Prologue: From Wyoming to the Verrazano-Narrows Bridge: How I Came to Creative Nonfiction
I was, at one time, a romantic, inspired by writers who took chances with their writing and in their lives. I read certain books over and over again: Kerouac’s On the Road, Baldwin’s Giovanni’s Room, Mailer’s The Naked and the Dead. I could almost recite some of Hemingway’s Nick Adams stories—“Big Two-Hearted River,” “Indian Camp,” and “The Three-Day Blow”—by heart. These writers were travelers, wanderers; their lives and writing were experiential, deeply spiritual, and maniacally spontaneous. As a young man—not, I suppose, unlike many young men—I found this incredibly compelling. As Dean Moriarty, Kerouac’s crazy, nomadic, sleazy anti-hero, says, you choose your own road in life.
“What’s your road, man?” he says. “Holyboy road, madman road, rainbow road . . . it’s an anywhere road for anybody, anyhow.”
I vowed I would give that road a try—as best I could, at least, considering I started out as a relative outcast, a fat Jewish kid growing up in Pittsburgh. I was rebellious, a fist-fighter. I graduated from high school, barely, in the bottom fifth of my class; college was out of the question. When I was eighteen and desperate to get away from everyone I knew, the military seemed the best option. When I was twenty, I was a traveling shoe salesman on a route through the South. Later, I sorted bottled and drove a truck for a beer store for a few months before going to work as a go-fer in a small ad agency. All along the way, I was taking notes, jotting down scenes, hanging out with the aging beatniks and wild-haired hippies, and pretending to be, envisioning myself as, the next Kerouac, Hemingway, Thomas Wolfe.
My first real writing gig—I mean my first writing that counted (because it was widely published)—came in 1969 when, in my powder-blue VW convertible, I drove to Wyoming to follow Hemingway’s path across that state. I had read in Carlos Baker’s biography of Hemingway, which was published that year, that Hemingway wrote parts of Death in the Afternoon and A Farewell to Arms in a cabin on an isolated ranch in the upper Tetons. Even in Baker’s very thorough biography, not much had been written about Hemingway’s Wyoming—although there was a short story, “The Wine of Wyoming,” which, actually, wasn’t one of his best—but this trip, I thought, would open another door to his life and perhaps a door for me. So I went there and lived for a while in a cheap motel. I tracked down the only remaining child of the family that had built and operated the ranch, now a woman in her eighties, a short, plump silver-haired widow. She was gruff but polite, and I begged and pleaded with her to take me up to the ranch and show me where Hemingway had lived. Incredibly, she agreed.
The going was slow. We bounced and banged in the surprisingly frisky powder-blue bug, with the top down, dodging rocks, fallen trees, and nasty ravines. It was an hour and a half up the “Red Grade Road” to the site of the ranch. It was surprisingly intact, considering it had been abandoned and reportedly uninhabited for three decades. The woman—her maiden name was Spear—led me through the property, a modest complex with a main house, a bunkhouse, a mildewed barn, rotting corrals, and a couple of guest cabins. She tired quickly and decided to return to the Beetle, but pointed at one of the two guest cabins.
“That’s where he lived,” she said. “That’s where he wrote.”
Amazingly, the cabin was intact. I could walk up the steps into the room and, with the light shining through the bare logs, see a table sitting by the window and facing a bank of lodgepole trees. I felt at that moment a sudden chill and a rush of emotion—a burning, exhilarating clarity. There I was, where the man had written—maybe even at that very table, surveying the lodgepoles! And this was not some tourist place, like his homes in the Florida Keys (or even the famous finca in Cuba), but it was a secret spot that few had visited. I owned it, so to speak. This was my experience. And I would write about it—which I did for a newspaper syndicate. It was published in various forms all across the United States. Since that time, I gather, the ranch has come back into operation as a dude ranch and, later, an educational facility. The last I heard, Hemingway’s cabin still stands.
But it was a remarkable event for me—like I said, I was a dreamer—which solidified the notion that I could simultaneously write and experience new things, subjects, ideas, barely touched. I could live it and write it, all at once.
Of course, lots of other folks were doing this and had been for a long time, I knew, like George Orwell in Down and Out in London and Paris (published in 1933), or Ernie Pyle in his dispatches from World War II, or Lillian Ross in The New Yorker, or Hemingway himself in his reports from the Spanish Civil War in the late 1930s and, even earlier, in the consummate and meticulous Death in the Afternoon. I could go on and on—Breslin, Dickens, Didion. But it was Gay Talese who really turned me on, whose work had actually planted the seed for my Hemingway odyssey. Not the classic “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” which so many writers and critics have talked and written about, but actually The Bridge, a short book (it’s only 147 pages) all about the building of the Verazzano-Narrows Bridge, a double-decked suspension bridge which was, when it was completed in 1964, the longest suspension bridge in the world.
Talese had camped at the site, more or less, for the duration of the construction, writing not only about the bridge, but more so about the people involved with the project, those who lived around the bridge and those who built it. The latter group called themselves “the boomers,” which was the title of the first chapter, and the moment I read the first paragraphs, I honestly thought I was hearing music. That book and Talese’s example of living with a subject and getting down to its very essence, combined with my own very singular and personal experience discovering Hemingway in Wyoming, immediately defined my life’s direction, writing stories that were true, using all the terrific techniques available to novelists, like dialogue and flashback—all the tricks of the trade.
Here are those first paragraphs, so poetic, rhythmic, dramatic, profound, and inspiring:
They drive into town in big cars, and live in furnished rooms, and drink whiskey with beer chasers, and chase women they will soon forget. They linger only a little while, only until they have built the bridge; then they are off again to another town, another bridge, linking everything but their lives. . . .
They are part circus, part gypsy—graceful in the air, restless on the ground; it is as if the wide-open road below lacks for them the clear direction of an eight-inch beam stretching across the sky six hundred feet above the sea.
Talese, I should say, is one of the most remarkable men I have ever met. He’s charming, handsome, and quite fit for his eighty years, and he outfits himself with an impeccable wardrobe. (His father was an old-fashioned Italian tailor in New Jersey, where the family lived after coming to the United States in the 1920s.) Under his smooth exterior, however, is steel: he is rigorous—a hard-ass—when it comes to his reporting and writing.
There’s a classic scene in “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” in which Ol’ Blue Eyes confronts a young screenwriter in a private club in Hollywood and insults his work, calling it “crap,” and his mode of dress, especially his Game Warden boots. Half a century ago, when the piece was published in Esquire, reporters typically downplayed such confrontations, but Talese recorded it brilliantly, insult after embarrassing insult, and it has become one of the most memorable and talked-about scenes in the history of the genre.
His 1981 book, Thy Neighbor’s Wife, explored the sexual mores of the 1950s and 1960s, and precipitated an avalanche of insults and criticism (and jealousy?) from religious quarters and his journalistic colleagues for his raw and realistic, on-the-scene immersion research, which included living in Hugh Hefner’s Playboy mansion, visiting nudist colonies, and—what else?— sleeping with his neighbor’s wife.
