If you learned about Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory in school, most likely it was presented as a straightforward explanation for how species have evolved to become what they are today. Individuals with different traits competed, and the strongest traits became dominant over time.
Likewise, in the introductory class to creative nonfiction I took as an undergraduate in the mid-aughts, the evolution of the genre was presented as a simple one: memoirists had mated with traditional journalists, and they’d had a 1960s love child whose name at birth was New Journalism. It was a new species that broke the old boundaries and filled a niche in the ecology of literature. Later, when New Journalism grew up, it took on a new name: creative nonfiction. The genre was presented, more or less, as a fully evolved form. It was grounded in research, fact, and reportage, was written in a personal voice, and used the creative tools of fiction—setting, characters, scenes, and dialogue. All of these traits had emerged as the fittest for the job of creative nonfiction. We read Tom Wolfe, John McPhee, Joan Didion.
Seven years later, in graduate school, while exploring the genre’s contours in a small workshop, I quickly realized that creative nonfiction’s forms had become many, that it had not just continued to exist but had, in fact, undergone something like the Cambrian explosion, the evolutionary period in which life forms rapidly proliferated and diversified.
The workshop curriculum focused on newer works that revealed a wide range of diversity of craft, not just one fittest form. Eula Biss’s “The Pain Scale,” an essay that plays with the structure of a zero-through-ten pain scale, quotes dialogue with Biss’s parents and physical therapist, thinks critically about Dante’s Inferno, and incorporates research about the Beaufort scale, which is used to measure wind, all while probing at the narrator’s personal pain. We read Jenny Boully’s “The Body,” a book-length essay of mostly blank pages, footnotes at the bottom annotating a missing, imaginary text. We read Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City, a book in which Flynn records with the detail of immersion reporting his experience of meeting his homeless father as a caseworker at a homeless shelter, while he also tries to paint impressions of the mind of a homeless person afflicted with alcoholism. One prominent review described the book as “less a memoir than a study of one of America’s darker conundrums: homelessness.”
We read Ta-Nehisi Coates’s “The Case for Reparations,” a sixty-or-so-page essay when printed out. Published in The Atlantic, it employs traditional journalism’s tools of storytelling and research to investigate the crimes of redlining and housing discrimination against Black Americans. It includes epigraphs from Deuteronomy and John Locke, gaining a poetic force that simple reportage can’t provide. We read Anne Carson’s “The Glass Essay.” Written in stanzas, it traces Carson’s grief at the end of a relationship alongside her reading of the works of Emily Brontë and her personal biography of Brontë, gathering poetry, criticism, and memoir under the name of “essay.”
I also looked to the nonfiction work of Annie Dillard, J.A. Baker, Amy Leach, and Barry Lopez. My own writing, like theirs, was deeply steeped in biology and the natural sciences, while I also wanted to braid that knowledge—as they do, in many different ways stylistically—with history, culture, personal story, and spiritual questions.
Even while my cohort and I read a great variety of creative nonfiction and shared the slow adaptations of our own individual works, I felt that we were always trying to pin our genre down, like one of Vladimir Nabokov’s butterflies, neatly labeled. How could we concisely describe it, classify it, as a singular entity? A more insidious and persistent notion that underlay our thinking was that one form of nonfiction might outcompete the others, and any mode might be at risk of extinction, depending on the day. What would be the best, the most enduring form of nonfiction? I had the feeling that my survival as a writer depended on my identifying it, whatever it was, and everything I read swayed me wildly.
My sense was that one kind of nonfiction would indeed prove to be fittest. But as I became more engrossed with biology as the frequent subject of my writing, I paid attention to the revolution in thinking that’s been taking place in that field for the past many decades: a greater understanding of, and appreciation for, the role of cooperation.
Darwin’s writings about competition in nature were, as we know, overemphasized by American economists to promote a capitalist economic system that thrives on scarcity and competition. In fact, Darwin was every bit as fascinated with how different forms of life feed one another’s innovations and adaptations, how diversity is vital to healthy ecosystems. In the book that followed On the Origin of Species, he drew a more complicated picture of what he called coadaptation, studying how orchids and their pollinating insects mutually became more and more beautiful in form as they evolved, a sort of creative inspiration taking place between them.
Similarly, creative nonfiction is not one species at all but truly a vast kingdom, every bit as wide and ranging as poetry and fiction. Perhaps writers of every genre are afflicted by the subtle feeling of pervasive threat to their highly individual craft that results when schooled in the ideology of competition that drives the commerce of publishing. Perhaps, too, in the evolution of each individual writer, there is an arrival at the realization that we can and should, in our diversity of voices and perspectives, enrich one another’s meanings within a shared habitat. One form does not have to crowd another out. And though I often think of my focus as particular, as a writer in a little niche, I continue to read widely within the genre, and my work is enriched with this variety. When listened to, other, very different voices from our own can give surprising lilts to our stories, new shapes and colorations. No species exists alone, outside of the web that supports it. In the same way, the life of any one writer’s work isn’t threatened by other voices, but rather depends on them. We are interdependent within a web of creative work.
Barry Lopez writes that “diversity is not, as I had once thought, a characteristic of life. It is, instead, a condition necessary for life.”
New species in the genre are constantly emerging, the habitat tending toward greater biodiversity. Whereas once I may have been inclined to define the genre based on its proportion of fact and personal story or its balance of research and lyricism, I have adapted my description of creative nonfiction to one I believe is its simplest essence, the thread that runs through it all: truth as beauty. In all of its radically different expressions.