What’s the Story #38

So, okay, perhaps as you stood at your mailbox or as you eyed the pile of packages and envelopes you carted into the house and dumped on the kitchen table, you spotted this bright red cover and blinked a few times and wondered, “What is going on? I subscribed to a literary journal, Creative Nonfiction, and now I’ve received this magazine in the mail. Is this a different Creative Nonfiction—or the same Creative Nonfiction?”

Well, “Yes!” and “Yes!” Here’s the story:

When I started Creative Nonfiction, the journal, in 1993, there were few literary journals that solicited or published creative nonfiction at all, and certainly none that published creative nonfiction exclusively, as Creative Nonfiction has done since its first issue. Back then, lots of people had never heard of the term “creative nonfiction.” (And, of course there are still some who haven’t, but that’s another story.) Over the years, hundreds of people have approached me personally or through letters, phone calls and e-mails, saying, “I’ve been writing this stuff forever—but I didn’t know what it was called. Now it has a name! Finally, I can tell people what I’m doing!”

So, yes, it has a name, although some people don’t like the term for various reasons. Some say the word “creative” gives the impression that the stuff we are writing is made up—as if you can’t be creative and truthful and factual at the same time. Others complain that they don’t like the second part of the term because it defines what we are not—but that’s just silly. “Literary nonfiction” and “narrative nonfiction” are sometimes offered as replacement labels, but mostly these days, if you check out creative writing programs, the National Endowment of the Arts, state arts councils and university presses, “creative nonfiction” is the accepted term. In fact, creative nonfiction is the fastest growing segment of the academic writing community and is, even in this dismal economic cycle, one bright spot in the publishing world, continually increasing its share of the market.

Why has this happened? What has creative nonfiction become so popular and profitable? I believe there are many reasons, beginning with the practical fact that people—readers—respond to stories, to narrative. True, most of the best fiction and poetry contain a strong narrative element, but these days, we all navigate an ongoing stream of information and news, and narratives help make information accessible and memorable. The ability to communicate significant information in a manner that resonates with readers is a valuable skill, one that is increasingly rewarded. Indeed, you can take creative nonfiction to the bank; these days, editors, publishers, employers and readers recognize the value in this kind of writing and are willing to compensate writers for sharing what they know in an artful manner. There may be few employment opportunities or freelance markets for poets and novelists, but the door is wide open for “creative nonfictionists.”

Also, even as new technologies bring the world closer together, our lives are becoming increasingly isolated. Many of us don’t even know our neighbors’ names. Social media have replaced an actual social life. And yet, we crave the intimacy that humans forge through storytelling, through sharing and comparing our experiences.

And let me say something else about narrative. These days, everybody is talking narrative, and anybody who is anybody, from politicians like Barack Obama and Sarah Palin to your neighborhood bartender or personal trainer, is supposed to have “a narrative,” a story that says something about who or what they are, a story that places them in a context.

And this is precisely what Creative Nonfiction does: it provides a way for writers and readers to connect. Stories—particularly artfully constructed and deliberately expressed stories—serve as connective tissue between writer and reader, and in the end, it is this connection that all of us, readers and writers, crave. Connecting is, above all, the reason writers write: to teach, to inform, to share what they know, to reflect, to enlighten, to affect readers, to make a difference.

And that is why I started Creative Nonfiction 17 years ago: to provide an outlet for writers to make an impact by sharing facts and truths blended with story. And it’s the exact same reason why we are now evolving from journal to magazine: not only to continue the mission of providing a space for writers, but also to be a more significant and valuable resource for anyone who as an interest or a stake—whether professional or simply recreational—in this genre we call creative nonfiction.

And so, in addition to essays, Creative Nonfiction, the magazine, will now contain columns on craft; reflections on developments in the literary world, particularly the nonfiction part of it; profiles of writers, editors and publishers; and more— “writing about writing” that we hope will be informative and, sometimes, provocative and, above all, useful and of interest especially (though not only) to aspiring writers and students.

In this issue, Dave Eggers answers Jeff Gordinier’s questions about everything  from creating dramatic tension in and the literary influences on “Zeitoun,” his latest nonfiction book, to his travel schedule and the music he listens to while writing. Ian Morris, soon to be former assistant editor of TriQuarterly, which will publish its last print edition in April, ponders the future of the literary magazine; Phillip Lopate, in the first installment of a regular column, tackles the thorny question of how to use imagination in creative nonfiction scenes; Richard Rodriguez (whose column will appear twice a year) reflects on the costs of PBS NewsHour’s decision to cut essays from the program.

Of course, we are not at all abandoning the practice of publishing the best creative nonfiction from new and established authors, which is how we have distinguished ourselves—and the writer’s we’ve published—over the years. On the contrary, this issue contains original essays, addressing the theme of Immortality, from some of the best writers and thinkers in the world, including poet/activist Carolyn Forché, physicist Lawrence Krauss, environmentalist Bill McKibben and philosopher Todd May. This issue also includes new work, from less-established writers, that experiments with form, that was originally published online, or that tries to tell a true story in the fewest possible words. It’s all part of our exploration of the genre and our attempt to do, as a magazine, what writers of creative nonfiction must do in their work: seamlessly combine substance with style.

Some years ago, I began stating that creative nonfiction was a movement—and not a moment. The literary journal, Creative Nonfiction, sparked the movement by legitimizing the genre within the academic writing world and providing all writers with a voice and an outlet for serious and often long nonfiction work. And now the genre has taken off and is coming into its own. And we are responding to that movement—and astounding and continuing growth—by evolving from journal to magazine.

So if you are one of those surprised subscribers, we hope you’ll enjoy the “new” Creative Nonfiction as much as—and maybe even more than—you have the “old” Creative Nonfiction. And we’d love to hear what you think; after you’ve had a look, please e-mail us, call us, find us on Facebook or Twitter.

And to new readers: Welcome to the world of the literature of reality, the genre of the future—and to our new/old journal/magazine.

About the Author

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Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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