Creative Nonfiction in the Crosshairs

What does it mean to be creative? And what is so difficult or terrible about contemplating the term? Nonfiction writers aren’t boasting or bragging by utilizing the word in describing what we do—creative nonfiction—and it is not a term that we have coined randomly.

1. That Dreaded “C” Word

What does it mean to be creative? And what is so difficult or terrible about contemplating the term? Nonfiction writers aren’t boasting or bragging by utilizing the word in describing what we do—creative nonfiction—and it is not a term that we have coined randomly. Creative nonfiction means what it says: We are attempting, as writers, to show imagination, to demonstrate artistic and intellectual inventiveness and still remain true to the factual integrity of the piece we are writing.

I am not disputing the overabundance of “navel gazers”—inward and self-obsessed writers—or that there has been a craze for this personal (sometimes too-personal) writing as of late, or denying the existence of overly imaginative, undisciplined writers encouraged by a misguided interpretation of the word creative. But there is also an explosion of brilliant nonfiction prose being written today by people who can reveal their feelings, or the feelings of the people about whom they are writing, while communicating compelling information and striking some sort of universality that touches readers in unforgettable and life-changing ways.

Over the past 10 years, I have discussed the genre and the meaning of the term at colleges and universities and conferences in the United States, Europe and Australia. In the beginning, there were the inevitable questions and complaints surrounding the concept of creativity. But quite recently, I have been traveling the country on “The Godfather Tour,” reading from my new book, “Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather,” and giving workshops and lectures about this exciting way of writing and interpreting nonfiction, and the tone of response has been decidedly different. Academics, writers of all genres and, most interestingly, new voices—those who have never seriously contemplated the act of writing until now—are appearing in ever-increasing numbers, some out of sheer curiosity, but most with a new appreciation of and belief that creative nonfiction offers a heretofore underutilized and unrecognized dimension to literature.

Creative nonfiction enhances a writer’s potential to connect with readers. This, after all, is why writers write: to inform, to impart wisdom, to make an impact, to influence attitudes, to change a life. That’s creative nonfiction at its best.

2. Journalism vs. Creative Nonfiction

While it makes sense that journalists and creative nonfiction writers are, on many levels, integrally connected (we both write true stories and include factual information), the genres are significantly different. Creative nonfiction borrows ideas and techniques from fiction and poetry, as well as journalism, but our standards and boundaries differ in a number of crucial ways. When explaining creative nonfiction, I often refer to the 5 Rs: reading other people’s work, ’riting on a regular schedule, reflection, research (information/reportage) and real life (experiencing what we are writing about, as do Tracy Kidder, Susan Orlean, Annie Dillard and Frank McCourt in their books and essays). Unlike journalists, creative nonfiction writers are encouraged to be subjective in the stories we write—we are not obliged to be balanced, to provide the “other side” of the story. Reflection is encouraged, while traditional quotation and interviewing is discouraged. This doesn’t mean that we don’t communicate with or relate to the people about whom we are writing, but we try not to anchor our stories in the information we gather in the traditional Q-and-A, tape-recorded interrogation, which is the foundation of the reporter’s experience. More often, we invest time (weeks, months, years) immersing ourselves in our subjects—the people and places about which we are writing—eliciting stories and capturing dialogue that communicates information and reflects character.

In creative nonfiction, the writer’s personal experience (as in memoir) may turn out to be paramount. However, many memoirists make the mistake of focusing too much on themselves, prompting journalists and pundits to hurl their “navel-gazing,” “self-obsessed” epithets.

