Creative Nonfiction: A Movement, Not a Moment

This may come as a surprise, but I don’t know who actually coined the term creative nonfiction. As far as I know, nobody knows. I have been using it for a long time, though, as have others, and although the term came into vogue relatively recently (about the time I started this journal, 13 years ago), the kind of writing it describes has a long history. George Orwell’s famous essay, “Shooting an Elephant,” is textbook creative nonfiction, combining personal experience with high-quality literary-writing techniques. Ernest Hemingway’s paean to bullfighting, “Death in the Afternoon,” falls under the creative nonfiction umbrella as does Tom Wolfe’s “The Right Stuff” and Frank McCourt’s “Angela’s Ashes.”

For a time, this kind of writing gained popularity as “New Journalism” due in large part to Wolfe, who published a book of that title in 1973 which declared that this style of writing “would wipe out the novel as literature’s main event.” Gay Talese described New Journalism in the introduction to his landmark collection, “Fame and Obscurity”: “Though often reading like fiction, it is not fiction. It is, or should be, as reliable as the most reliable reportage, although it seeks a larger truth [my italics] than is possible through a mere compilation of verifiable facts, the use of direct quotation and the adherence to the rigid organizational style of the older form.”

This is perhaps creative nonfiction’s greatest asset: It offers flexibility and freedom while adhering to the basic tenets of nonfiction writing and/or reporting. In creative nonfiction, writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously. Creative nonfiction writers are encouraged to utilize literary techniques in their prose—from scene to dialogue to description to point of view—and be cinematic at the same time. Creative nonfiction writers write about themselves and others, capturing real people and real life in ways that can and have changed the world. What is most important and enjoyable about creative nonfiction is that it not only allows but also encourages the writer to become a part of the story or essay being written. The personal involvement creates a special magic that alleviates the suffering and anxiety of the writing experience; it provides many outlets for satisfaction and self discovery, flexibility and freedom.

Since the early 1990s, there has been an explosion of creative nonfiction in the publishing and academic worlds. Many of our best magazines—The New Yorker, Harper’s, Vanity Fair, Esquire—publish more creative nonfiction than fiction and poetry combined. Every year, more universities offer Master of Fine Arts degrees in creative nonfiction. Newspapers are publishing an increasing amount of creative nonfiction, not only as features but in the news and Op-Ed pages, as well.

This wasn’t always the case. When I started teaching in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1970s, the concept of an “artful” or “new” nonfiction was considered, to say the least, unlikely. My colleagues snickered when I proposed teaching a “creative” nonfiction course, while the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences proclaimed that nonfiction writing in general—forget the use of the word creative—was, at best, a craft, not too different from plumbing. As the chairman of our department put it one day in a faculty meeting while we were debating the legitimacy of the course: “After all, gentlemen”—the fact that many of his colleagues were women often slipped his mind—“we’re interested in literature here, not writing.” That remark and the subsequent debate had been precipitated by a contingent of students from the school newspaper who marched on the chairman’s office and politely requested more nonfiction writing courses “of the creative kind.”

One colleague, aghast at the prospect of this “new thing” (creative nonfiction), carried a dozen of his favorite books to the meeting— poetry, fiction and nonfiction—gave a belabored mini-review of each and then, pointing a finger at the editor of the paper and pounding a fist, stated: “After you read all these books and understand what they mean, I will consider voting for a course called creative nonfiction. Otherwise, I don’t want to be bothered.” Luckily, most of my colleagues didn’t want to be bothered fighting the school newspaper, so the course was approved—and I became one of the first people, if not the first, to teach creative nonfiction at the university level, anywhere. That was in 1973.

Twenty years later, I started the journal Creative Nonfiction to provide a literary outlet for those journalists who aspired to experiment with combining fact and narrative. I wrote an editorial statement, put out a call for manuscripts and waited for the essays to pour in. Which they did: Many dozens of nonfiction pieces arrived at our mailbox over the first few weeks, more and more as the word spread, and we filled our first few issues.

And this was as I had expected. I had been confident that there were great creative nonfiction writers everywhere waiting for the opportunity to liberate themselves—all they needed was a venue. But I soon began to realize, as I spread the essays out on the floor in my office, as I tended to do when selecting and choreographing an issue, that most of the best essays were written not by journalists but by poets and novelists.

In fact, writers crossing genres seems to be another significant hallmark of the creative nonfiction genre and a reason for its popularity. Many of the writers whose works have appeared in the pages of Creative Nonfiction over the years first made their marks in other genres.