Yet the content of his book and his integrity as a reporter remained unquestioned. In one of his most recent books, A Writer’s Life, Talese revisited some of the stories he had chased around the world but abandoned because they were unworthy of telling—or he found himself unable to write them. This insider’s story of the frustrations and failures of a working writer is eye-opening and heart-rending—and required reading for anyone who wants to understand the true nature of this unholy, brain-breaking, chaotic profession.
I. The New(ish) Journalism
Let’s go back a bit. I understood that what Talese was doing in The Bridge and his other work was not new or terribly unique—although he could do it, then and now, better and more realistically than most anybody. What was new during the time I became aware of this kind of writing was that it began to receive a particular kind of critical attention; it began to coalesce as a genre in itself—not exactly the same as journalism, though not exactly capital-L Literature, either. Tom Wolfe, another inspiring figure along with Gay Talese, says he did not coin the term new journalism and actually did not particularly like it, but he certainly championed the label and led the bandwagon, beginning in 1973 when he published, along with E.W. Johnson, the anthology The New Journalism. In his introduction to the collection, Wolfe proclaimed the new journalism a “higher journalism”—a style and an approach to nonfiction that “would wreak such evil havoc in the literary world . . . causing panic, dethroning the novel as the number one literary genre, starting the first new direction in American literature in half a century.”
In some ways, his prediction was right, as we see today, but really, new journalism was mostly an inspired spin—Wolfe being Wolfe, making outlandish statements to call attention to himself. Make no mistake: Wolfe is quite learned—he has a PhD in American studies from Harvard, and his astute literary reflections and observations have been widely published—but he was and still is a masterful self-promoter, demanding attention not only with his words, but his presentation, most famously his white suit. Especially in his younger days, it seemed to me, he set out to create dialogue and controversy for his own ends—an endeavor in which he was pretty damn successful.
But all Wolfe and other new journalists were really talking about was writing in scenes, using a lot of dialogue, writing with subjectivity—allowing a point of view, whether it be the writer’s or the character’s—and including what Wolfe called “status details,” meaning how people represent their positions in life through behavior and appearance (not unlike his own white linen suits!). Not that this wasn’t revolutionary and a game-changer in some quarters—the journalism community has, historically, been painfully and self-destructively resistant to change—but when you get down to the basics, new journalism meant being a very good writer who was willing to apply the diligence required for first-rate reporting, as well as having the time, patience, and talent to put all the information together in a powerful prose package.
The one aspect Wolfe and others added, which was new to journalism, was their obsession with themselves; anything they felt, thought, dreamed, remembered seemed to be fair game, no matter how unrelated or uninteresting. Wolfe, in particular, loved the sound of his own voice, as in his “The Last American Hero” essay about stock car racer Junior Johnson, in which he sang:
Ten o’clock Sunday morning in the hills of North Carolina. Cars, miles of cars, in every direction, millions of cars, pastel cars, aqua green, aqua blue, aqua beige, aqua buff, aqua dawn, aqua dusk, aqua aqua, aqua Malacca, Malacca lacquer, Cloud lavender, Assassin pink, Rake-a-cheek raspberry. Nude Strand coral, Honest Thrill orange, and Baby Fawn Lust cream-colored cars are all going to the stock car races, and that old mothering North Carolina sun keeps exploding off the windshields. Mother dog!
This was cute—different—but such wailing wound through this essay and many others, including his book The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, and it sometimes wore thin, lacking the poetic clarity of Talese’s riffs about the boomers. More troubling, it provided substance for attacks about the new journalists’ self obsession and unnecessary verbosity and excesses, calling attention to their own voices rather than those they were writing about—thus distracting from the literary and journalistic value of the stories.
And these stories did have literary and journalistic value; they were rich in facts and carefully reported, but there was also a strong sense of style that was almost poetic in its vision. Wolfe sometimes took it a little too far; fortunately, the quirky innovations he introduced in some of his early work in New York Magazine and Esquire—writing in the accents of his characters, making up quotation marks like ::::::::::::::::::::::::, yelling and screaming at his readers IN CAPS—were gradually discarded. But done with a little restraint, this writing could be incredibly effective. Take, for instance, Norman Mailer’s incredible cataloging of characters and personas in The Armies of the Night, for which he won the 1968 Pulitzer Prize in general nonfiction. Here we have Mailer describing the young people protesting the Vietnam War. He was appalled by their lack of a sense of history and how they treated political protest like a Halloween parade:
The hippies were there in great number, perambulating down the hill, many dressed like the legions of Sgt. Pepper’s Band, some were gotten up like Arab sheiks, or in Park Avenue doormen’s greatcoats, others like Rogers and Clark of the West, Wyatt Earp, Kit Carson, Daniel Boone in buckskin, some had grown mustaches to look like Have Gun – Will Travel—Paladin’s surrogate was here!—and wild Indians with feathers, a hippie gotten up like Batman, another like Claude Rains in The Invisible Man—his face wrapped in a turban of bandages and he wore a black satin top hat.
Not everyone was as thrilled and enthralled with this new(ish) style as I was, however. As early as 1965, Dwight Macdonald, a writer, editor, and TV commentator, in reviewing Tom Wolfe’s The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby for The New York Review of Books, called it “parajournalism,” which, he wrote, “seems to be journalism . . . but the appearance is deceptive. It is a bastard form, having it both ways, exploiting the factual authority of journalism and the atmospheric license of fiction. Entertainment rather than information is the aim of its producers and the hope of its consumers.” Later, he complained, “We convert everything into entertainment,” and maybe he wasn’t too far off in his evaluation.
One could make the same argument today—that we value entertainment over information. Look, for instance, at the Internet, which puts an almost unimaginably vast world of information at our fingertips. I am not the first to point out that we have put a shameful amount of time into cluttering up this resource with videos and pictures of cats when, surely, we could be doing better, more important things with our time and technology. But, of course, entertainment and information needn’t be mutually exclusive. We understand that nonfiction needn’t be boring or laborious to be effective. It can and should entertain, inform, educate, and enlighten. Writing with truth and accuracy needn’t force a reader to pop the periodic NoDoz.
And I think that was the key to the success of new journalism—or whatever you want to call it. It was fun to read; it had energy, personality, authenticity, and pizzazz. And thanks in large part to Wolfe, this first-rate and sometimes experimental journalism had a name, whether he initially liked it or not, as well as a special persona—and that awakened nonfiction writers to the fact that the tools of our trade were limited only by our own inability or unwillingness to think and perform three-dimensionally. Wolfe’s new journalism doctrine provided an anchoring foundation to those who were working in this genre in the dark. When people asked what I wrote, I would say, “New journalism.” It sounded cool to me—and the thing is, it was cool. And it is cool.