But the most effective creative nonfiction writers are aware of what I like to call the “universal chord,” where writers capture the widest audience possible by extending the scope of the narrative far beyond their own experience. While Dillard’s work (and John Edgar Wideman’s, Cynthia Ozick’s, James Baldwins) is startlingly personal, it also introduces characters and ideas that burst forth and embrace a larger world. McCourt, for example, writes about poverty and the Great Depression in “Angela’s Ashes.” In “Notes of a Native Son,” Baldwin writes about race in America and the black man’s burden. In “Alfred Chester’s Wigs,” perhaps her most significant work, Cynthia Ozick writes about her own struggle for maturity, yet in the process we learn about education and literary life in post-World War II New York and Paris and the angst and self-destruction of one novelist’s desperation and failure. Universality begins with the basic, factual information provided by the journalist and adds context and meaning, both personal and all-encompassing. This is what the New Journalists, like Gay Talese and Tom Wolfe, called a “higher” or “larger” truth four decades ago.

Reflection is not the only unique element in creative nonfiction, but it is an important part of a three-dimensional package. The package is anchored in narrative, or story, without which creative nonfiction as a genre, as well as fiction and some poetry, cannot exist.

I advise writers to test the effectiveness of their creative nonfiction work through a process I call the Yellow Test. Just for a second, think about an essay—a block of text—as a building, say, 10 stories tall. Each story or level contains a scene—a mini-story—that is part of the narrative and helps move it forward. If you look at articles or essays from a structural point of view—the way an architect might look at a bridge or a building through blueprints—and take a yellow highlighting marker and color in the scenes, you will find that the best work, the most effective creative nonfiction, contains a lot of yellow. The scene is the thing. It’s another way to distinguish creative nonfiction from journalism.

Defining “scene” is integral to understanding how creative non-fiction is structured. Scenes contain description, characterization and detail—terms usually discussed in fiction-writing classes. But the overwhelming and most crucial way of distinguishing between something that is a real scene and something that is only descriptive or scenic is the element of action. Something has to happen; a change in the status quo must occur in order for it to be considered a real scene and work effectively in an essay. The action doesn’t have to be significant, like murder and rape, life and death, winning and losing. Touching and letting go, standing and sitting, looking and seeing can also work, if structured and timed with grace and fluidity.

Writing a story that is unique, using scenes and reflection—the style—is only half the battle. The other part of creative nonfiction is the substance—the nonfiction part. Baldwin, Ozick, Dillard, Wolfe and Talese anchor their narratives in research or reportage. Facts provide credibility and a springboard for reflection.

Some creative nonfiction writers believe that their own stories and thoughts (reflection) will anchor and extend the narrative. This is possible but more often an indication of a lack of work ethic. It takes effort and contemplation to make a universal connection. In Diane Ackerman’s “A Natural History of the Senses,” we learn about smell, taste, hearing. We learn it through Ackerman s perspective, but she is as deeply engrossed in the nonfiction part as she is in the narrative adventure of her own discoveries. She once told an audience that she reads approximately 250 books on her subject before she begins writing, taking voluminous notes in the margins and in the spaces between pages and chapters. She devotes months to bringing her research to life through personal experience. As creative nonfiction writers, we can be both reporters and subjects simultaneously, masters of both style and substance.

3. The Emergence of the “Godfather”

Over the past decade, creative nonfiction has been under sporadic attack, primarily by journalists and media critics who question the legitimacy of the genre or, more often, deny or avoid its very existence, even as they profit from the field or aspire to be part of it.

In his 1997 Vanity Fair article, James Wolcott set the tone of criticism and debate in a four-page roast of the genre, “Me, Myself, and I.” Wolcott boiled all creative nonfiction down to what he called “confessional writing” and took to task as “navel gazers” writers who had been the least bit self-revelatory in their work. (“Never have so many [writers] shared so much of so little,” he writes. “No personal detail is too mundane to share.”) His definition of creative nonfiction: “A sickly transfusion, whereby the weakling personal voice of sensitive fiction is inserted into the beery carcass of nonfiction… to form a big, earnest blob of me-first sensibility.”

