean opera singer who knew, at the time, very little about American and New York literary scenes, and whenever Krim talked to her at these readings in bars, she didn’t respond with the proper enthusiasm to his reminiscences of me as this glorious bum spouting poems and stories. She didn’t think I was this refined bit of business either, but my wife wanted to put to rest that old notion of who I was because she rightly saw that that posture had gotten me nowhere quickly.
During my stay in San Francisco in the late ‘60s, I published my first journalistic piece in The Village Voice, a fantasy about the IRA providing guns to the Black Panthers in San Francisco. I recently spent some time in San Francisco, and the details of that time came rushing back into my consciousness, long buried for more than 25 years. You see, I didn’t think of Krim when I wrote that piece, even though, now, recalling it, I suppose it was a kind of creative nonfiction in that it posed as journalism, though, in fact, it was pure fiction. Of course, the FBI and the IRA didn’t think so. Both organizations paid me visits, wanting to know how I knew about these Armalite rifles that the Irish guerrillas provided the Panthers in the Bay Area. I made it up, I told them, it’s pure fiction or, if not pure, at least fiction through and through. They left, skeptical, scratching their heads, wondering who the hell I was trying to fool. The IRA was more succinct. They told me that if I blew their cover, they’d blow me away, and I believed them. But it didn’t stop me from, time to time, writing journalism, usually when I needed money, and since I played so loose and juicy with facts, I suppose that my journalistic instincts, if not the finished product, had more affinities with Krim s creative nonfiction than anything else. Yet I did not make that association. I thought of this type of writing not even as writing at all but a kind of easy way to pay the rent, buy cigarettes and put food on the table. It was like having a newspaper delivery route as a boy, like working at a bookshop, although, better still, I had no boss over me, so it was the best of all worlds, but my devotion to it was so erratic that I didn’t even see it in that clear a light, but rather just one of many different ways a free-lancer got by in this world. But when Krim wrote and taught about creative nonfiction, he was not just proclaiming this type of writing creative and good, he really meant that it was the best game in town; he believed that the future of American letters would be found in this gap in which facts merged with fictional technique, and the outcome was his hybrid—I don’t believe he ever saw it as a bastard form as I did—known as creative nonfiction. And I need to clarify that while I sometimes had a pathetic regard for facts—my rationale was that I was after the right feelings—Krim was a first-rate journalist himself, a real professional, something I was not, and so he did not share my slippery notion about facts. I did not really come to terms with facts until I got sober and saw that there was a seam between my imagination and reality, and sometimes it would do a writer well not to blur the two worlds, that such distinctions were necessary, and even good finally in the overall shape of a piece of prose. To Krim, just like all the great creative nonfiction writers such as John McPhee (“Looking for a Ship’’), Joan Didion (“Slouching Toward Bethlehem”), Phillip Roth (“Patrimony”), and James Baldwin (“Notes of a Native Son”), facts were what fueled the imagination toward the greater truth. Reality was the great story finally, once facts were acknowledged to be, not so much impediments to the imagination, but rather the touchstones to locate imaginative worlds.
But let me finally crystallize, if for no one but myself, three typical and last encounters with this early master of creative nonfiction, this schlemiel of literary wizards, this dufus of prose bijoux, this old friend and mentor. In the late ‘70s, married and with a child and out of work, I went back to college to finish up two degrees at City College, then went back to graduate school at Yale— I had been at the School of Drama in 1971-72 as a special student in playwriting mainly because they offered me a full-tuition scholarship that essentially covered all my expenses. But two weeks after returning to graduate school at Yale, Dick Humphreys, whom I did not know yet, asked if I would be interested in teaching an introductory creative writing course for them. It meant that, for two years, once a week, I commuted from New Haven to New York. Thus developed a relationship with Dick—as everyone called J.R. Humphreys—that lasted 14 years at Columbia until he retired, and continues today outside that academic world. During those Columbia years, a lot of them were spent with Seymour Krim as a colleague.
