Many of my students, and even some younger colleagues, think—assume—that creative nonfiction is just part of the literary ecosystem; it’s always been around, like fiction or poetry. In many ways, of course, they are right: the kind of writing that is now considered to be under the creative nonfiction umbrella has a long and rich history. Many, of course, look to Michel de Montaigne as the father of the modern essay, but, to my mind, the more authentic roots of creative nonfiction are in the eighteenth century: Daniel Defoe’s historical narratives, Benjamin Franklin’s autobiography, Thomas Paine’s pamphlets, and Samuel Johnson’s essays built a foundation for later writers such as Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Ralph Waldo Emerson, and Henry David Thoreau.
That is to say, even if the line between fact and fiction was perhaps a little fuzzy in the early days, it’s not hard to find rich nonfiction narratives that predate the use of the word “nonfiction” (1867, according to the Oxford English Dictionary) and were around long before the first recorded use of the phrase “creative nonfiction” (1943, according to research William Bradley did for Creative Nonfiction some years ago).
But in a lot of important ways, creative nonfiction is still very new, at least as a form of literature with its own identity. Unfortunately, it took a long time—longer than it should have, if you ask me—for the genre to be acknowledged in that ecosystem. And, of course, you’ll still encounter people who are unfamiliar with the term or want to make that dumb joke, “Creative nonfiction: isn’t that an oxymoron?”
Be that as it may, there’s no real doubt at this point that creative nonfiction is a serious genre, a real thing. You probably won’t find a “creative nonfiction” bookshelf at your local bookstore, and maybe it’s not on the menu at Amazon the way “fiction” is, but nonfiction narratives are everywhere. Newspapers, formerly the realm of straight journalism, with its inverted-pyramid, who-what-where-when-why requirements, have welcomed personal essays not only on their op-ed pages but in many different sections. Memoir, labeled a “craze” in the 1990s, is a mainstay of the publishing industry. Twenty or so years ago, almost no one was publishing essay collections, and even the word “essay” was the kiss of death if you wanted a trade publisher to consider your work, but now essay collections are routinely on best-seller lists. And, increasingly, even non-narrative creative nonfiction like lyric essays and hybrid forms have gained legitimacy and commercial viability.
So, you might ask, what happened? How did we get to this era of acceptance and legitimacy? The genre’s success, I believe, a gradual process over almost a half-century, emerged in many important ways from an unlikely and dominant source. I am not at all sure I would be writing this today, or that you would be reading this in an almost thirty-year-old magazine devoted exclusively to creative nonfiction, if not for the academy, and specifically departments of English.
Now, if you’ve been following my writing over the past thirty or so years, you may be surprised to hear me say this. After all, I’ve written a great deal about the power struggles that went on in the early 1970s, when I was teaching at the University of Pittsburgh and to a lesser degree at other universities and trying to expand the curriculum to include what was then called, mostly because of Tom Wolfe, “new journalism.”
I find that many of my students today aren’t very familiar with the New Journalists—Wolfe, Gay Talese, Gail Sheehy, Jimmy Breslin, Barbara Goldsmith, and Jane Kramer, among others—and it’s probably also true that some of the work from that time hasn’t aged terribly well. Sure, sometimes some of these writers went a little overboard, like Tom Wolfe, for example, interrupting his sentences with varoom-varooms and other stylistic flourishes. He was being playful and maybe a bit silly and arrogant, or it might seem so today, but he was also trying to loosen things up, to not be as predictable and sometimes downright boring as journalists then could be, and in that regard, he was quite successful.
You have to realize that the New Journalists were doing some very exciting stuff, seemingly groundbreaking. They were writing in scenes, recreating dialogue, manipulating timelines, and including themselves—their voices and ideas—in the stories they were writing. Stuff we pretty much take for granted now, but back then, with journalists especially hampered and handcuffed by rules and guidelines, so liberating.
Remember this was all happening in the late 1960s and early 1970s, when rule breaking, change, and defying the establishment were in the air everywhere, and the idea of the “new” in journalism captured the tone and spirit of the times. But I am not just talking here about journalism. Other writers, recognized for their literary achievements, were also taking chances, pushing boundaries. Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, his “nonfiction novel,” stunned and obsessed the literary world when it was published first in the New Yorker in 1965 and then, the following year, as a book. In 1969, another novelist, Norman Mailer, was awarded both the Pulitzer Prize for general nonfiction and the National Book Award for Arts and Letters for The Armies of the Night, about the Washington, DC, peace demonstrations. Mailer was awarded a second Pulitzer in 1980 for his intense, thousand-plus-page deep-dive into murder, obsession, and punishment, The Executioner’s Song, which became a centerpiece of a national conversation about the death penalty. Mailer’s award for his self-described “true-life novel” was for fiction, but all three books, if published today, would be considered creative nonfiction.
