FROM THE EDITOR: Creative Nonfiction: The Driving Force

Take a look at the advertisement (inside the front cover) for the Walter V. Shipley Best Essay Award, which offers $10,000 for the best essay written about the subject of diversity. The Shipley Award is important for literary journals of every genre—poetry, fiction or nonfiction—and literary organizations to note, for many reasons.

First, there have been few, if any, awards offering such a significant cash prize for one essay—and none from a literary journal. Some journals pay more than others for essays and stories—ranging from two contributors’ copies to $50 per published page. But $10,000 is unprecedented. 

For emerging writers, publication in literary journals signifies a prestigious acknowledgement and endorsement of their efforts, no matter how experimental in length, form or content. For established writers, literary journals also provide an opportunity for experimentation in a way not usually encouraged by or acceptable to mainstream publications, while connecting them with an audience of their literary peers. In addition to the Walter V. Shipley Award winner, writers contributing to the Creative Nonfiction diversity issue, to be published in September 2001, include John Edgar Wideman, Diane Ackerman, Paul West and Richard Rodriguez. All essays submitted for the $10,000 Best Essay Award will be considered for publication in that special issue.

Second, the Walter V. Shipley Award is being sponsored by Chase Manhattan Bank in honor of Mr. Shipley, the former chairman of the board, who helped inspire many of the diversity programs in place at Chase Manhattan today. Chase pioneered diversity as a corporate issue long before it was fashionable to do so. The fact that such a high-profile corporation—anchored in Manhattan, with nearly 100,000 employees and branches throughout the world—has affiliated with a small, nonprofit literary journal in Pittsburgh, a city where there are no Chase Manhattan branches, is significant. It demonstrates how the literary world can reach far past the halls of ivy and make connections with an enlightened and expanded audience.

Third, while the concept has caught fire recently in the United States, most people still tend to view “diversity” in racial terms only. Creative Nonfiction and Chase Manhattan are pushing the boundaries of the meaning of diversity by encouraging essay submissions not only about bigotry and racism but also about sexual orientation, ethnic, cultural and generational identity—anything to heighten the discourse and the rich mixture of people and ideas that strengthen us all.

The issue Roy Peter Clark deals with in our lead essay—the link between fact and fiction—has been given increasing attention. Clark’s comments set a standard that we wish writers would follow when they submit to our journal or to any other legitimate and serious publication. We know that the writer who inspired the renaissance in creative nonfiction, Gay Talese, followed the ideas and principles outlined by Clark—and inspired Clark himself.

Gay Talese is profiled in this issue by Barbara Lounsberry, his friend and co-editor. The profile assesses Talese’s work and reveals his personality with great earnestness and honesty and in a highly compelling and entertaining way. 

The tone is also established by Czeslaw Milosz, Nobel Prize-winning poet, whose upcoming memoir is excerpted in this issue. “Inaccuracy,” “Prejudices” and “Truth” are interesting and colorful statements to enhance Roy Peter Clark’s work. It is significant that a Nobel laureate appears in this issue, our 16th. Before our first issue was published, I was told by the development director at the university where I taught that neither the genre of creative nonfiction nor the idea of a journal was important enough to devote any resources to, not even seed money to put Creative Nonfiction on its feet. There were too many journals, I was told, and creative nonfiction was much too insignificant a genre for writers or funders to pay much attention to. Eventually I disconnected the journal from the university, and we went our own way.

But the situation is very different today. Creative nonfiction as a genre has ignited a wave of literature from an unprecedented variety of writers. In the process it has caused a renaissance in the literary world, energized the academic world, and electrified the publishing community in a way that no one at my university or most anywhere in the United States could have predicted.

The genre of creative nonfiction, once a third cousin of the literary world, is now a driving and increasingly recognized force, as it this journal. Two of the essays in Creative Nonfiction’s recent issue about the brain and behavior were reprinted by one of those essays, “Gray Area: Thinking With a Damaged Brain,” by Floyd Skloot, was reprinted in Utne Reader and selected by Robert Atwan for “The Best American Essays 2000” and by editors James Gleick and Jesse Cohen for “The Best American Science Writing 2000.” From our most recent issue (No. 15, Lessons in Persuasion), Leslie Rubinkowski’s essay, “In the Woods,” will be excerpted in the Readings section of Harper’s Magazine. Creative Nonfiction was chosen as an Utne Reader 2000 Alternative Press Award Finalist for Writing Excellence. Along with our Goucher College partners, Creative Nonfiction was recently featured on C-SPAN in a two-hour conversation I moderated between William Least Heat-Moon and Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edmund Morris. Creative Nonfiction was featured this summer at the annual meeting of Australian Associated Writers’ Programs and at the Paris Writers’ Workshop. With support from the U.S.-Mexico Fund for Culture, we are planning an issue of essays by Mexican-American writers.

Like writers represented in this issue and like the genre itself, Creative Nonfiction connects important people, and just as importantly, embraces important issues. 

Congratulations to Faith Adiele, winner of Creative Nonfiction’s $2,000 Millennium Award, generously sponsored by Bayer Corp. her essay, “Lessons in Killing for the Black Buddhist Nun,” will be published in Creative Nonfiction in 2001. 

About the Author

Screen Shot 2011-11-18 at 3
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.

View Essays