He taught creative nonfiction and, as I said, I never blinked an eye at the genre’s name. After all, nonfiction, when you think about it—consider, for instance, non-poetry and non-prose and non-playwriting—is a pretty weird genre name, too, so that creative nonfiction seemed, strangely enough, less odd, maybe because I knew just what Krim meant. He meant, I knew, that type of writing I so often did to make money in journalism, something personal, literary, factual and yet not proscribed by facts, a form as liberated as poetry because it sought to frame the human voice charting experience in the rhythms of paragraphs, which, by then was the writing form of my own poetry—paragraphs and more paragraphs of every form and construction, content and sound. But don’t think for a moment that Krim’s and my relationship had suddenly become smoother because I honored, if begrudgingly, his beloved writing genre more than I once did, and even practiced it, though I would not realize that fact for a few more years.
What was more typical was to get into some kind of social altercation with him. One such collision happened during a cocktail party Dick Humphreys and his wife, Peggy, threw for the writing faculty Krim was drunk and so was I, though my drunkenness was more muted, more fugitive, and he was in one of his roistering moods, loud and confrontational, full of romantic braggadocio, and he confronted me in front of everyone, saying that—this was always his theme with me—I had sold out, that years ago, a little germ on the street of the Lower East Side, I was far more interesting. Now I had turned into some kind of middle-class parody of what I once was. Of course, he was wrong as usual, but that didn’t matter and, like a fool, I took the bait, and we got into a lot of shouting and if I hadn’t left, maybe it would have even come to blows. He was the first to apologize; that was the protocol, in fact. He would drop a note, usually a postcard, apologizing for what he said or did, and I would write back or telephone him, saying that it was all right, I apologized, too, and that, in fact, I was thankful to him for all the help he gave me early on in my career, but that he had to understand, just because I was married and had a child and taught then at two universities (Columbia and Fordham), I was hardly middle-class because they didn’t pay me well enough to be that, and if he read my writing, he would see that I still maintained the same obsessions and interests that I had when I was a 20-year-old without a home on the Lower East Side and attended his workshop at St. Mark’s in the Bowery.
The worst of these weird encounters with Seymour occurred in the 1980s after I had managed to disappear from everyone’s literary consciousness. I think, even though Krim felt that I was a good writer, he thought, too, that I had become more of a teacher than a writer, and that my books were not as interesting to him as they were when I was younger. Though I want to elucidate two more odd encounters with Seymour, I recall, writing this, that we had one lovely meeting. He came down to the West Bank Cafe on 42nd Street, where my play “Our Father” ran on weekends at midnight— no, no, he came to an early show for my play “R & R,” about a soldier on leave in a Bangkok whorehouse during the Vietnam War— and, drunk, probably high as a kite on reefer, too, Krim went on and on, staying for the second play, too, about how I had gotten back to writing what God intended for me to do, to make these angry, odd, funny, passionate testaments about big families and working-class people and, before he went off into the night, he embraced me and told me how much he loved me and my work and how we should always be friends, blah blah blah….
It was the kind of social event that drunks experience a thousand times in a lifetime and forget nearly all of them because upon waking the next day they have forgotten their declarations and feelings and what even propelled them to shout these things. I could be wrong about this, but I had the feeling that Krim forgot everything he said when he woke that next day. Maybe he even had no memory, in a blackout, of being at the cafe and seeing the plays and telling me how much he liked both of them (the plays) and me (the playwright). At any rate, he never mentioned it again. And after that, I did not see him for quite some time. He drifted away from teaching at Columbia—I think he went off to Israel to teach—and I didn’t see him again until he came back after the heart attack.