All this flexibility—writers crossing genres, applying tools from poetry and fiction to true stories—has made some people, writers of creative nonfiction included, uncomfortable. I travel often and give talks to groups of students and other aspiring writers. Invariably, people in the audience ask questions about what writers can or can’t do, stylistically and in content, while writing creative nonfiction. The questioners are unrelenting: “How can you be certain that the dialogue you are remembering and recreating from an incident that occurred months ago is accurate?” “How can you look through the eyes of your characters if you are not inside their heads?”

I always answer as best I can. I try to explain that such questions have a lot to do with a writer’s ethical and moral boundaries and, most important, how hard writers are willing to work to achieve accuracy and credibility in their narratives. Making up a story or elaborating extemporaneously on a situation that did, in fact, occur can be interesting but unnecessary. Truth is often more compelling to contemplate than fiction. But the questions and the confusion about what a writer can or cannot do often persist—for too long.

The Creative Nonfiction Police

Once, at a college in Texas, I finally threw up my hands in frustration and said, “Listen, I can’t answer all of these questions with rules and regulations. I am not,” I announced, pausing rather theatrically, “the creative nonfiction police!”

There was a woman in the audience—someone I had noticed earlier during my reading. She was in the front row: hard to miss— older than most of the undergraduates, blond, attractive, in her late 30s maybe. She had the alert yet composed look of a nurse, a person only semi-relaxed, always ready to act or react. She had taken her shoes off and propped her feet on the stage; I remember how her toes wiggled as she laughed at the essay I had been reading.

But when I announced, dramatically, “I am not the creative nonfiction police,” although many people chuckled, this woman suddenly jumped to her feet, whipped out a badge and pointed in my direction. “Well I am,” she announced. “Someone has to be. And you are under arrest.”

Then she scooped up her shoes and stormed barefooted from the room. The Q-and-A ended soon after, and I rushed into the hallway to find the woman with the badge. I had many questions, beginning with “Who the hell are you? Why do you have a badge? And how did you know what I was going to say when I didn’t have any idea?” I had never used the term creative nonfiction police before that moment. But she was gone. My host said the woman was a stranger. We asked around, students and colleagues. No one knew her. She was a mystery to everyone, especially me.

The bigger mystery, however, then and now, is the debate that triggered my symbolic arrest: the set of parameters that govern or define creative nonfiction and the questions writers must consider while laboring in or struggling with what we call the literature of reality.

I meant what I said to that audience: I am not the creative nonfiction police. But I have been called “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” and I have been doing this for a long time—more than a dozen published books, 30 years of teaching and then editing this groundbreaking journal. And so, while I won’t lay down the law, I will define some of the essential elements of creative nonfiction. The

Five R’s

Basic public education once covered the three R’s: Reading, ’Riting and ’Rithmatic. I find it’s helpful to think of the basic tenets of creative nonfiction (especially immersion journalism) in terms of the five R’s.

The first R is the “real life” aspect of the writing experience. As a writing teacher, I design assignments that have a real life, or immersion, aspect: I force my students out into their communities for an hour, a day or even a week so that they see and understand that the foundation of good writing is personal experience. I’ve sent my students to police stations, bagel shops, golf courses; together, my classes have gone on excursions and participated in public-service projects—all in an attempt to experience or to recreate from experience real life.

Which is not to say that all creative nonfiction has to involve the writer’s immersion into the experiences of others; some writers (and students) may utilize their own personal experience. In one introductory course I taught, a young man working his way through school as a salesperson wrote about selling shoes, while another student who served as a volunteer in a hospice captured a dramatic moment of death, grief and family relief.

Not only were these essays—and many others my students have written over the years—based on real life, but they also contained personal messages from writer to reader, which gave them extra meaning. “An essay is when I write what I think about something,” students will often say to me. Which is true, to a certain extent—and also the source of the meaning of the second R: “reflection.” In creative nonfiction, unlike in traditional journalism, a writer’s feelings and responses about a subject are permitted and encouraged. But essays can’t just be personal opinion; writers have to reach out to readers in a number of different and compelling ways.

This reaching out is essential if a writer hopes to find an audience. Creative Nonfiction receives approximately 200 unsolicited essays a month, sent in by writers seeking publication. The vast majority of these submissions are rejected, and one common reason is an overwhelming egocentrism: In other words, writers write too much about themselves and what they think without seeking a universal focus so that readers are properly and firmly engaged. Essays that are so personal that they omit the reader are essays that will never see the light of print. The overall objective of a writer should be to make the reader tune in— not out.

Another main reason Creative Nonfiction and many other journals and magazines reject essays is a lack of attention to another essential element of the creative nonfiction genre, which is to gather and present information, to teach readers about a person, place, idea or situation, combining the creativity of the artistic experience with the essential third R in the formula: “research.”