There was, however, a problem, for me and others like me, turned on by this newish way of writing: what to do with it? There were few magazines interested in publishing such hybrid material. Writers had to think creatively, but so did editors, who had to provide writers with the space and time necessary to make journalism three-dimensional. Esquire and The New Yorker did this, and, to a lesser extent, Harper’s, New York Magazine, and The Atlantic Monthly—and in San Francisco, you had Mother Jones and the now-defunct Ramparts—but it was very difficult to get a foot (or even a toe) in the door in any of those places. It was a limited market, and it helped if you had a political (primarily liberal) orientation or were well-connected—or both. I think of them as the “player” magazines. The “players” themselves included the names I have been bandying about—Joan Didion, Lillian Ross, Gay Talese, Tom Wolfe, Norman Mailer, Jimmy Breslin, Pete Hamill—the crew who got the best assignments or were able to create their own assignments, like Wolfe. Editors gave them blank checks, at least as far as ideas went, and they were all part of a connected circle of writers in New York. It was (and still is) a very “in” group. Can you imagine “Radical Chic,” Wolfe’s essay about the cream of the New York cultural scene entertaining and raising money for the militant Black Panther organization, set in Denver or Milwaukee or Pittsburgh? Not a chance. Who would care?
Ironically, books were easier to publish in this new journalism genre back then—at least for me. For my first book, Bike Fever (1972), I traveled the country on a classic black BMW, chronicling the two-wheel experience and capturing the emerging motorcycle subculture. Two years later, I lived with a crew of National League baseball umpires for a season, sharing their isolation and alienation as the lone lawmen—villains in blue—in what was then our national pastime, an experience that led to The Best Seat in Baseball, But You Have to Stand. But the top magazines were basically dominated by this East Coast literary society.
It was not impossible to break into this group, but it was a lot more complicated than just putting a manuscript into an envelope, mailing it out, and hoping to be discovered. You heard about the rare breakthrough: Hunter S. Thompson did it, and as legend goes—I am told that there’s more than a grain of truth in the story—the veteran editor (and brilliant baseball writer) Roger Angell was seen running up and down the corridors of The New Yorker’s offices, waving a manuscript he had snared from the slush pile and shouting, “Look at this!” It was a story by a young writer named Garrison Keillor.
Even so, and even as a published author, I wasn’t holding my breath waiting for this to happen to one of the half-dozen profiles and essays I had sent to The New Yorker. It was frustrating. I suspected that there was some great work being done by writers like me in this narrative nonfiction form—outliers and outsiders who would probably never break down (or even slip through) the doors—and I guess that that was when the seed of the creative nonfiction movement, and the publication that might lead the way, began to germinate in me.
II. Creative (Non?)Friction
I’ve spent the majority of my professional life in academia, at this point, but I’ve never really belonged here. I am a guy from the wrong side of the tracks when it comes to the academic world. As I said, I grew up fat and Jewish in a blue-collar section of Pittsburgh where the word kike was heard with some frequency. It’s hard for many young people to believe, but there was a time not that long ago when Jews were second-class citizens, ridiculed and discriminated against, even in America. I was a neighborhood punching bag—though different from many of my Jewish brethren because I tended to punch back.
I walked around the neighborhood with my guard up, invariably pissed off and also defensive, ready to punish anyone who attempted to punish me first, even though, more often than not, I got pummeled, not just because of who I was but also because of who I wasn’t. I can’t tell you how many times Bill Sopira, the older boy next to where we lived, cold-cocked me in the alley between our houses not only because I was Jewish and because my people killed Jesus Christ, but even more so because I wasn’t Catholic. My parents, my people, could not see the light.
It didn’t make any difference that there was a very comfortable, respectable, safe, and secure Jewish community not too far away from where we were living, called Squirrel Hill. In fact, to have such an obviously upscale neighborhood nearby—with manicured lawns and spacious brick and stone houses, with pillared porches and two car garages, Cadillacs and Buicks and Lincolns shining and Simonized inside and out, and swarming with upper-middle-class, semi-assimilated Jews—made my adolescence living as a Jew in a working-class Catholic neighborhood even more difficult. Squirrel Hill served as a taunting contrast between the haves—Jewish attorneys, Jewish doctors, Jewish merchants, Jewish accountants—and the struggling, factory-worker have-nots who were my neighbors in Greenfield.
Later, when I was able to go to high school in Squirrel Hill, expecting to join my “chosen people” brethren, I discovered that they, too, had their prejudices. The wrong side of the tracks is the wrong side of the tracks, no matter what your religion. I was no longer the kike, but still the outcast, because I wasn’t one of them. “Chosen” had its boundaries and limitations. Turns out, I punched a lot of Jews during those high school years out of outcast frustration. (And I won a lot more of those fights than I did with the Billy Sopiras in my neighborhood.)
After high school, I went into the Coast Guard, and then I came back to Pittsburgh, looking for some direction. In September 1966, I wandered into the Cathedral of Learning, a massive forty-two-story monument to education, the tallest university classroom building in the United States, and registered for my first college course at the University of Pittsburgh: Freshman English. The following evening, notebook and pencil in hand, I went to class.
On the first night, the teacher—his name was Meyers—told us to write an essay. As I wrote about the time I spent sorting empty bottles or driving a beer truck for a few months between high school and the military, I felt exhilarated. I had written book reports in high school, as well as a few essays for science and history classes, but this—telling stories about my life—was fun. All awareness of time escaped me—until I looked up. I was the last person remaining in the classroom.
I could tell Meyers, a goateed man in his late twenties with pock-mocked cheeks, was getting antsy. He closed his book and exhaled sharply, smiling apologetically in my direction. Reluctantly, I ripped the pages from my notebook and handed the stack to him. It took me a couple of moments to pack up. Out of the corner of my eye, I could tell that he was reading what I had written. As I opened the door to depart, he said, “Wait.” I went back into the room. “This is pretty good.” He was pointing at my essay. “What do you do?” he asked. “I mean, in life. Or what do you want to do?”
I told him that this was why I had decided to start college: to build a life and find a profession. I was lost, I admitted.
“Well,” he motioned at my essay, pausing to nod and purse his lips, “this is pretty good. Well-written. You ought to think about being a writer.”
This was, I have to say, the first time anyone had offered me career advice that felt hopeful or exciting or unique. Despite the fact that I had never achieved a grade higher than C in math, my high school guidance counselor had recommended I become an accountant. This made no sense. Numbers made me sleepy. Even today—and even with a calculator—I have difficulty adding and subtracting. But this suggestion struck a chord. After all, I was reading all the time. My passion for reading had helped me get through the military, prior to registering for classes here, and partially rehabilitate myself physically and intellectually. I had devoted all my spare time to hanging out in the base library.
“OK,” I replied, not knowing anything about a writer’s world or what one did to make a living as a writer, except to tell stories and write. “I think I will.”
My writing career started while I was still an undergrad. I got a job working for a public relations agency as an assistant account executive promoting carpet, cement mixers, a theatre in the round, and other small businesses. Success came quickly, and after a while, I was awarded a special account: The Helium Centennial Committee for Government and Industry—an organization founded to celebrate the hundredth anniversary of the discovery of the element.