I want to place the event I am about to describe after he saw my play, but I realize now, seeing it replayed in my mind, that my daughter was still a small child, which would put it at the beginning of the ‘80s, after I moved back from New Haven and was living on 110th Street again. It happened one late summer morning in front of the building that housed General Studies at Columbia. My daughter played on the campus in those days, and on hot summer days she liked to play on the lawn in front of General Studies because it was shaded and cooler than the rest of the campus. I saw Krim— wearing a denim shirt and tie with a sport jacket and dungarees, almost a kind of uniform for him—loping toward the building. He was a big man, even athletic in movement, though this was only an appearance, because his own creative nonfìction works belie this observation about his being an athlete; in fact, he was a classic, unathletic nerd. Still, he was well over 6 feet tall and had a big frame, and though his glasses were formidably thick and a thin cigarillo dangled from his mouth, he seemed spry and fit, a man alive and purposeful in his gaze and demeanor, as if he knew where he was going and that destination was an important one and could not be brooked. I called his name, and he stopped. He squinted toward me, trying to determine who I was.
Even as he got closer he still could not make me out. I could see the blankness on his face now.
“Who are you?” he asked.
All my life I have been something of a chameleon, my physical appearance changing from moment to moment, and so I didn’t take offense, at first, at his not knowing me. Besides, we had not seen each other in a couple of years at this point, and I had changed much more than he had. I told him who I was, but the name Michael Stephens did not register any note of familiarity with him. In fact, he was more puzzled, seeming to roll the name around his brain cells. “I’m sorry/’ he said, “I don’t believe I know who you are/’ and he turned and walked away.
“You son of a bitch!” I shouted after him.
But he was already at the door of General Studies, opened it, and went inside.
That bastard, I thought, I’ll never talk to him again. That was the last straw. I didn’t need to be involved in that abusive relationship ever again. So I decided to forget about Seymour Krim, I said, that half-baked mediocrity of a prose writer, that prose yenta, that—yes, I said, that fact-happy, yes, that fact-loopy journalist. For that’s what he was. He was no creative writer. He was a fact-checking, pencil-pushing newspaper flack. Creative nonfìction, indeed! Creative nonfiction, my ass!He would write in a genre that defined itself by what it was not, i:e., not fiction, and not straight journalism, it was creative, not in that sense of being imaginative, but in that Hollywood sense of being some ill-defined genre of humanity, the creative talent, the people you paid the cheapest salary to, because, after all, stars were not creative talents, they were stars. Creative talent were the supernumeraries, I thought, they were the Seymour Krims of the world. But before I could take this screed much farther, I received a postcard from Krim. And that’s when I realized how deeply he had hurt my feelings by the snub. In the postcard, he apologized for his behavior, saying he did not know what happened to his mind, but sometimes it went blank.
My own oldest brother had had, just like Krim did, electro-shock treatment in a mental hospital, and I knew that the treatment often messed with one s memory So I was willing to believe what he said. Perhaps his not recognizing me had less to do with a social one-upmanship than it did with neurological synapses. Krim’s essay “The Insanity Bit” was a monumental testament to what happens to the mind under this kind of institutional duress, and to me it was one of his most beautiful and insightful pieces of writing and, yes, a great example of creative nonfiction, an autobiographical outpouring that resembles a personal essay, and yet so rhythmically structured as to bear more resemblance to poetry than prose. The insight came from the nonfiction in the essay on insanity, but the beauty was in that creative part of the writing, its unfathomable rhythmic struts and paragraphical essences. Krim may never have been that cool—in the sense of Miles Davis being the ultimate cool—-but there was no writer hipper than he was when the jazz of his prose locked into its syncopations. What Jack Kerouac called spontaneous bop prosody (I was tempted to say that “Seymour’s ‘friend’ Jack Kerouac said,” but as Krim noted in “The Kerouac Legacy,” even though he was forever associated with the Beats, especially his championing of them, he only met Kerouac twice and never for more than 15 minutes, so that their affinities were purely literary, not social or physical.) “The Insanity Bit” is one of the hippest pieces of writing to come out of the latter half of the 20th century, and decades after it was first published— back in the late ‘50s,—it still resonates with Krim’s ferocious integrity, moral incandescence, intelligence and emotional honesty, not to mention pure chutzpa to reveal this about himself in prose.