Even the most personal essay is usually full of substantive detail about a subject that affects or concerns a writer. Read the books and essays of the most renowned nonfiction writers in this century, and you will find writers engaged in a quest for information and discovery. From Orwell to Hemingway to John McPhee and Joan Didion, books and essays written by these writers are invariably about a subject other than themselves, although the narrator will be intimately included in the story. What’s more, the subject—whatever it is—has been carefully researched and described or explained in such a way as to make a lasting impression on readers.

Personal experience, research and spontaneous intellectual discourse—an airing and exploration of ideas—are equally vital elements in creative nonfiction. Annie Dillard, another prominent creative nonfiction writer, takes great pains to achieve this balance in her work. In her first book, “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek,” which won the Pulitzer Prize, and in her other books and essays, Dillard repeatedly overwhelms her readers with factual information: minutely detailed descriptions of insects, botany and biology, history and anthropology, blended with her own feelings about life.

One of my favorite Dillard essays, “Schedules,” focuses on the importance of writers working on a regular schedule rather than writing only intermittently. In this essay, she discusses, among many other subjects, Hasidism, chess, baseball, warblers, pine trees, June bugs, writers’ studios and potted plants—as well as her own schedule and writing habits and those of Wallace Stevens and Jack London.

What I am saying is that the genre of creative nonfiction is open to anyone with a curious mind and a sense of self. The research phase actually launches and anchors the creative effort. Whether it is a book or essay I am planning, I always begin my quest in the library (or, increasingly, online) for three reasons. First, I need to familiarize myself with the subject. If I don’t know much about it, I want to make myself knowledgeable enough to ask intelligent questions when I begin interviewing people. If I can’t display at least a minimal understanding of the subject about which I want to write, I will lose the confidence and support of the people who must provide me access to the experience.

Second, I want to assess my competition. What other essays, books and articles have been written about this subject? Who are the experts, the pioneers, the most controversial figures? I want to find a new angle—not write a story similar to one that has already been written. And finally, how can I reflect on and evaluate a person, subject or place unless I know all of the contrasting points of view? Reflection may permit a certain amount of speculation, but only when based on a solid foundation of knowledge.

This brings me to the fourth R: “reading.” Writers must read not only the research material unearthed in the library but also the work of the masters of their profession. I have heard some very fine writers claim that they don’t read too much any more or that they don’t read for long periods, especially during the time they are laboring on a lengthy writing project. But almost all writers have read the best writers in their field and are able to converse in great detail about their stylistic approaches and the intellectual content of their work, much as any good visual artist is able to discuss the work of Picasso, Van Gogh, Michelangelo and Warhol.

Finally, there’s the fifth R: the “’riting,” the most artistic and romantic aspect of the whole experience. The first four R’s relate to the nonfiction part of creative nonfiction; this last R is the phase where writers get to create. This often happens in two phases: Usually there is an inspirational explosion at the beginning, a time when writers allow instinct and feeling to guide their fingers as they create paragraphs, pages and even entire chapters or complete essays. This is what art of any form is all about: the passion of the moment and the magic of the muse. I am not saying this always happens; it doesn’t. Writing is a difficult labor in which a daily grind or struggle (ideally with a regular schedule, as Annie Dillard concludes) is inevitable. But this first part of the experience— for most writers, most of the time—is rather loose and spontaneous and, therefore, more creative and fun. The second part of the writing experience—the craft part, which comes into play after your basic essay is written—is equally important and a hundred times more difficult.

The Building Blocks of Creative Nonfiction: Scene, Dialogue, Intimate Detail and Other Essentials

The craft part means the construction of the essay (or chapter or even book):how the research, reflection and real life experience are arranged to make a story meaningful and important to readers.

The primary way this is accomplished in creative nonfiction is through the use of scene. In fact, one of the most obvious distinguishing factors between traditional journalism and creative nonfiction—or simply between ordinary prose and good, evocative writing—is the use of vignettes, episodes and other slices of reality. The uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place or personality in action.

There’s an easy way to see how essential scene is to building a story; I like to call it “The Yellow Test.” Take a yellow highlighter or magic marker and leaf through your favorite magazine—Vanity Fair, Esquire, The New Yorker or Creative Nonfiction—or return to a favorite chapter in a book by an author like Annie Dillard or John McPhee. Highlight the scenes, the passages—large or small—where things happen. Then return to the beginning and review your handiwork. Chances are, anywhere from 50 to 80 percent of each essay or chapter will be yellow. (This test works equally well with other forms of creative writing: Plays are obviously constructed of scenes, as are novels and short stories and films. Even most poems are very scenic.)