The cornerstone event was the unveiling of a monument in Amarillo, Texas, where helium was discovered in 1868. It was called the Helium Centennial Time Columns: three stainless steel time capsules came together like a tripod, supporting a fourth shooting straight up, six stories into the sky—a dramatic, erect shaft glittering in the relentless Texas sun. Before the lavish inaugural event, four helicopters lifted the corners of a gigantic black tarpaulin, hovered above the site, and dropped the tarp over the entire monument, thus concealing it from view. The corners of the tarpaulin were securely anchored.
The day before the official inauguration, dozens of large helium-filled weather balloons were attached to the tarp. Senators, congressmen, and government bigwigs came from all across the country. The airport was mobbed. Every visitor was personally welcomed by the Amarillo Greeting Club: two rows of twelve cowboys in red gabardine pants, white shirts, blue bandanas, white gloves, and hats, lined up like toy soldiers in front of the exit doors, waiting to shake each visitor’s hand and thank him or her for coming to Amarillo: “Welcome to Amarillo. Thanks for coming to Amarillo.” “Welcome to Amarillo. Thanks for coming to Amarillo.” “Welcome to Amarillo. Thanks for coming to Amarillo,” each visitor heard twenty-four times.
The ceremony featured high school bands playing the national anthem, the state anthem, and “The Yellow Rose of Texas.” The three television networks sent cameras. At precisely noon, burly cowboys, stationed at the corners of the monument where the tarpaulin had been anchored, swung their axes, severing the ropes. With music playing and cameras rolling, the balloons began rising, first slowly but then ever faster, climbing higher into the sky until the tarp was lifted and the Helium Centennial Time Columns were dramatically revealed. The crowd hooted and hollered, then settled in for beer and barbecue, baked beans and Texas toast.
The monument was in the middle of the biggest slum in Amarillo. Down the road from the festivities were houses without plumbing and children playing in mud puddles in the middle of unpaved streets—a reality I subconsciously protested in a news release I wrote, which should have started with the following sentence: “People from throughout the country will have the opportunity to achieve immortality by nominating items to be included in the Helium Centennial Time Columns.” Only after the release was sent to hundreds of newspapers and radio and TV stations nationwide did I realize I had omitted the t from the word immortality—an honest mistake I have never regretted.
I quit my job after the Helium Centennial debacle and struck off on my own, freelancing. I wrote the series about Hemingway’s Wyoming, and then essays and articles, often about eccentric, somewhat edgy subjects in which I could be an active participant, such as clowning for Ringling Brothers, wrangling at a rodeo, and transcontinental trucking. I profiled a one-arm blacksmith and a cooper who practiced his craft in the old way with a schnitzelbank; sparred with professional wrestling’s heavyweight champion Bruno Sammartino; and hunted rattlesnakes with a mountain man named McCool. Once, in the hills of eastern Kentucky, I joined a group called Judo and Karate for Christ; members chopped, kicked, flipped, and hurled their fellow disciples in the name of the Lord Jesus.
I regularly shared these true stories with one of my teachers at Pitt, Monty Culver, and he eventually persuaded the department chair to allow me to teach part-time, a course in expository writing. By that point, I had a published book, my motorcycle book, Bike Fever, which gave me some credibility; even though I was a schlep, degree-less, I had published more than anyone else who was teaching writing courses at the time. And really, I was the only person who wanted to teach nonfiction. I loved the job. The students were hungry for more participatory journalism—so that’s what I taught them.
At the time, creative writing programs were relatively new. Pitt didn’t have one. Iowa, Stanford, and a few others had been around for a good while; these programs were not, interestingly enough, part of English departments. If you wanted to study creative writing—officially, that is, with a graduate degree—there weren’t a lot of options, and perhaps with good reason. Writers were like painters and composers; they followed their muse and created literature—poems, stories, plays. Hemingway, Fitzgerald, Welty, Capote, and all the others, the immortal masters, did not learn craft from a tweedy pipe-puffing professor; they went out and lived life and poured their souls into their poetry and prose. There were apprenticeships and mentoring for artists and writers, of course. But courses? Who needed courses?
It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when most writers were not affiliated with universities. They were much more a part of the world—driving taxis, selling insurance, teaching high school, thinking that you had to experience life in order to write about it. (Or the more fortunate few were living on trust funds or the good graces and hard labor of spouses.) But the establishment and growing popularity of creative writing programs became a lure and a safe haven; why struggle for health insurance and a certain amount of praise and prominence? Teach the craft and huddle under the protective academic umbrella, where young wannabes idolized you, for as long as possible.
I don’t mean to sound condescending here regarding English departments and the academy; this is the road I have followed in my life, and it has served me well. Selling shoes, driving a truck, and creating advertising and public relations campaigns during the day while writing my first novel at night, in my twenties, was not an easy life. I tried it for a half-dozen years, and I learned about people and the worlds they inhabited, and that strengthened my writing and my passion to make a mark in the world. And it was often fun and rewarding in various ways. This was to me a great benefit, and it distinguished me from my English department colleagues who took the more traditional PhD route. Sure, I was an outcast again, now in the academy, the English department at Pitt, totally not belonging but feeling lucky to be there. But I also had a motorcycle, and this was good—every English department should have a motorcyclist, my colleagues agreed, especially one who rides a BMW. (You think I am kidding? The following year, Andrew Welsh, a Milton scholar, went to Rutgers, and Tim Flowers went from Rutgers to Pitt’s English Department, like a trade in the major leagues. They both owned old classic black BMW motorcycles.)
And I do wonder if I would be writing this today—or perhaps not writing at all—if it wasn’t for the support of the University of Pittsburgh specifically and the academy generally. Not that I appreciated everything about life in the ivory tower, but it made being a writer easier. It gave you a platform, a home base, and an audience to try out ideas on—and colleagues to drink beer and smoke dope with. But it was also very difficult to be a part of this world. Just like Billy Sopira, these guys could play rough, though their way of doing it was subtle but debilitating, so that a guy like me, coming from the wrong side of the tracks, could be ruthlessly frozen out.
During those years, the debate about creative writing—and creative nonfiction writing in particular—was intense, mean, and often nonsensical. I remember the editor of the university newspaper, The Pitt News, once went to see the department chair, requesting that the department offer a new journalism course. In the expository writing course I was teaching, I was introducing Wolfe, Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, et al.—and the students, especially from the student newspaper, were turned on. The idea of immersion got them going—experiencing life and using literary techniques to make their work cinematic. They wanted more.
So the editor—his name was Bill Gormley, and today he is an author and professor of public policy at Georgetown University—made an appointment with Walter Evert, the chair of the English department, and proposed something like “Basic New Journalism 101,” which I would teach. It was actually what I was already doing, but this would allow me to come clean and could lead to other courses that were more advanced, specialized, and challenging. Evert, an Elizabethan scholar, explained that he lacked the authority to approve, let alone encourage, such a course so out of the mainstream of contemporary literature. But in the spirit of free speech and openness reflected in the early 1970s, he allowed Gormley to make a presentation to the faculty at its next meeting.
