As I write this in December 2008, change is everywhere.
“Change” was the mantra of the recent presidential election, of course, the promise on which Barack Obama and Joe Biden based their campaign—and on which the McCain-Palin ticket opposed Obama. Each candidate insisted that he—and not his opponent—was the force that could shake up the status quo and turn the country around, that could bring the kind of change to heal us and unite us.
Many have compared Obama to Kennedy or Lincoln, and others speculate that his election will come to be seen as one of the most significant events in our nation’s history—that what he will do next, the change he initiates, may shape the lives of many future generations.
When this book is published in the summer of 2009, Obama and his team of players will have been in office only seven or eight months, and it is entirely possible that Obama’s promised “change” will not yet have materialized, or that it may have appeared in unanticipated form. (We should remember—as a former member of the previous administration pointed out in the early days of the Iraq war—that change can be messy.) Still, the nation’s mood at the moment seems to welcome change—almost any change.
This volume of The Best Creative Nonfiction is composed mostly of work published during the past year that engages fully in the current times and provides compelling arguments for both global and individual change. Creative nonfiction’s roots are in journalism, but the genre also allows writers to become intimately involved in their stories. Often this interplay between the personal and the political provides deeper coverage, and a stronger connection to the reader, than traditional journalism allows.
Wesley Yang’s profile of Seung-Hui Cho, the Virginia Tech shooter, is informed by his uncomfortable sympathy for Cho, based in their common background as Asian men, aspiring writers, and, perhaps, misfits. Tim Bascom reports from his classroom in a community college in Iowa; his students’ reasons for missing class, for dropping out, and for choosing their final paper topics add up to a portrait of a larger community undergoing cultural and economic transition. In “What Comes Out,” Dawnelle Wilkie reports from behind the scenes at an abortion clinic—a highly politicized topic that is here stripped of the usual drama and given a fresh new look.
“Truth will always come out,” Wilkie writes, “and now I have spoken its name and I am waiting for the world to crumble…” Waiting, that is, for change.
As it happens, right now I am going through some major changes in my life—the kinds of change many people often fantasize about and, simultaneously, resist. To begin with, I am changing jobs, leaving the University of Pittsburgh, where I have taught in the creative writing program for three decades, and where I was also an undergraduate student.
Starting this fall, I will be the writer in residence at the Consortium for Science Policy & Outcomes (CSPO) and a professor in the Hugh Downs School for Human Communication at Arizona State University. Interestingly, CSPO’s mission is to consider the impact of change in a variety of disciplines. In my new position, I will help scientists, engineers, attorneys, and physicians employ creative nonfiction techniques to communicate their ideas about our changing society.
But that is only the beginning—and some of the changes I am facing seem less exciting, at least for me. My son, Sam, a high school senior, will soon be going to college somewhere and moving, perhaps, out of the house. The thought of this depresses me more than I can describe. My eighty-nine-year-old mother fears that my change in employment and location—though I have promised her I will keep my house in Pittsburgh, to maintain dual citizenship, so to speak—will keep me from seeing her on a regular basis.
But on the whole, times of change can be heady, rich in possibilities, and full of questions. What does this change mean to me and to the people with whom I have intimate connections? What will I learn about myself, about others, about the world because of these changes?
As a writer and editor, this is what interests me most about change. It is complicated, painful, and promising, and therefore rich in literary possibilities, from plot and characterization to philosophical analysis, or what creative nonfiction writers refer to as “reflection.” Change—for better or worse—provides writers opportunities for contemplation, speculation, fantasy, and debate. Many of the pieces in this collection find their inspiration in intense moments of change or transition—a birth, a death, the beginning of a marriage.
Brenda Miller uses the format of a table of figures to examine herself over time—her relationships with her body, her family, her lovers. Marie Mutsuki Mockett travels to Japan for her grandmother’s funeral and finds equal amounts of frustration and freedom in being only half-Japanese—as an outsider, she is not welcome at her grandmother’s cremation, but her status also makes her privy to otherwise carefully guarded family secrets. Laura Bramon Good and her husband fight through the first year of their marriage in the thin-walled privacy of an apartment speckled with bloodstains from the previous tenants. The death of a favorite uncle brings home the true meaning of exile to Edwidge Danticat.
Many of the writers in this collection work primarily in other genres, but here they tell true stories—confessions, explorations, apologies—that, in one writer’s words, “I can’t imagine handing over…to fiction.” Creative nonfiction allows for intimate and honest assessment of events, and lets writers engage fully with the rich possibilities of change.
When I started Creative Nonfiction, in 1994, serious writers were dabbling with narrative, or creative, nonfiction, but aside from the large magazines like The New Yorkers, Playboy, and Esquire, which published the most distinguished writers, there were few outlets for them. Fifteen years ago, there was no market for the kind of literary, long-form, often experimental nonfiction that appears in this collection, and most of what you will read here would likely not have been written. The journal helped legitimize the genre and encouraged writers who work in it.
As you will see, this collection supports writers whom most large commercial publishers and magazines don’t—writers who are experimenting with form and language, writers who do not receive million-dollar contracts or outlandish promotional budgets for their books, writers whose work appears in magazines and journals (like Creative Nonfiction) dedicated to publishing thoughtful, careful, unexpected work—not just work that will sell.
We also support bloggers, whose influence on and presence in the literary world has steadily increased even in the three years we’ve been doing this anthology. Bloggers often beat the best news organizations in reporting major world-shaping events, and blogs are taking over the book reviewing market, to a certain extent. And generally—this is welcome news for anyone inclined to see the death of literary culture in the age of technology—blogs are becoming more sophisticated and thoughtful, as this year’s selections prove. Choosing the best blogs is always a difficult task; there are so many, and the Web is increasingly home to more and more great writing. For this volume of The Best Creative Nonfiction, we tried something new, and solicited nominations through our online newsletter. In a two-week period, we received nearly five hundred nominations, from which we selected the seven you’ll find here.
Something else that’s new in this year’s collection is the inclusion of promising new student writing. Last fall, Creative Nonfiction and Norton held a “Program-off,” national competition that challenged creative nonfiction MFA programs to submit the best work from their best students. The prize was publication in this collection and the opportunity to give a reading in New York. The winner, from Pacific Lutheran University, was Amy Andrews, who in her essay “Cantata 147: The Finale Chorale” looks back at her middle school band teacher’s suicide, trying to understand, as an adult, what made no sense to her and her classmates.
On the whole, this year’s collection of The Best Creative Nonfiction is a little more serious, a little more sober, a little more earnest than in past years. Perhaps some of this tone comes from the series editors, whose choices may have reflected their own changing mood and that of the country.
And yet, there is also much cause in this collection for optimism—for hope, another great theme of the Obama campaign. If, as it seems, we are entering a new era, we will need writers to help us navigate and make sense of the shifting landscapes of business and politics and ideas. The writers whose work is collected here grapple with life, and in so doing create writing suffused with excitement, emotion, passion, and even brilliance. Their stories reflect the changing world around us and struggle to articulate its meaning. As we look forward to whatever comes next, let us hope that, among other things, this new era will be one that values ideas, reflection, meticulously crafted narrative, and the careful use of words.