But I am reminded that Krim wrote a couple dozen good essays, enough, I think now, to make him one of the literary immortals he so desperately wanted to be, and thought he had failed miserably at becoming. Failure was the theme running through so much of his best writings, and yet he was able to write about failure with real genius the same way George Orwell wrote about it. In fact, thinking about these two pinnacles of nonfiction writing, they make me realize that in order to write creatively in nonfiction perhaps one needs to be a bit of a failure, that the genre does not lend itself to successes very well. I was reminded of this recently when I read Krim’s essay “For My Brothers and Sisters in the Failure Business,” taken from “You & Me” (1974); I came across it in Phillip Lopate’s groundbreaking collection, “The Art of the Personal Essay” (1994), the included essay being a testament, not so much to Krim’s failure as his prescience and perseverance, that finally the world was coming to see, a generation removed from his own, that their antecedents went back to fearless writers such as Seymour Krim. As Lopate writes in introductory notes to the essay: “Ironically, part of Krim’s sense of failure came from never having realized his youthful ambition to.write big American novels; essay writing seemed to him something of a compromise, a minor art. Had he valued it more highly, he might have realized what a genuine success he was.
Successes don’t write creative nonfiction, though. They write big (bloated) novels, plot-infested, mass-appealing, finally onerous behemoths of verbiage and dishonesty. For even though Krim promulgated J.R.. Humphreys’s term creative nonfiction, I doubt that he would take credit for inventing a form. He was too modest to do that, even when he was being grandiose; his pomposity was more that of someone with low self-esteem, not some high-roller out to let us know what a really grand personage he or she was. And even though he helped to coin the term to delineate what he did among the academic community he suddenly found himself in, Krim never took the time, though he defined many other things in his writing, to define what he meant by the term. But it’s easy to trace the progression of his writing to come to an understanding of the term creative nonfiction. He once described new journalism as “the real truth, while whatever everybody else in the newspaper business writes is the official truth.”
In other words, nonfiction and journalism had come to mean official truths, while new journalism, or what evolved, academically at least, as creative nonfiction, became the real thing, truth itself. Yet Tom Wolfe and Hunter S. Thompson are not everyone’s idea of truth in any shape or form; one might be deemed a literary mercenary and the other a creative fool, a calculated madman. So I think creative nonfiction needs Krim’s other literary interest before new journalism to define it, and that was his love and anthologizing of the Beats, that Kerouackian bebop-a-loopa prose masterpiecing and rhythm-a-neeking, that sense of poetry, where sound makes as much sense as the facts themselves and, in the realm of truth, perhaps the jazz of prose was the most important ingredient, that ability to convey drifts and meanings by the pulse and beat of the prose.
My own notion of creative nonfiction and Seymour Krim was corroborated by a recent conversation with Dick Humphreys. Especially, he said, what he and Krim meant by creative nonfiction was nonfiction that could be as creative as fiction. “It was writing with emotion,” Dick said, “not just writing objectively, in fact, subjective writing was all right.” He went on to say that creative nonfiction was prose writing with a voice, voice being the foundation of all creative writing.
Coming upon that highly successful essay on failure in Phillip Lopate’s anthology made me think about Krim in ways that I hadn’t done for years. Of course, for the longest time I have wanted to write about him and creative nonfiction and have not been able to get the right handle. I suppose seeing the essay in an anthology crystallized some of those feelings I had. I combed the Strand and other used bookstores in New York looking for “Shake It for the World, Smartass,” the only book of his I didn’t own. Then I found myself in San Francisco, and in a used bookstore off Union Street I managed to buy a nice copy of the selected essays, “What’s This Cat’s Story?” (1991). I had two days to kill before the work I had come to do began, and I sat in my hotel room reading Krim, and since San Francisco was so closely aligned with the Beats, it was the ideal location to re-read my old nemesis and hectoring mentor, my first prose-writing teacher and, oddly enough, one of my literary consciences.