I couldn’t see why this kind of work—which was as exciting to students as it was to me—didn’t belong in the classroom. In an English department. Not just as a one-off work, to be taught once in a while, but as part of the curriculum. Why wasn’t there a category for writing that wasn’t poetry or fiction or essay or journalism but that could bring the various literary and journalistic techniques used in all of those forms together into one unique work of art and craft? Why didn’t this amalgam of literary and journalistic richness belong . . . somewhere?
Thinking back, I didn’t really belong either. I had pushed my way into the English department first as a part-time lecturer and then as tenure-track faculty by campaigning for this new or different way of writing nonfiction. And to be honest, I think I began to succeed, to make inroads, because, for one thing, most faculty at the time did not want to teach this stuff—nonfiction—especially if it was called or related to journalism. It’s also true I was a bit of an interloper—I was a published author in what might be described as a more commercial vein (books about motorcycles, baseball, backwoods America, targeted to general audiences), a rarity in English departments. And worse, I was a lowly BA. No advanced degrees. But in many ways, I was also fortunate; during this time, with student protests confronting the old guard on campuses, I got by as a token of change, tolerated but not yet completely accepted. I felt like a misbehaving adolescent, rough around the edges and not yet ready to grow up, learn the rules, and pay my dues. I didn’t even know how to pay my dues. There were few options. Creative-writing programs, ubiquitous today, were rare and in many ways faced resistance in English departments.
Of course, part of the resistance to creative-writing courses, generally, was just the kind of turf defending that goes on in any academic department, where resources can be unfortunately scarce. Giving a tenure slot to a novelist or a poet, after all, can mean losing a tenure slot and resources for research and travel for a literature PhD.
But I think the resistance to creative nonfiction as being part of creative writing went even deeper and had something to do with how we define literature. I remember one particularly contentious debate back in the early 1970s, after one of my students had made a presentation arguing for an entire course devoted to new journalism. (I’d been incorporating pieces into my classes, but there was no entire course devoted to the stuff.) One of the English professors slammed a pile of books—classics—down on the table; his argument, I think, was that my student should have to prove he’d read those works before he was remotely qualified to weigh in on the curriculum. Anyway, perhaps predictably, it turned into a heated debate about which particular works were classics, a debate the department chair ended by observing, “After all, gentlemen, we are interested in literature here—not writing.”
(Were there women in the room? Of course there were.)
Now, what was going on here? Why didn’t these professors think of this writing as literary? And I mean not just contemporary works like In Cold Blood but the work that came before it, too—the nonfiction written by H. L. Mencken and Mark Twain, James Baldwin and Jack London, not to forget the father of English journalism, Daniel Defoe. And what about pioneering narrative journalists like Nellie Bly and Ida Tarbell? I guess I have a few theories.
First, the lack of a unifying name—what to call it—was definitely a complicating factor. “New journalism” wasn’t great because (the argument went, in English departments, at least) journalism was a trade, not a literary pursuit. There were other names floated—“the literature of fact,” “literary nonfiction,” “belles lettres” (which is what the National Endowment for the Arts was using at that time). But using the word “literary” to describe contemporary writing, meaning that a person would have to say “I write literary nonfiction” . . . well, that felt sort of presumptuous, didn’t it? “Creative” sort of had the same problem; who was to say what that meant, and it also sort of implied that other kinds of writing weren’t creative, and that didn’t feel good, especially to the scholars. And to the journalists, “creative” sounded like it meant you were making stuff up. As for “belles lettres,” well . . . it just sounded pretentious.
Even more than that, I think there was something about the writing itself—and the writers—that felt threatening. Not just because of the rule breaking. So much of this new nonfiction was about real people and events and was often quite revelatory. We were really a no-holds-barred crew. Wherever there was a story we were there, boots on the ground, bringing it to life—and often revealing the darkest side of things, of war, of poverty, of inherent societal racism. And revealing our own foibles and flaws along the way. And it wasn’t just Mailer and Capote and Baldwin who were writing this stuff, but real people capturing their own lives and struggles in dramatic detail. The “new” whatever you wanted to call it was truly an awakening.