I will never forget the scene. Gormley was a little guy, bespectacled, with straight brown hair hanging in bangs down his forehead. Almost dwarfed by the podium, he stood reading from the sheaf of notes he had prepared, about the history and relevance of new journalism and its many practitioners, to a totally silent collection of Birkenstocked, ponytailed professors. There may have been a few questions—I don’t remember—but after Gormley’s presentation, a big, balding, flat-nosed guy named Don Petesch stood up, carrying one of those massive, flat-bottomed leather briefcases that fold out like an accordion so you can carry around half of your library, as well as lunch and dinner. He plopped the case on the table beside the podium and, facing Gormley, who had retreated to one of the back rows, began pulling out books—Faulkner, Thurber, Fitzgerald, Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe, Welty, and on and on—holding each one up in the air and providing us all with a succinct description of its literary value and inherent brilliance and then slamming it down on the table beside his briefcase, kaboom, kaboom, until the massive briefcase was empty. And then, peering across the room and addressing Gormley, he said something to the effect of: Until you and the other Pitt News staffers read all of these books and learn to appreciate and understand them, this department should never support such lightweight and insignificant work as what you think you are calling writing that is “new” in journalism. Like I said, I don’t remember the words—but that was the gist of the finale of his illustrious presentation.
Listening to Petesch pontificate was actually too much for the other members of the department, who all burst out in debate over the books he had selected as classics—which didn’t have anything to do with the subject at hand, but that was typical of the literary professors back then. And admittedly, Petesch’s incredible rudeness also annoyed them. There was really no reason to treat an undergraduate, who had had the courage to present an idea to the entire department, in such a dismissive manner—especially the editor of the student newspaper, who could wreak revenge on Petesch or the English department should he choose to. You had to give the kid some credit, even though maybe his idea was worthless.
Finally, Walt Evert, the chair, stood up to tone down the rhetoric and move to another subject, reasoning, “After all, gentlemen, we are interested in literature here—not writing.” We few writers paused for a moment to allow that to sink in. (There were, by the way, many women in the room who snickered but also held their fire.)
So this is the atmosphere in which creative writing existed—was forced to exist. Literature professors were willing to tolerate courses in poetry and fiction writing, but to discuss journalism and literature in the same breath? How dare you?
Well, Bill Gormley dared, and the faculty backed off after a while, and the following year, I was permitted to introduce a course called “The New Nonfiction.” As bad as the term nonfiction was—according to my colleagues, “Nonfiction is a non sequitur! How can you describe what you do as something you don’t do?”—at least it was better than the J-word.
A quarter-century ago, creative writing programs were rapidly being established in the United States, mostly in English departments, comprising primarily poets and fiction writers and a scattering of playwrights. On a graduate level, nonfiction was totally glossed over; undergrads could take essay writing or expository writing course electives, like the one I had been teaching, but without concentrations and majors. Since nonfiction was not poetry or fiction, it was not considered literary. If you wanted to write in a non-literary manner, that was okay, . . . but there were other places for that kind of low-end stuff: technical writing, PR writing, or basic journalism. Nonfiction was formulaic, like plumbing.
I won’t say that my poetry- and fiction-writing colleagues in creative writing programs across the United States opposed adding a third genre; they were mostly ambivalent. They were part of these programs as a shelter from the outside world so that they could write in peace; if you didn’t bother them, you could write or teach anything you wanted, even if it is/was a “non”! They wouldn’t take the time to complain or doubt or debate—as long as it didn’t threaten their own comfort and position.
But the more contentious word was creative. Journalists hated creative because to them it meant that you made stuff up—lying, exaggerating, etc. But the academics in the English department also found it threatening. “Why can’t my work be considered creative, too?” they whined and argued. Why, for God’s sake, were their essays on Milton or postmodernism referred to as “criticism” while my prose about traveling the country on a motorcycle or hanging out with major league baseball umpires was artistic and literary and creative? This didn’t seem fair.
The debate went on in our department for years—literally—and it may well still be going on, for all I know. It got to be very bitter. The MFA in creative writing for poetry and fiction was established at Pitt in the 1980s while an MA in nonfiction—perhaps the first advanced degree in nonfiction in the world—came about in 1991. A couple of us began campaigning for an nonfiction MFA, and at that point, the nonfiction writing students were harassed, intimidated, and threatened by literature and composition professors. One woman actually resigned her teaching assistantship under the constant pressure and torment. Simply put, the English department was a very dark and dour place to be if you wanted to be different and do something new, for it was all such a threat to the Everts and Petesches of this cloistered world. And the more my colleagues criticized and bullied my students, the more I came to believe, perhaps rightly so, they were also motherfucking me and the genre. At least, that’s the way I took it. They were rejecting my ideas, and I didn’t like it.
So, I found myself fighting back again, like in high school—not with my fists, but with my headstrong persistence and the originality of my idea. Not that I was telling anyone I had invented the genre—no way. Like I said, you can’t invent what already exists; you can only spin it and fight for it—and that was an opening and an opportunity made for me. I went wherever an opportunity presented itself and defended the idea that you could be literary and journalistic at the same time, that creative and nonfiction can stand together as a concept and a practice, and that you could write about yourself and how you feel and think and make it all work together without being sickeningly egocentric. Make it—the facts and the truth—vivid, passionate, beautiful, powerful, electrifying. I had found a cause to champion, in which I deeply believed.
And closer to home, I battled the hissing bitches, mostly male, inside the department at Pitt and gradually made headway. Eventually, we got a faculty line for a nonfiction position in addition to mine, and then, suddenly, dozens of unemployed literature PhDs who had written newspaper articles or op-ed pieces at some point in their lives were proclaiming themselves master nonfiction writers and applying for the position.
The MFA in creative nonfiction was established at Pitt the same year as I started the journal Creative Nonfiction. They were meant to function and grow together—at least I thought they would. I had a vision for the department, the program, and the nonfiction journal, as a triple threat. It would never be realized—and thank God for that.
III. So Why Start a Literary Magazine? It’s Complicated.
Let’s go back to Hemingway—and some of the other writers I have mentioned.
Hemingway spent time working for newspapers. That’s where he first began to develop the spare, crisp style for which he is known as well as his ability to capture and recreate people and places with vivid and unforgettable detail. But the development of his “literary” career, in sync with his reportorial accomplishments and his maturation as a writer, was all about a bunch of magazines most people (including me) had never heard of. Most of them were defunct long before I was born—but a long line of these literary “little” magazines and journals supported and showcased Hemingway and others as they matured.
While he was still in his early twenties, Hemingway’s work appeared in The Little Review (as did the work of Gertrude Stein and Ezra Pound); The Transatlantic Review, edited by Ford Madox Ford; and in another little magazine called This Quarter. Most of these little magazines were based in Paris, where many American literary ex-pats were hanging out at the time. Most of these literary magazines were start-ups that existed for a few years, supported by an impassioned writer or editor, made an impact, and then disappeared when the founders ran out of money or spirit (and sometimes both).