He was a New Yorker, from the Bronx, born in 1922 to a Jewish family. His father died when Seymour was 8, and his mother committed suicide when he was 10. He attended the University of North Carolina, which, before Michael Jordan, was famous for being the alma mater of Thomas Wolfe, one of Krim’s early idols, but he soon tired of college and dropped out. When he was in his early 30s, a relative success as an editor and free-lancer and staff writer for some fairly prestigious magazines, he had a breakdown and wound up incarcerated for his mental illness. He intended to commit suicide in Newark after he was released, but the sight of an earthy Polish girl dancing brought him back from the cusp of suicide—”I found the booze and saw a coarse, ignorant Polish girl do such a life-giving, saucy, raucous folk-dance (on the small dance floor to the right of the bar) that I broke into loving sobs like prayers over my drink”— which did not keep him from being locked up again, though, until he finally realized, like a lot of other brilliant writers in other eras, that the so-called crazies were not crazy at all. His two great literary-loves were the Beats and new journalism. In his lifetime, he published three essay collections, left behind a batch of writings from his younger days and an insanely dense prose exploration too aptly entitled “Chaos”—”See, I come from an older America full of a different kind of two-fisted, two-breasted terror”—a harangue without paragraph breaks or even breath pauses, what he thought was his breakthrough prose, though it mostly proved unreadable and unpublishable but for highly selective excerpts. In May 1986 he had a heart attack in Israel while on a Fulbright grant, and when he came back to New York, he grew weaker and sicker. In the end, like his own mother, he was listed as a suicide, though to believe that is to see how misleading words can be when the deeper truth is sought. This was a brave, courageous soldier in the army of literature battling all of life’s mediocrities. His death was not a cowardly act, but rather a quietly intelligent one. He had consulted with the Hemlock Society about ending his life. A good friend of his told me that he was neat about it and left notes for the police and then on August 30, 1989, he ended his life, not with a bang or a whimper, but with music on the stereo, though not jazz. I imagine he played something classical because the only times I had ever been to his small neat apartment on East 10th Street, there was marijuana smoke in the air and classical music on the machine.
That was not the last image I had of Seymour, though. I recalled the last time I saw him alive. At a Christmas party for Columbia faculty he got into one of his old-time demon-from-hell biblical rages at me, once again berating me for my failures, not living up to the potential of my earlier career, and this time, since I was newly sober, he thought it unnatural that a Brooklyn-Irish writer would not— because I could not—drink. The notion that I might die if I had another drink had nothing to do with it as far as he was concerned. Krim would drink and smoke and blow dope until the end, he said, and so should I, and I ought to get rid of my lace-curtain dreams of being clean and sober and live a little, kid, get out there and make some mischief. Actually, it was not that benign a criticism; this was more primordial, his anger toward me coming from a deeper place inside of him that had nothing to do with me and everything to do with the mortal Seymour Krim. He was less than nine months away from committing suicide, not out of despair, but because he had arrived at the terminus of his life, the existential threshold of this man and writer named Seymour Krim; the heart disease had made this vital man a cripple, incapable of teaching anymore, unable to climb stairs or do anything constructive. His writing career was finished, and yet, thinking back on him now, he really wrote most of his best pieces—though not necessarily all of them—in the 1950s. Now his manner of dress was almost dandyish, quite impeccable and dramatic, the small trademark sideways egg-shaped glasses—the epitome of the late ‘60s and the hippies—had been replaced by round, Joycean frames, the corduroy replaced by a tweed jacket, the drably colored knit was now a colorful silk tie, and the dungaree jacket was now a fancy overcoat to keep him warm. I was six months sober, just beginning my new life—really just beginning my life for the first time—and he had come to the still point, here at last at land’s end. Though he was one of the most generous of teachers, spending his lifetime taking student work—including my own writing—to editors to read; encouraging, nurturing even, at least nurturing if you were odd and out of place and slightly off-center, like he was. The old guy was a benign, annoying, literary cheerleading, badgering, wildly enthusiastic sort of presence in my life, but that evening—as it turned out, the last I ever saw him—he was in a feckless rage, almost like a rabbinical King Lear raging at the elements and, in this case, the elements being the nature of writing and writers’ natures, his own nature being this romantic one that believed that one gives the entire self to a literary art and, finally, it consumes you, then spits you out without a thought to what you did. I always had a much less sentimental view of life and my own writing and, as passionate as I may be or appear to be or become, I always have that Yeatsian colder eye inside of me, assaying everything from the cautious vantage of an artificer, because, being Irish, that’s how I see, having read my Joyce as well, and having read him well. Which is not to say that Krim couldn’t have a chilling Celtic eye to take in the world.