Wolcott reserved an especially interesting title and role for me as “the godfather behind creative nonfiction.” He abhorred the fact that I traveled and talked about the genre all over the world (He called me a “human octopus”); wrote books about creative nonfiction; published a journal (Creative Nonfiction); directed a creative nonfiction writers’ conference; and taught creative nonfiction in a creative-writing program, which, he maintained, collectively ruined the audience for fiction. Because of the proliferation of these courses, he claimed, “the short story has become a minor arts-and-craftsy skill, like Indian pottery.” In a follow-up interview with the Chronicle of Higher Education, Wolcott revealed that he learned much about the craft of writing while working in the circulation department of the Village Voice.

It was unfortunate that Wolcott had so much to say in such a major publication concerning a subject about which he knew so little. (He had never been involved in a creative-writing program or taken a writing course). In truth, creative-writing programs have actually legitimized creative nonfiction—made it more important in the literary world by acknowledging the awesome challenge and intrinsic art of the genre—and indirectly affected, in a very positive way, Vanity Fair and Wolcott himself. Without the newfound appreciation for creative nonfiction as an art form as significant as fiction and poetry, Wolcott’s opinions would be less important, and magazines like Vanity Fair, GQ, Harper’s, Esquire and others might not wield the influence and attract the advertising that enhances profits and prominence.

When I started teaching in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh in the early 1970s, “artful” 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 all nonfiction was, at its best, merely a craft, not too different from plumbing. As the chairman of our department put it one day in a faculty meeting, “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, carried a dozen of his favorite books to the meeting—poetry, fiction and non-fiction—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 bother fighting the school newspaper, so the course was approved—and I became one of the first people, if not the first, to teach creative non-fiction at the university level on a full-time basis. This was 1973.

Since then, creative nonfiction courses in creative-writing programs have grown steadily. At my last count, mid-2003, 15 colleges and universities offered graduate degrees in creative nonfiction, and hundreds offered undergraduate courses. Being awarded tenure in the English department at the University of Pittsburgh in 1979 was another milestone for me—perhaps another first for creative nonfiction. Now there are many tenure-track professorial positions for writers whose specialty is nonfiction. This was no small feat. The practice in English departments and writing programs then was to appoint writers who were accomplished in fiction or poetry—recognized literary arts—but who could also stretch and teach nonfiction, an ancillary skill. As the job market tightened in the early 1980s and a few nonfiction positions were posted, an amazing transition occurred. Poets, short-story writers and Ph.D.s in literature and composition, many of whom had written articles for newspapers and semi-scholarly journals in their younger days and previously ignored their journalistic backgrounds, were suddenly reinventing themselves as creative nonfiction writers.

It was interesting to see how journalists also began exploring this new world of “academic” or “literary” nonfiction, primarily because they saw it as a lucrative escape from the stifling tedium of their profession. Advertising for new faculty in creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh brought forth dozens of applications from newspaper reporters burnt out on daily journalism, eager to join the academy and share their wisdom. But their clips—mostly stories without depth or narrative—revealed their weaknesses and lack of experience. I don’t mean that reporters and reportage shouldn’t be a part of creative non-fiction writing programs; that would be like saying biology, anatomy and physiology should be dropped from medical-school curricula. But creative nonfiction writers need to learn about writing from poets and fiction writers, too—and about thinking and idea development from philosophers and psychologists. In creative nonfiction, we open our minds to the full scope of the world and the investigation of that world through story and reflection.

4. In the Beginning

When I started the journal Creative Nonfiction in 1993, it was to provide a forum for journalists who aspired to reach higher and achieve more as writers than everyday journalism allowed. Newspapers and magazines stifled creativity, reporters and feature writers complained. Reporters were forced to dumb down stories and, except for the occasional opportunity to showcase their ideas and vent their feelings on the op-ed page, were not permitted to think for themselves and advance their own ideas. Even though covering local, national or international affairs provided rare and special insight, they were advised (and edited) to keep those insights to themselves.

