At its best, the teacher-student relationship continues long after graduation. Creative Nonfiction editor Lee Gutkind has been teaching creative writing for more than forty years—at the University of Pittsburgh, at Arizona State University, in various low-residency MFA programs, at countless writers conferences, in Australia and Israel and Egypt and too many other countries to list, online, on the radio … even, unless we miss our guess, to his seatmates on airplanes. Lee’s students number in the many thousands, at this point, and many of them have gone on to accomplish a great deal as writers, editors, and publishers. One of those students, Michael Rosenwald, earned an MFA in creative nonfiction at Pitt, worked as Creative Nonfiction’s copyeditor for a time in the late 1990s, and is now a staff writer at The Washington Post whose work has also appeared in some of the best magazines in the country. He visited Pittsburgh recently to talk to Lee about the history of creative nonfiction and Creative Nonfiction.
One night over a long dinner a few years ago, I asked Lee when his birthday was. I don’t recall how or why the topic came up. Perhaps my birthday was near and plans for my own festivities came up. That part actually doesn’t matter. What matters was Lee’s answer.
“I don’t talk about my birthday,” he said, as best as I can recall. (There was a bottle of wine on the table.)
I had known Lee for more than a decade at that point—first, as a professor when I was a grad student at Pitt and, then, as someone I count as a dear friend, really an extended family member. He danced (poorly) at my wedding. He was one of the first people I told about the births of my children. I know plenty about his love life, his adored son Sam, his book ideas, favorite coffee shops, sleeping schedule, obsessions (Law & Order) . . . I know a lot.
I didn’t know his birthday, though—or, it turned out, his issues with the subject.
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“I don’t talk about it. I don’t celebrate it.”
Right then, it occurred to me that there was something else I didn’t know.
“How old are you?” I said.
He laughed. “I’m not telling you,” he said. “You will never know.”
“C’mon. How old are you?”
“I’ll never tell.”
I have thought a lot about this conversation since then. I have wondered, “What is the deal with this?” I have asked mutual friends how old he is. Nobody knows. I have asked why they think he’s so cagey about the topic. Nobody knows. But on the drive to Pittsburgh a few months ago to interview Lee about his life and career on the occasion of the fiftieth issue of something he plainly and dearly loves—this magazine—I developed a theory.
Lee fears death.
Oh, death! Oh, you literary wonder! How you infect us writers, our stories, our books! But why, oh why, does Lee fear death? Sam, of course. His many loves, of course. Me! Of course, me. All true. I kid. Sort of. OK. While no writer can ever truly rummage around another person’s head, especially deep into the unconscious, there is evidence about their motivations and fears and desires everywhere.
Lee loves creative nonfiction. Lee also loves Creative Nonfiction.
So that is why Lee fears death. Lee fears death because he is on a mission—really, it has been a mission for at least four decades—to promote this genre, its acceptance (and his) in the literary mainstream, the academy, in daily life. I know this because I know Lee. Anyone who knows Lee knows that, to him, creative nonfiction is truly something bordering on mania.
If you need a defense of the genre, Lee will send you ten thousand words by the end of the week. If you need to speak with him about a piece for the magazine, your phone will ring in an hour. If you have money for the magazine, your phone will ring in a minute. I’m certain that short of committing a felony, there is nothing Lee would not do for his genre and his magazine—and it is his genre, at this point. Lee is creative nonfiction. Lee is Creative Nonfiction.
Naturally, there are people who don’t like this. They don’t like Lee. I know who they are, and I have made it a point not to associate with these people. If Lee’s persistent passion, his unshakable defenses, his incessant promotion—if all of that bothers other writers or academics, that’s their problem. They have the right to their opinions on the matter even though they are wrong. The medium is his love. And I love Lee because he loves something that I love and he’s the reason for that love.
We sat down in his living room to discuss this love and this magazine.
MIKE: What was it about this way of writing that attracted you to it as a young man? Was there a moment, was there something that you read? Did you fail geometry horribly? What was it about creative nonfiction that said, Lee, this is for you?
LEE: I was moved by two different forces. One, I wanted to write and express myself and recreate the world as much as I could, and secondly, I
wanted to experience life. I couldn’t seem to be able to do that as vividly as I wanted to writing novels, and I was suffering writing novels for a few years, and then I discovered what people were then calling new journalism. I discovered Gay Talese, whom, I know, you know very well, and Gay Talese immersed himself in the lives of different people for long periods of time, and then he wrote about those lives. But he didn’t just write about them like a reporter; he was a great reporter, and he used all the techniques of fiction writing but was able to stay true to the facts and recreate people as vividly as possible. And as soon as I saw that, as soon as I understood what he was doing—and it took me a while to understand what the new journalists were doing—as soon as I saw that, I thought, this is exactly what I wanted to do. And I knew exactly how I wanted to start.
MIKE: Did you think early on that there would be more immersion journalism in the magazine?
LEE: That’s a terrific observation. The one general disappointment I have in what’s happened over twenty years is the fact that we haven’t published as much of this experiential immersion material as I thought we would. . . . One of the real reasons I wanted to publish the magazine is because it combined these two essential facets of being a writer: experiencing life and then recreating life. But we did not get and we still don’t receive enough high-quality immersion work to publish as much I would like, and we sure would like to publish more. It’s a function of finances: It costs time and money to go hang out with a farmer or a veterinarian or a rocket scientist for a while, and writers have to support themselves. And the other thing is, the people who do have the time often don’t have the experience to be able to do it. It takes some experience to successfully hang out, and it takes a little bit of maturity.
MIKE: How did editing a journal that came to publish a lot of memoir—and was attacked for publishing a lot of memoir by James Wolcott [in Vanity Fair]—how did that change the direction of your own writing career?
LEE: For lack of a better word, it loosened me up. It gave me freedom. It made me angry. Not angry at Wolcott—Wolcott was doing his thing and quite brilliantly, I have to say. It was a great roast of me and some other folks as well.
MIKE: How many times did you almost go out of business with this thing?
LEE: Including the day before yesterday? It’s always touch and go; it’s always very difficult. Before I became a writer, I spent four or five years in the business world, and I was an account executive for a couple of ad agencies, PR agencies. If it wasn’t for my business experience (the hell with my literary experience), Creative Nonfiction would be dead. . . . The bottom line is that it’s always really difficult to pay the bills at the end of the year, but because of our entrepreneurish activities, we’ve been able to do it. But I’m telling you, I feel like I’m on a crusade not only to talk about what we do but to figure out ways to bring in income so that we can keep doing what we’re doing.
MIKE: What’s the next twenty years look like? What’s the next forty years look like for creative nonfiction, not only the genre but for the magazine?
LEE: I think within the next forty years, forty-five years from now, I’m going to retire. We’re in the writing programs, we’re in English departments, and journalism people are finally figuring out that when they say, “I’m writing a story,” they really have to write a story and not just a report. . . . I think it’s really exciting what’s happening in creative nonfiction, and maybe it won’t be called creative nonfiction at some point, but we’re into the storytelling narrative mode. Everybody needs a narrative now. Turn on the television. The explosion is massive.
MIKE: What’s your favorite book of all time?
LEE: I’m sorry to be so repetitious but [Gay Talese’s] Fame and Obscurity.
MIKE: How old are you?
LEE: I am forty-eight.