Sometimes his writing had an oracular chill to it. In one of his 1950s essays on fiction and imaginative writing, he has this to say: “After Joyce, the intensification of language became a commonplace, until prose writers pored over their words as if they were writing poetry; not because they wanted to show off, but because the exact word (presumably an infection Joyce received from Flaubert and passed into the bloodstream of English) gave both the fact and beauty at the same time, and the writer’s sense of perfection and objective truth could only be satisfied by the higher demonstration of truth which a Joyce had brought into being.” (My God, but everything I loved about this writer can be found in that last sentence—the energy and muscle of the prose, the smartness of the observation, the brilliant turn of phrase, “an infection Joyce received from Flaubert”). But, mostly, instead of being oracular, his prose had a practical edge that belied his hopelessly romantic instincts; this edge was worldly, full of a sense of being in the universe, living a life, not as a Beat, but beat by beat, hour to hour, day to day, week after week, month by month and, finally, year after year, chronicling the daily progression of the self through an existence. Krim, in countless writing instances, wrote about how fiction failed because it could do nothing more than telling, whereas imaginative writing was all about being. But he did not yet call it creative nonfiction; he said it was “total imaginative writing,” and he defined it as “all prose which is revealing or uncovering about the experience of the Self, and then rises to the more intense level of experience we call art, seems by inner intention to have grouped itself together into a specifically modern genre.” Seymour went from being a lover of the literature of prose fiction to being a lover of the literature of fact; what never changed was his love of prose, and the measure in it, when used effectively, that fathomed the truths of a life in its time. When he finally came to use the term creative nonfiction I think it was just another way—in this case, an academic way—of saying total imaginative writing, the self revealed in writing, but, because of his love of music and his sense of poetry and a never-relinquished love of great literature, this other literature of fact, this imaginative writing he called creative nonfiction, the prose had to be as good as poetry and up to the rigors set down by those former prose masters, writers such as Joyce, Proust, Kafka and Flaubert.
The upshot of my last encounter with Seymour was yet another postcard apologizing for his behavior, saying I was a good old friend and I should understand the strain of his life, etc., etc. î did. Because it didn’t take a genius to see that the end was at hand. In less than nine months, he would be dead. When he died, I pulled out a manila folder I had of a few letters I saved, two full letters and one fragment. The latter was written from Israel, just before the heart attack, and was a classical Krim letter whose style was not unlike his essays themselves, deeply intelligent, thoughtful, witty, kvetching, admonishing, patriarchal, meekly bullying, and full of love. Here is the opening of one letter from the late 1970s, shortly after I published an experimental prose work called “Still Life” (1978). He writes: “I hope I’m right in thinking that I’ve earned the privilege of speaking utterly straight to you about writing, since I copped your cherry as it were; you were a prose virgin until our old Workshop, and accident led to my intriguing you with the possibilities of prose, which made for a conjunction that can never actually die. I’ll always be a shadow conscience for your work, even when you’re a hell of a lot better and more acclaimed writer than myself. I think you know just what I mean, without my trying to stretch or impose on the implications.” It was written on yellow typing paper, neatly typed with only a few errors, all of them corrected, and went on to chide, castigate, plead and warn me about being too indulgent a writer, too show-off a writer, too much a writer who wrote his writing for writing’s sake.. For Chrissakes, he was right, of course.