Even when reporters tried to liberate themselves through freelancing, the going was rough. Getting your work published in Esquire or Harper’s was nearly impossible. Breaking into The New Yorker was even less likely. And with the exception of The Georgia Review and later The Gettysburg Review, literary-journal editors weren’t too keen on nonfiction, either, unless it was criticism. Most literary journals were anchored at universities; the work they published reflected the interests of faculty and graduate students. Creative nonfiction was just beginning to establish a foothold in academia. While there were many freelancing opportunities in newspaper supplements and smaller magazines, the freedom to dig deep into subject and psyche through nonfiction prose, to say something of substance and find a market for publication, was severely limited.

Thus the launching of this journal. I wrote an editorial statement, put out a call for manuscripts, and waited for the essays to pour in. They did. Dozens of nonfiction pieces arrived in our mailbox over the first few weeks, more and more as the word spread. The first issue featured a rare interview of John McPhee, by Michael Pearson, who was surprised and challenged when McPhee made him put away his tape recorder and just take notes—a detail that captured the connection to traditionalism combined with the freewheeling spontaneity and spirit of the journal.

The essays we received at the early stages were different from those we were reading in journals and magazines of the day: sophisticated in structure and technique, rich with the elements of story—such as dialogue and description—and liberating, since writers were adding their own wisdom and insight to their work. Writers were reflecting on what they knew, an anchoring element of the form.

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, choreographing an issue, that most of the best essays were not written by journalists. The titles and themes of our second and third issues mirrored exactly the writers working most effectively in the field, based on our submissions: “Poets Writing Prose” and “Emerging Women Writers.”

In retrospect, I should not have been surprised that most of our best contributors were, in fact, fiction writers and poets embarking on a dramatic literary leap. In the 1960s and 1970s, Tom Wolfe paved the way for journalists to steal technique and glory from fiction writers (he proclaimed the novel to be dead); Rex Reed, Joe Ezterhas, Jimmy Breslin, Hunter S. Thompson and Gay Talese were lionized. As part of its 70th anniversary, Esquire recently reprinted Talese’s classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” calling it the best article the magazine had ever published.

But poets and fiction writers were also liberated and inspired. W.S. Merwin’s “Unframed Originals” in the 1970s was an early breakthrough for poets. Others, like Diane Ackerman, Terry Tempest Williams and Diana Hume George, were forging new careers in non-fiction. John Updike’s New Yorker prose, anchored by his incredible profile of Ted Williams at his last game at Fenway Park, “Hub Fans Bid Kid Adieu,” which he wrote without benefit of an interview with “the Kid,” was brilliant and insightful.

This summer, in a Talk of the Town piece, Roger Angell mused that some of The New Yorker’s best writing about families has come from fiction writers and poets, including John Cheever (Angell cited his short story “Goodbye, My Brother,” but I am thinking of his wrenching personal journal, published in its entirety, in The New Yorker), as well as Donald Hall and Donald Antrim. Fiction writers daring to break nonfiction barriers in other venues include Kathryn Harrison, Maxine Hong Kingston, Maria Flook, Joyce Carol Oates, Philip Roth and William Styron.

The fact that the majority of our submissions come from women, that the vast majority of the participants in M.F.A. programs in creative nonfiction and at our writers’ conferences are women, and that writers who seem to do the best work in the genre today are women, does not surprise me. Psychologists will tell you that men tend to be rigid and structured, think in black and white and avoid various and indefinable shades of gray. They are more comfortable talking about concrete, observable events that can be documented and compiled into stratified data, like sports and current events. Women often are more flexible and spontaneous, more willing to delve into the spheres of life that lead to emotional investigation, spontaneity and discovery. They are willing to invest time and effort to pursue tangents that promise illumination, insight and ideas heretofore un-mined or underdeveloped.