But what makes a scene? First and foremost, a scene contains action. Something happens. I jump on my motorcycle and go helter-skelter around the country; suddenly, in the middle of July in Yellowstone National Park, I am confronted with 20 inches of snow. Action needn’t be wild, sexy and death-defying, however. There’s also action in the classroom: A student asks a question, which requires an answer, which necessitates a dialogue, which is a marvelously effective tool to trigger or record action.

Dialogue, another important element of creative nonfiction, means people saying things to one another, expressing themselves. It is a valuable element of scene. Collecting dialogue is one of the reasons writers immerse themselves at a police station, bagel shop or zoo. It lets them discover what people have to say spontaneously—not just in response to a reporter’s questions.

Another technique that helps writers create scene may be described as “intimate and specific detail.” This is a lesson that writers of all genres need to know: The secret to making prose (or, for that matter, poetry) memorable—and, therefore, vital and important—is to catalogue with specificity the details that are most intimate. By intimate, I mean ideas and images that readers won’t easily imagine—ideas and images you observed that symbolize a memorable truth about the characters or the situations about which you are writing. Intimate means recording and noting details that the reader might not know or even imagine without your particular inside insight. Sometimes intimate detail can be so specific and special that it becomes unforgettable in the reader’s mind.

A very famous “intimate” detail appears in a classic creative nonfiction profile, “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” written by Gay Talese in 1966 and published in Esquire. In this profile, Talese leads readers on a whirlwind cross-country tour, revealing Sinatra and his entourage interacting with one another and with the rest of the world, and demonstrating how Sinatra’s world and the world inhabited by everyone else often collide. The scenes are action-oriented; they contain dialogue and evocative description, including a moment when Talese spotted a gray-haired lady with a tiny satchel in the shadows of the Sinatra entourage and put her in the story. She was, it turned out, the guardian of Sinatra’s collection of toupees. This tiny detail—Sinatra’s wig lady—made such an impression when I first read the essay that even now, years later, any time I see Sinatra on television or in rerun movies, or spot his photo in a magazine, I find myself searching the background for the gray-haired lady with the satchel.

The gray-haired lady was a detail that readers wouldn’t have known about if Talese hadn’t shown it to them, and her constant presence there in the shadows—hovering to service or replace Sinatra’s toupee— offered important insight into Sinatra’s character. And although we can’t achieve such symbolism each time we capture an incident, writers who want their words to be remembered beyond the dates on which their stories are published or broadcast will seek to discover the special observations that symbolize the intimacy they have attained with their subjects.

Of course, all of these vividly told scenes have to be organized according to some larger plan to make a complete story. We call this plan, or structure, the frame of the story. The frame represents a way of ordering or controlling a writer’s narrative so that the elements of his book, article or essay are presented in an interesting and orderly fashion with an interlaced integrity from beginning to end.

The most basic frame is a simple beginning-to-end chronology. For example, “Hoop Dreams,” a dramatic documentary (which is classic creative nonfiction in a different medium) begins with two African American teenage basketball stars living in a ghetto and sharing a dream of stardom in the NBA, and dramatically tracks both of their careers over the next six years.

Other frames are very complicated; in the movie, “Pulp Fiction,” Quentin Tarantino skillfully tangles and manipulates time. For a variety of reasons, writers often choose not to frame their stories in a strictly chronological sequence. My book “One Children’s Place” begins in the operating room at a children’s hospital. It introduces a surgeon, whose name is Marc Rowe; his severely handicapped patient, Danielle; and her mother, Debbie, who has dedicated her every waking moment to Danielle. Two years of her life have been spent inside the walls of this building with parents and children from all around the world whose lives are too endangered to leave the confines of the hospital. As Danielle’s surgery goes forward, the reader tours the hospital in a very intimate way, observing in the emergency room; participating in helicopter rescue missions as part of the emergency trauma team; and attending ethics meetings, well-baby clinics, child abuse examinations— every conceivable activity that happens at a typical high-acuity children’s hospital—so that readers will learn from the inside out how such an institution and the people it serves and supports function on an hour-by-hour basis. We even learn about Marc Rowe’s guilty conscience for having slighted his own wife and children over the years so that he can care for other families.

The book ends when Danielle is released from the hospital. It took me two years to research and write this book, returning day and night to the hospital in order to understand the hospital and the people who made it special, but the story in which it is framed begins and ends in a few months.

A Code for Creative Nonfiction Writers

Finally, harder to define than the elements of craft are all the ethical and moral issues writers of creative nonfiction have to consider—the kinds of questions audiences ask me about whenever I speak about the creative nonfiction genre, the kinds of questions that lead me to proclaim that I am not, and do not want to be, the creative nonfiction police.