People are more interesting to me than ideas, which I think is both the fault and virtue of working as a journalist. I have tried to write about my old friend and mentor Seymour Krim first and about creative nonfiction second. As I write this I don’t think he was the founder or father or grandfather of creative nonfiction, though I think he was one of its best practitioners. He did not coin the term “creative nonfiction”—I now know Dick Humphries did—but he was the thing itself. To me, he was a great prose writer, a true stylist and, just as important as the facts in this type of writing, is the honesty a writer brings to the form, and Seymour was nothing if he was not honest. “Ask for a White Cadillac,” his account of going up to Harlem to get laid, may anger blacks and make whites shake their heads and say, “What a fool,” about this man, but no one can doubt the veracity of the piece, and no one would condemn its honesty and, after all, our sexual desires, our erotic appetites, are not particularly social or socialized behaviors; they are enacted in the dark, privately, unfettered of social disapproval, and a good prose writer strips down in the same way, walking naked before the reader.
What all of this prosing over Krim and—with apologies to my dear old friend Dick Humphreys—this Mickey Mouse of a phrase associated with him is really about is debt-paying and acknowledgment, about creating continuity, of continuance of the craft: no matter under what name it comes by; it’s about gratitude. A prose by any other name would smell just as sweet as this creative nonfiction thing, Seymour. But this was your baby, old friend. That’s the point. Though Krim always saw me alternately as this smoldering belligerent street kid with enormous talent for writing prose or this sellout little Irish bastard who betrayed my Lower East Side instincts by going off to college and getting three degrees, and then having the balls to show up at Columbia to teach creative writing for 14 years, I think he saw me as the creative personnel and himself as a kind of cigar-chomping talent scout, the agent, the flack, the public relations man. He would have shit in his literary pajamas to learn, post-mortem, that after he turned to dust, I turned to nonfiction instead of fiction. I know what Seymour would do because I knew Seymour, and I know what he always did. At first, he would get pissed off at me, tell me that I’m ruining my God-given talents by writing this book about Korea or this book of essays about fighting, writing and drinking, and then, shortly thereafter, I’d receive a letter on yellow paper, neatly typed, beautifully written, offering me a sensational blurb for the book, and telling me what a fine writer I am and how wrong it was of him to tell me that I was losing my talent and, always genuinely modest finally, he would make some unflattering comparison about his own writing compared to mine, and end by saying that we ought to get together before both of us got too old. With all the pessimism in his work, he finally was the great optimist. He was less Sartre and more Whitman, the self he sang was only the existential one on the surface; underneath it all, the self he explored was of the barbaric yawp, of the bespectacled prose-drunk nonfiction genius kicking out the jams.
Prose is what first made us acquaintances and is what cemented the relationship, allowing the peaks and valleys to be ironed out into a sort of friendship despite my reservations with the word “friendship” as I’ve defined our relationship here; prose is what it is all about, for him, for me, for all of us—as Krim himself might put it—in the writing game; prose is what keeps me alive and what drove that crazy old fart Krim to the brink of madness in its pursuit. Old nearsighted cannoneer, dear old smartass, once titled a book “You Sc Me/’ which I took to be a kind of Sonny and Cher title, Seymour s coming into the age of the Beatles, though he would forever be associated with the ‘50s, not rock ‘n’ roll, but Jack Kerouac and Allen Ginsberg, the Beats, and the jazz of the city, the classical music of his tiny crib on 10th Street. The Symphony Sid of prose, the endless commentator, observer, the inside outsider, the outside insider, the slightly stoned-out and out-of-it Ralph Waldo of our mid-century, only beyond the pale, outside the normal ken of the establishment. Finally, he was more an American Walter Benjamin than anything else—and how can one pay a higher compliment to a prose writer—a brilliant prose stylist, a wandering Jew, a friend to geniuses, a philosopher in journalist’s clothing. Call it creative nonfiction. I call it Krim.