That this rather indefinable, creative aspect of the genre, this personal element so integral to creative nonfiction, is allowed, is perplexing for most journalists and a point for criticism and debate. In an article for Poets & Writers Magazine called “Term Limits: The Creative Nonfiction Debate,” journalist Carolyn Hughes reported that I refused to define the term creative nonfiction when she asked for a definition. What I remember saying is that I didn’t think it was a fair question and that I was tired of responding to it every time I talked with a reporter. Interviewers rarely ask poets to define poetry or novelists to define fiction, I said. Why then are creative nonfiction writers constantly harassed for a definition of the genre? Art, whether literature or sculpture or music, defines itself.

5. In Defense of the Creative-Writing Academy

Journalists tend to ridicule and/or attempt to undermine the slow-moving pace of academia. The tweedy professor is the butt of many jokes (in some cases, for good reason). But in the nearly 30 years I have been a part of the University of Pittsburgh faculty, I have learned to value and appreciate the luxury of contemplation academia allows, which inevitably leads to new ideas and insights. Contemplation is the hallmark of creative nonfiction and what sets it apart from journalism.

It is intriguing and, at the same time, predictable to see how critics like Wolcott use their distaste for creative nonfiction to lambaste creative-writing programs, as if they somehow are the source of all evils. For Michael Anderson, an editor at the New York Times Book Review, the entire concept of writing and teaching creative nonfiction is bogus: “Creative nonfiction—I’m so sick of this bullshit! Even the term is an oxymoron. If it is creative, it is not nonfiction. If it’s nonfiction, it’s not creative,” he told Carolyn Hughes in Poets & Writers. “I don’t know what it is other than people making stuff up.” Anderson asserted that creative nonfiction “allows ‘nonentities’ to teach courses. ‘No, I’m not teaching expository writing,’” mocks Anderson, “‘I’m teaching creative nonfiction. I can come to class in a beret and smoking jacket.’”

Where did Anderson attend college? one wonders. There aren’t a lot of berets and smoking jackets on display where I teach. His taunt is old and unfunny and reflects a definite lack of respect for or understanding of his readers and of what happens in a university creative-writing program. Anderson contends that authors like Gay Talese, Joan Didion, John McPhee and Tom Wolfe were not creative, because they wrote reportage. Their writing was creative “only in the sense that anything man-made is creative.”

Anderson’s arrogance (a word synonymous these days with the New York Times) and his disconnection with reality is sobering, considering the power he wields in assigning and writing book reviews. Critics, evidently, don’t need to be rational (Hughes indicates that Anderson is so incensed he “huffs”) or even accurate and insightful.

In a more recent diatribe about creative nonfiction in Harper’s (“Our Essays, Ourselves: In defense of the Big Idea”), Cristina Nehring rips into five newly published creative nonfiction books because they are all about nature, their covers similar, their titles bucolic, and the name of the place about which each author is writing appears in the first sentence of each book. Then she dwells on the idea that the front photographs of two of these books sport similar-looking fish. This from a critic whose thesis is that today’s essayists are avoiding what she calls “the big idea” and who harkens us back to the good old days when Emerson and Thoreau were “exhortive, urgent—clutching after truths for their own improvement and for that of their fellow human beings.” As if no writer (Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, James Baldwin, Philip Roth, Richard Rodriguez) has ever considered such a mission for truth and enlightenment today.

Today’s nonfiction writers suffer from a “frenzy for cozy, complacent, and oddly insular self-revelation,” Nehring continues. Medical problems, childhood experiences, nature explorations and fishing seem to be much too extensively autobiographical to be considered good literature. Even Ian Frazier and John McPhee, both veteran New Yorker writers, McPhee a Pulitzer Prize-winner, have yielded to what she terms “pedestrian rehearsals.”

While I appreciate Nehring’s belief that writers should strive for such high ideals, this idea is as old as literature itself, as old as the Old Testament. Nehring is wearing Michael Anderson’s metaphorical beret and smoking jacket, pontificating to an empty classroom, while McPhee and Frazier are dealing with real-life issues and embracing readers by sharing, rather than avoiding, real life.