Literary or little magazines supported Hemingway at a key developmental moment in his career. Without their support and encouragement, and without the exposure they provided to critics and other editors, maybe Hemingway would not have ascended to such fame, might not have won a Nobel Prize for literature, might not be regarded as one of the most famous American artists ever to live. Perhaps I am exaggerating—but look: The Little Review was first to publish the Hemingway vignette “In Our Time,” which was not long after reprinted with minor edits in Hemingway’s second book, In Our Time. (“Big Two-Hearted River” was also in this collection.) Then The Transatlantic Review published Hemingway’s brilliant short story “Cross-Country Snow,” and This Quarter published “The Undefeated,” a story about bullfighting that eventually was adapted into a screenplay. These stories had been turned down by Harper’s and The Saturday Review, respectively.
I was vaguely aware of the importance of literary magazines when I came to work in the English department. And I discovered that my colleagues were appreciative of these littles, as well—in some cases, more than I was. In fact, if you looked in the department’s library or on the shelves in the offices of literature profs, you’d see some of these publications—The Georgia Review, The Partisan Review, and others were popular at the time. Interestingly, my colleagues did not display Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper’s, or The Atlantic Monthly in their offices. Maybe these magazines were in their living rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms at home—but not in the academic workplace. What was going on? I knew that many of my colleagues read these magazines, because we had discussions about them on a regular basis around the faculty mailboxes or over Iron City beer drafts at local pubs. I knew they appreciated the work—but it just didn’t seem to count for much in the world in which they lived. There was a definite disconnect, much of which had to do with their public persona. Back then, in English departments, you had to be “tweedy” (unless, of course, you were the token chain-smoking motorcyclist).
So I began to make a plan. My colleagues appreciated literary magazines—maybe because they were called “literary” magazines—and they refused to consider new journalism as something students might want to study and write in a “literary” or literature department. But what if there was an actual literary magazine that published this stuff? Not something bold and brassy like Esquire or outrageous like Rolling Stone or Mother Jones, but something—how should I say it?—stuffy. Unpretentious, on nice paper—not glossy—and page after page of type. No photos, no ads, just words—lots of big words. It would have to be scholarly; the less style and personality, the better. Or so it seemed to me.
Of course, we weren’t just talking about my colleagues at Pitt; it was the whole goddamned English academy in universities everywhere. They were boring. Conservative, uninspiring—despite their Birkenstocks and ponytails. So that was one thing I was thinking about.
I was also thinking about my role as a teacher—my impact. In the beginning, when I was first appointed at Pitt, I thought I would teach for a few years, get the feel of it, have the experience, all while writing a couple of books, then go off and do something else. Probably, I thought, I would write full-time, like Talese and Wolfe and their cohort. Being part of the academy, English departments in general, was a royal pain in the ass for writers generally and for nonfictionists like me specifically.
But we teachers can’t easily deny the rewards of the academic life, chief among them the contact and interaction with our students. The thing was—and is—I liked teaching, liked coming into contact with smart and driven young people like Bill Gormley, from whom I could learn and for whom I could be influential. And as time went on, there were many others: Scott MacLeod, who became Time magazine’s Middle East Bureau Chief, interviewed Osama Bin Laden and Saddam Hussein, and wrote a best-selling book about the death of Princess Diana; Michael Waldholz, who won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting while working at the Wall Street Journal; the novelist Michael Chabon, who worked with me on the writers’ conference that became the focus of his best-seller Wonder Boys; Jeanne Marie Laskas, whose work has appeared in all of the “player” magazines I had once yearned to break into, like Esquire and GQ, and who is now the director of the creative writing program at Pitt, a position I once held. Later, there were other students who made good—among them Michael Rosenwald, also prominent in the player mags and an award-winning reporter for the Washington Post, and Rebecca Skloot of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks fame. I could go on and on.
I am not saying that these incredibly bright and talented people would not have achieved what they have without my teaching—not at all. But I was privileged enough to have worked with them during their formative years. And perhaps I made a difference. They certainly made a difference in me and changed my thoughts about writing and life in general. Frankly, I did not want to give up teaching, that role which became so vital a part of my own identity.
Somehow all of this—my colleagues’ awareness of the critical importance of literary magazines, and my own professional self-interests and desire to keep teaching—came together for me. I don’t exactly remember a day—a light-bulb moment—when idea and inspiration turned to action and mission or purpose. It just nestled in the back of my mind for a while. It really wasn’t too different from that time long ago when my teacher, Mr. Meyers, suggested I could become a writer. Or when I decided, for my first book, that I wanted to ride around the country on a motorcycle. The plan took shape slowly; I was only vaguely aware of it until, suddenly, one day: Commitment! This was what I was going to do—launch Creative Nonfiction, the journal—and that was that.
To call it a “plan” might even be too much. I just got started with it—thinking at the time, I have to admit, that the journal would be an integral part of the creative writing program at Pitt, helping to launch and support the MFA and build a lasting community of nonfiction writers. Or at least, this was the way in which I might spin it in a department meeting, if ever called upon to do so. Anyway, I came up with this idea of a nonfiction-only journal and presented it to two colleagues, Bruce Dobler and Patsy Sims. They were supportive, generally, to the extent that I could explain what I was trying to do or accomplish . . . which was not easy since I did not know exactly what I was trying to do. I figured that circumstances and opportunities would drive and guide me.
I went to the chair of the English department, then Philip Smith, and asked for start-up money. He declined, as his successor, David Bartholomae, would also decline (at that point, the journal had been established), insisting that creative nonfiction was not significant, was just a fad, didn’t belong in an English department. This didn’t actually surprise me much. I was just going through channels, being political—trying to make an effort, touching all the bases so that potential supporters, and critics, could not say that I was trying to put something over on my department, going off on my own without considering the larger picture. And I did have loyalty to my academic home base; I really wanted Creative Nonfiction to have a home there. But I knew this was a futile effort, especially when it came to Bartholomae.
A leading figure in the world of composition, Bartholomae was the editor of a textbook, Ways of Writing, which would eventually be used in composition programs all over the world. Perhaps it was a turf issue for Bartholomae—the work in many composition programs often parallels (or competes with?) the mission of many creative nonfiction programs. Suffice it to say, creative nonfiction was not one of the “ways of writing” of which he approved. In a 1995 article in the journal College Competition and Communication, published by the National Council of Teachers, he wrote:
Should we teach new journalism or creative nonfiction as part of the required undergraduate curriculum? That is, should all students be required to participate in a first person, narrative or expressive genre whose goal it is to reproduce the ideology of sentimental realism—where a world is made in the image of a single, authorizing point of view? A narrative that celebrates a world made up of the details of private life and whose hero is sincere? I don’t have an easy answer to this question. It is like asking, should students be allowed to talk about their feelings after reading The Color Purple? Of course, they should, but where and when and under whose authority?
Clearly, Bartholomae then believed that students should not be permitted to think or feel for themselves—at least not without a professor of composition to monitor them.