Students, undergrads mostly, at first, especially recognized and were energized by the appeal. Suddenly the doors were open to other options far more interesting than the inverted pyramid or the five-paragraph essay, and considering these new possibilities for what to write about and, more important, how to write their stories was liberating, challenging, and downright enjoyable. Student interest and subsequent demand invariably led to more courses, and more courses led to more writers and scholars who would agree to teaching what had once seemed so controversial.
I should also point out that as the dialogue and debate about nonfiction began to grow, in the 1980s and early 1990s, I was traveling widely. I got invitations from not just universities, but also book clubs and local conferences, from Wyoming to Birmingham to Boston, and met not only with students but also with many of these “real” people who wanted to write. Some were professionals—doctors, teachers, scientists—but there were also firefighters, ambulance drivers, and what we then called homemakers, all with stories to write. They, too, saw the appeal of this nonfiction form that let you tell stories and incorporate your experiences along with other information and ideas and personal opinions.
These folks cared much less than the academics did about what it was called. But—after the dust had settled to a certain extent in academia; after the English department at Pitt had agreed, first, to a course called “The New Nonfiction” and then, nearly two decades later, to a whole master’s program concentrating on creative nonfiction writing (the first in the country, I believe), which later became an MFA program; and after the NEA, in 1989 or so, also adopted the term “creative nonfiction,” a tipping point for sure—well, it mattered tremendously to those folks that it had a name, this kind of writing they wanted to do. It brought a validation to their work, to know that there was a place or a category where their work belonged. The writing itself wasn’t necessarily anything new—people had been doing it forever, if you knew where to look for it—but now people were paying attention to it, and they had something to call it.
And then, a little later, when this journal (now, this magazine) started publishing, in 1993, that added another form of legitimacy. And, in fact, work from many of those writers I met during those years on the road was published in the first few issues of Creative Nonfiction. In the early issues of the journal, we attracted all kinds of writers who were, perhaps, tired of being locked in or limited. We published journalists and essayists and poets, all of them exploring and reaching.
All of this did not happen overnight. English departments did not jump right in and embrace nonfiction; it was, as I have said, a much more gradual and often reluctant acceptance, but clearly an inevitable—and eventually gracious—one, maybe mostly for practical reasons. Creative writing programs were becoming quite profitable, especially at a time when literature and liberal arts majors were waning. Adding nonfiction brought in an entirely new breed of students, not just literary types, but those interested in science and economics or those students who were just interested in finding a job after graduation. Learning to write true stories in a compelling way could only enhance future opportunities.
It may well be that English departments resisted change for various reasons at the beginning, but they also opened the doors and provided a place—a destination—for all of us creative nonfictionists to come together, dialogue and share our work, and earn a certain legitimacy that had been denied to us at the very beginning. I had no idea at the time I started teaching that creative nonfiction would become such a mainstay, not just in the academy, but as a force and influence in literature and in publishing. That was not my intent, and I was certainly not the only “warrior” who took up the fight. But I don’t think this fight could have taken place anywhere else but in the academy, where intellectual discourse and opportunities for new ideas can so richly flourish and be recognized. I have no idea whether an outsider like me, beating the bushes for support of a genre or an idea that did not seem to exist, could survive in an English department or anywhere else in the academy today; the atmosphere, the politics, the financial pressures, the tone of the times is so very different.
Even then, it was very much a minor miracle that I, uncredentialled and tainted, as some thought, by commercialism, was accorded such an opportunity. And that all of my campaigning and annoying persistence were tolerated. It would have been easy to eliminate me. But as much of an interloper as I was, I was rarely shut down; I could always speak my mind. And even though many of my colleagues were pretty damn unhappy about the new journalism and, later, creative nonfiction, they eventually came to recognize the popularity and potential of this new genre and, I think, to respect and appreciate the dedication and excitement displayed by our nonfiction students. As the program grew and other universities followed suit, we outliers not only began to fit in, but also began to thrive. We added depth and substance not just to writing programs, but to the entire department. And as our students published, won awards, became popular teachers in their own right, we added more than a little bit of prestige.
What happened at Pitt and later at other English departments isn’t so very different than what happened as our genre evolved. Fifty years ago, we were hardly a blip on the radar, an add-on or an afterthought, a necessary annoyance at best. Today, we are not just a part of the literary ecosystem, we are its most active and impactful contributors—leaders and change makers and motivators where we once did not belong.