6. Thinking and Doing

The challenge in creative-writing programs (in creative nonfiction especially) is to teach students how to write and how to think. If the thinking isn’t fresh, exciting, filled with discovery, daring and surprise, then what is worth writing about in the first place? Creative nonfiction (creative and nonfiction) must contain both style and substance. It is achieved by approaching a subject in a way that captures its three-dimensional essence.

I have interviewed dozens of candidates for jobs over the years who have aspired to teach creative nonfiction yet haven’t the slightest idea how to do it beyond the basics of journalism and workshopping (discussing and debating student work in class). While it is true that writers who are successful and productive are talented, enterprising and hard-working (and write on a regular schedule), I have been surprised to discover that they often don’t think much about what they do, perhaps because it comes so naturally. When I appoint faculty members for the writers’ conferences I direct—accomplished writers with impeccable editorial credentials—and tell them to teach technique, they often find it difficult to teach something that comes so naturally to them, to communicate such subtle and distinct methods. Ideally, university writing programs provide writers with the opportunity to think about what they do and to learn how to communicate that vast body of knowledge to students in helpful and hopefully enlightening ways. There are ways to this enlightenment, ways of thinking and projecting, that can be daring, inspiring, confusing and controversial—an absolutely vital aspect of the creative nonfiction genre.

Thinking is an integral part of the process. But then there is also the question of doing. The root of memorable, history-making non-fiction has always been experience—the writers’ own or others’. In the spirit of Orwell, Hemingway, Pyle, Halberstam and Plimpton, writers have gone out in the world, experienced real life, and then reported and re-created it for others to see, appreciate and understand.

Yet the very people most critical of this genre—journalists and essayists alike—seem to know very little about the form, based on their own experiences, and don’t go out of the their way to unearth the information necessary to make informed, evaluative comments and observations. Wolcott scorched me in 1997 without interviewing me, going so far as to ridicule me for quoting a personal journal entry in a textbook I wrote for beginning writers, ages 12 and up. Had he familiarized himself with my work, he would have seen that I was not, at the time, a memoirist and could not be accused of navel gazing. If he had talked with me or any of my students or colleagues, he would have confirmed that I, too, had been critical of the whining that tends to appear in memoir and had strongly advised my students to avoid this type of writing until they could actually get out into the world and experience enough of life to write about it.

7. A Movement and a Way of Life

In the few days following my roasting by Wolcott in Vanity Fair, I stuck close to home, licking my wounds and wondering how my colleagues, friends and family would respond to my public scorching. But soon I had to teach class. At the elevators near the English department, the first colleague I ran into, novelist and nonfiction-writer Bruce Dobler, dropped to his knees and announced, “I kiss your hand, Godfather.”

Suddenly, the fog of uneasiness and humiliation lifted. We both laughed and went on with our day. I realized that Wolcott s disparaging remarks might actually fortify the creative nonfiction movement. As an immediate benefit, our subscription inquiries at Creative Nonfiction shot up. We got phone calls from Hollywood producers seeking new stories for their movie mills. People recognized me in airports and restaurants—and congratulated me. When I completed my first memoir, published in September 2003, I titled it “Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather” and dedicated it to Wolcott, among others. More recently, confused critics like Anderson and Nehring further elevated the discourse surrounding high-quality creative non-fiction literature, producing a wave of new converts.

Today, creative nonfiction has reached beyond the confines of a fourth genre. It has become a bridge that allows poets and fiction and nonfiction writers to discover common ground and shared vision. Throughout the academy, creative nonfiction has become the interdisciplinary glue aligning the sciences and the humanities in an unprecedented fashion. Narrative history, narrative law and narrative medicine are slowly becoming popular in graduate studies. Listening to our subjects—not lecturing—has become today’s mantra. True stories, reported and expressed in unconventional form, can capture the ebb and flow of life, achieve a special dimension of enlightenment and unforgettable personal clarity.

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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