Smith, and subsequently Bartholomae, referred me to the director of development of the College of Liberal Arts, to whom I made a presentation and who also, as expected, declined to support a journal. Creative nonfiction, as Bartholomae had stated, was simply not a serious discipline for a liberal arts college; it belonged in a journalism department. But the University of Pittsburgh had disbanded its “J” school in 1961. So that was that.
Anyway, like I said, I wasn’t surprised, and certainly I was in no way deterred by these rejections. I moved forward. I had a few dollars remaining from money I had raised to start a writers’ conference—focusing on all genres, not just nonfiction—so I approached one of my former students, Paul Mathews, whose family owned a printing business in town. I explained my idea and asked if he would help by printing the journal, if I ever got it put together, just for the money I had, which was somewhere between one thousand and two thousand dollars. I figured I could supplement it out of my own pocket because I remained convinced—no kidding, I continued to hope for this—that once the journal was produced, the department would endorse and support it despite the obvious ideological resistance.
Paul was a good guy, a quiet, hard-working student who had once been an intern for the Pitt conference—the same annual conference Chabon had participated in. Over the course of the previous ten years, I had put on maybe a half-dozen writers’ conferences—something that was pretty unusual back then. (As it turned out, the conference idea would be incredibly helpful in establishing the genre and the journal.) Paul had left Pittsburgh for Boston after graduation to work for the Boston Phoenix, but he was now back in town helping with his father’s business. He remained fired up about the publishing industry and got very excited about the creative nonfiction literary journal idea. He would do anything possible to help whenever I was ready, he said.
It is a funny thing. I have been teaching for more than thirty years and have had long relationships with many of my grad students, but the deeper relationships, I think, the people whom I could most count on in the end, have been undergrads. I think maybe undergrads have fewer mentors, especially in bigger universities, and are less interested in or skilled in networking. So the connections that they make with professors are potentially more personal and profound.
So Paul was ready and willing—but I was not ready quite yet. Bruce and Patsy had provided some names of writers they thought might be interested in contributing. I took that list of names, along with some I had gathered on my own—a list of about 170 folks who I suspected had some interest in nonfiction—and wrote letters (real letters!) explaining what I wanted to do and asking for advice, comments, and, most of all, submissions. I got some nice return letters, telling me what a great idea an all-creative nonfiction journal was. And people sent submissions, too. I think I got about forty in all.
I won’t say that most of the manuscripts sent my way—for not only that first issue, but the first few after word spread that there was a new journal seeking creative nonfiction— represented bad writing, whatever that is. I mean, lots of bad writing comes across the transom of any literary publication. But what people sent as creative nonfiction—what they thought the term meant—was difficult to fathom.
This debate about genre was going on everywhere in the early 1990s. I keep coming back to this war over acceptance of the form and its definition, but you have to understand that it was all-consuming and pervasive back then. You couldn’t talk about the art or craft until you had explained what it meant. But no one had to explain what fiction or poetry or drama was, so why should creative nonfiction be any different?
By then, I should say, the term creative nonfiction was beginning to gain traction, maybe in part because the National Endowment for the Arts had adopted it. It wasn’t a perfect term, and actually pretty much everyone hated it. But as with “new journalism,” it was helpful just to have a term.
Still, as our slush pile made clear, that didn’t mean there was consensus about what the term referred to. We got some poetry, for example, because the poems were true, the writers said. More often, we received submissions of poetry interspersed with prose. That was the “creative” part, the writers said when questioned. We got lots of fiction; the writers explained that the stories were based on fact, and more or less true, so why not just call them creative nonfiction? And then, of course, there were writers who sent whatever they had in their files and drawers—lots of newspaper clippings, and stuff unfinished or rejected a dozen times by other publications.
Sifting through these submissions and trying to figure out what to publish, I began to recognize at least one clear mission of the new journal: since no one could agree on the essence or meaning of creative nonfiction, we would publish work that demonstrated the core and fiber of the genre. We would select essays or articles or prose pieces—whatever you wanted to call them—that would help writers define and understand the parameters through example, not pedagogy. We would—as any good writer is supposed to do—show, not tell.
Fortunately, these are issues we don’t need to deal with much anymore; the overwhelming presence of creative nonfiction as a genre (and a publication) is now fact, and while the exact meaning of the term remains somewhat cloudy and imprecise, I think we can say the same thing we say about fiction and poetry: it is what we say it is. The art defines itself. And the firm idea that we are helping define the genre by example continues to guide Creative Nonfiction today.
And when I say “we,” I mean a pretty small group—even today, but especially at the beginning. Because Pitt had declined to sponsor the journal, I set up shop at home, on my dining room table. By then, I was living in an apartment in the Squirrel Hill neighborhood of Pittsburgh; I have vivid memories of working on the first issue of Creative Nonfiction there, with my wife (now my ex-wife), Patricia Park. Patricia was and still is a nurse, an avid reader, and a great editor. Also in the mix was our son, Sam, then only two years old. A favorite graduate student of mine, Kathleen Veslany, also contributed a great deal of time and energy to the project.
I won’t go over all of the pieces we published in the first issue, for the TOC is available on the CNF website, but I want to mention two that stand out in my mind: First, Natalia Rachel Singer, then an assistant professor at St Lawrence University, sent a manuscript based on a talk she had given when she was applying for the St. Lawrence position. It’s a great essay, very informative and personal at the same time, but it was the title that caught my attention. It was like a proclamation, a definition of doctrine: “Nonfiction in First Person, Without Apology.” It knocked my socks off, it was so apropos! I know Wolfe and Talese and Mailer and God knows how many other hotshots were saying this to the world, nothing new, but Singer was making this statement to some very judgmental folks. This was something I too could have said—and did say, frequently, to anyone who would listen—but it was much better coming from someone who was not such an avowed true believer. So we accepted and published her essay with pride and excitement.
Michael Pearson—like me, a lone wolf in a writing program, teaching creative nonfiction, more or less, at Old Dominion University—did not submit a manuscript; rather, he wrote a letter offering to conduct a Q&A with The New Yorker writer John McPhee. Pearson had interviewed McPhee once before for an academic article he had written, so they were acquainted. I needn’t tell you how special McPhee is. For one thing, The New Yorker was a literary cut even above Esquire, Rolling Stone, and the other player magazines, and McPhee was also the author, at that time, of maybe twenty-five books. And with rare exceptions—such as William Howarth’s brilliant interview and profile of him in the first John McPhee Reader, McPhee rarely discussed his work or his approach to writing. So this would be a gigantic coup for the journal if Michael could make this happen—and he did. It was quite a feat, not least because when Michael arrived at McPhee’s office, tape recorder in hand, for his “20 Questions,” McPhee told him to put his tape recorder away: “You’ll get a better story without a tape recorder. Besides, the question-and-answer format is the most primitive form of writing, you realize. Writing is selection. It’s better to start choosing right here and right now.”