But I will recommend a code for creative nonfiction writers—a kind of checklist. The word checklist is carefully chosen; there are no rules, laws or specific prescriptions dictating what you can or can’t do as a creative nonfiction writer. The gospel according to Lee Gutkind doesn’t and shouldn’t exist. It’s more a question of doing the right thing, following the Golden Rule: Treat others with courtesy and respect. First, strive for the truth. Be certain that everything you write is as accurate and honest as you can make it. I don’t mean that everyone who has shared the experience you are writing about should agree that your account is true. As I said, everyone has his or her own very precious and private and shifting truth. But be certain your narrative is as true to your memory as possible.

Second, recognize the important distinction between recollected conversation and fabricated dialogue. Don’t make anything up, and don’t tell your readers what you think your characters are thinking during the time about which you are writing. If you want to know how or what people are or were thinking, then ask them. Don’t assume or guess.

Third, don’t round corners—or compress situations or characters— unnecessarily. Not that it’s absolutely wrong to round corners or compress characters or incidents, but if you do experiment with these techniques, make certain you have a good reason. Making literary decisions based on good narrative principles is often legitimate—you are, after all, writers. But stop to consider the people about whom you are writing. Unleash your venom on the guilty parties; punish them as they deserve. But also ask yourself: Who are the innocent victims? How have you protected them? Adults can file suit against you, but are you violating the privacy or endangering the emotional stability of children? Are you being fair to the aged or infirm?

Fourth, one way to protect the characters in your book, article or essay is to allow them to defend themselves—or at least to read what you have written about them. Few writers do this, because they are afraid of litigation or ashamed or embarrassed about the intimacies they have revealed. But sharing your narrative with the people about whom you are writing doesn’t mean that you have to change what you say about them; rather, it only means that you are being responsible to your characters and their stories. I understand why you would not want to share your narrative; it could be dangerous. It could ruin your friendship, your marriage, your future. But by the same token, this is the kind of responsible action you might appreciate if the shoe were on the other foot. I have, on occasion, shared parts of books with the characters I have written about with positive results. First, my characters corrected my mistakes. But, more important, when you come face to face with a character, you are able to communicate on a different and deeper level. When you show them what you think and feel, when they read what you have written, they may get angry—an action in itself that is interesting to observe and even to write about.

Or they may feel obliged to provide their side of the situation— a side that you have been hesitant to listen to or interpret. With the text in the middle, as a filter, it is possible to discuss personal history as a story somewhat disconnected from the reality you are universally experiencing. It provides a way to communicate as an exercise in writing—it filters and distances the debate. Moreover, it defines and cements your own character. The people about whom you have written may not like what you have said—and may, in fact, despise you for saying it—but they can only respect and admire the forthright way in which you have approached them. No laws govern the scope of good taste and personal integrity.

The creative nonfiction writer must rely on his or her own conscience and sensitivity to others, and display a higher morality and a healthy respect for fairness and justice. We all harbor resentments, hatreds and prejudices, but being writers doesn’t give us special dispensation to behave in ways that are unbecoming to ourselves and hurtful to others. This rationale sounds so simple—yet, it is so difficult. The moral and ethical responsibility of the creative nonfiction writer is to practice the golden rule and to be as fair and truthful as possible—to write both for art’s sake and for humanity’s sake. In other words, we police ourselves.

By saying this, I do not feel that I am being overly simplistic. As writers we intend to make a difference, to affect someone’s life over and above our own. To say something that matters—this is why we write, after all. That’s the bottom line: to impact society, to put a personal stamp on history, to plant the seed of change. Art and literature are our legacies to other generations. We will be forgotten, most of us writers, but our books and essays, our stories and poems will always, somewhere, have a life.

Wherever you personally draw lines in your writing, remember the basic rules of good citizenship: Do not recreate incidents and characters who never existed; do not write to do harm to innocent victims; do not forget your own story but, while considering your struggle and the heights of your achievements, think repeatedly about how your story will affect your reader. Over and above the creation of a seamless narrative, you are seeking to touch and affect someone else’s life—which is the goal creative nonfiction writers share with novelists and poets. We all want to connect with another human being— or as many people as possible—in such a way that they will remember us and share our legacy with others.

Someday, I hope to connect with the woman with the badge and the bare feet, face-to-face. I have never forgotten her. She has, in some strange way, become my conscience, standing over me as I write, forcing me to ask the questions about my work that I have recommended to you. I hope we all feel her shadow over our shoulders each time we sit down, face the keyboard and begin to write.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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