So Michael had a conversation with McPhee and wrote a profile of the writer whose work I admired more than anyone else’s, except maybe Talese’s. We published it in that first issue: “Profile of New Yorker Writer John McPhee” was right on the cover. This was a triumph—a connection not only to the high and mighties in the Academy, but the traditional journalism folks as well. McPhee was a master of fact, who rarely wrote in the first person—the “I” referring to himself was nearly anathema. A journalist might contend that Natalia Rachel Singer was navel-gazing, but not the great McPhee.
So the first issue of Creative Nonfiction was on its way. Paul Mathews printed the issue, and we put it in the mail—176 copies to people who had subscribed and to others we hoped would subscribe. Then, we crossed our fingers and held our breath.
IV. Victory? Maybe.
A few weeks after the first journals rolled off Paul’s press, Patricia, Sam, and I landed in Tempe, Arizona, for the 1994 meeting of the Associated Writing Programs.
I had been to AWP conferences before. Back then, they were quiet, casual, and fun, with maybe a thousand people attending in all. People mostly knew one another, and it was a great time to get together and share war stories about colleagues, publishers, or whatever else. Now, of course, creative writing has turned into a big business, and thousands of writers and wannabe writers swarm convention centers and hotels, attending readings and pedagogy and craft sessions, drinking too much and networking like crazy. Looking for jobs. Looking for someone to publish their poems. Looking for a one-night stand. It was a lot more fun—and easier to get a drink in the hotel lobby bar—twenty years ago.
Anyway, I had been to a few of those conferences in the 1980s, and AWP was then, as it is now, the biggest event in the creative writing academy world—and because of that, I had made a promotional plan around it. I decided I could make the biggest bang for our buck by officially launching the first issue of Creative Nonfiction there. To help bolster the journal’s image as the voice of the emerging genre, I designed a panel on creative nonfiction—the first ever at AWP.
I was very nervous; I had recruited some good people, but I had no idea whether anyone would show up for this panel—“Creative Nonfiction in the Academy.” Both Michael Pearson and Natalia Rachel Singer had agreed to speak, and I had also invited Jane Bernstein—author, at the time, of a novel and also a wonderful memoir, Loving Rachel, about her developmentally challenged daughter. Jane was in Tempe at the time, researching a memoir about the murder of her sister when she was an ASU student in Tempe in the 1970s. We all met before the panel to make certain we were on the same page, joking all the while that we might be talking to ourselves. We figured no one would show up—either because they didn’t know what creative nonfiction was or because they thought they knew what it was but were appalled by the thought of it.
The morning of the panel, I made certain I steered clear of the designated room and kept myself occupied with other matters. Even though I was the moderator and the initiator of the event, I intended to be if not late, then right on time. Not early, for God’s sake, because I feared that standing there with my fellow panel members, watching an empty room not fill up, would make me crazy. So I walked around town and drank an extra coffee, with my heart literally pounding with anxiety. Patricia and Sam were at the table at the book fair, displaying and selling the journal. At that point, a few people had come around to look us over, but although there was a lot of interest—which was encouraging—we had made few sales.
Anyway, to make a long story short, I waited until the last minute and then hurried to the conference room. I couldn’t get in; I had to push and shove to get through the door, explaining to those fighting for seats that I was the panel moderator. The place was packed. People were flopped on the floor everywhere. It was amazing. Many of the attendees knew exactly what we creative nonfictionists were all about, and others were intrigued by the idea, thinking that they had all along been writing and reading this stuff, or wishing they could write this stuff if there was a place to publish it. It was an eclectic, curious, and enthusiastic crowd.
I took it as confirmation of my theory that creative nonfiction was the way in which many writers had always wanted to write—if only they had a place to publish it or a classroom in which to learn more about it or a community with which to discuss or debate it. Or even just a name—an official label—to give it.
In my introduction to the panel, I made a pitch for the journal. I tried to be sincere and passionate. Now there is a potential home for your work, I said, an exclusive place. It is the new journal I started: Creative Nonfiction. Come and see it at the table at the book fair—buy and subscribe and give to the cause. Your commitment now is crucial. Patricia and Sam were at the table, ready to show and sell, I said.
After the panel, the conversation continued, with people jamming the podium and lingering in the hallway in front of the room as we cleared out. People were all over the place, incredibly excited, and it was hard to break away—and I did not really want to break away, if truth be told. I was enjoying this feeling of making a connection. It was like coming out of a dark alley, having wandered aimlessly, seeking an exit. I can’t tell you what emotion I felt more at that time, elation or relief. Either way, it was great and glorious.
When I got back to the book fair table, most of the copies of the journal that we had shipped to the hotel had been sold. The event, the panel, the launch—it had all been a combined big hit. Like I said, my emotions were mixed. I knew that something really good had happened, and I wished that all of my doubting colleagues in Pittsburgh had been around to witness it. But it didn’t matter in the end. The genre and the journal were on their way to establishing something significant to writers and readers—everywhere.
Looking back now, I find this all quite amazing. How can twenty years have passed? What happened? Promoting true storytelling, creating the journal, and keeping it alive—I thought this was just something I would do for a while before moving on to other projects and adventures, other books, other immersion experiences. Not that I have stopped writing and living the creative nonfiction life; to the contrary, I have written or edited thirty books—so far. But then, because I began to care about it and appreciate the form and the challenges of writing, teaching, and editing, creative nonfiction became a mission and somewhat of a mania for me. I couldn’t quite stop doing it. And now, all these years have passed, and so much has happened in this nonfiction arena.
I said at the start of this piece that I was once a romantic, a dreamer. Now, looking back, thinking of what has happened to me, to the magazine, and to the genre itself, I can only conclude that I have never stopped dreaming—about the power of true stories, the impact they can make, the way they can unite cultures, generations, and professions—even within the academy. Creative nonfiction’s presence in creative writing programs continues to expand, and it is also spreading and taking root in many disciplines beyond English and composition and journalism. It’s a real movement—perhaps unlike anything that has ever happened in the literary world.
We—and I mean that in the broadest possible sense, including the writers I’ve been talking about, and the academics who have fought to establish programs around the country and even in other countries, and the magazine and book publishers who have supported and nurtured writers—have changed the way in which people are writing. True storytelling—narrative, memoir, long-form journalism, creative nonfiction, whatever you choose to call it—has become the dominant way in which thought leaders, as well as ordinary people with stories to tell and information to communicate, reach and affect their audiences. More than that, I would argue that this focus on true storytelling is helping people think more clearly and empathetically.
In the end, it is our stories that define us to the world at large and to ourselves. Writing is a challenge, but it is also a privilege. My story is my life—and you’ve just read my story or, at least, the first part of it. And here’s something weird but totally true: until I told the story I am telling you here (and I have worked on many drafts over the months), I did not really understand it myself. I had never quite put it all together until now, until this last-sentence moment. I can’t say whether my telling it has changed how you think or feel—but I can tell you that it has changed and enlightened me inside and out. That’s pretty amazing, I think. And it’s why creative nonfiction—or whatever you want to call it—is so vital, so inspirational, and so thoroughly addictive.