What’s the Story #47

This issue of Creative Nonfiction features a dialogue with Cheryl Strayed, who has achieved fame and acclaim recently as the author of the runaway best seller Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail. Wild was Oprah Winfrey’s first pick for Oprah’s Book Club 2.0 and has been optioned by Reese Witherspoon’s production company, Pacific Standard, for a feature film. Strayed also writes the “Dear Sugar” column on TheRumpus.net, where she has coined a phrase that has gone viral within the writing community, emblazoned on T-shirts and coffee mugs and God knows what else: Write like a motherfucker.

The message is hardly new. Any successful writer will tell you that talent is only part of literary achievement; that you have to write regularly; that rewriting is as important as writing; and that when the work is not going well, you work harder. You write like a motherfucker, whenever you can. It’s the style, the forbidden “MF” word, that turned Strayed’s exhortation into a kind of mantra. It is gutsy—raw and daring.

But I don’t think it says enough. Writing is only part of the package in creative or narrative nonfiction; before you can write, you have to have something to say. As I have often said, creative nonfiction is two words: The “creative” part is the style, and the “nonfiction” part is the substance. And to get the substance, you have to gather information, suffer and survive a tragedy, experience an adventure, lock yourself in a library—whatever it takes. In other words, before you can write like a motherfucker, you have to research like a motherfucker.

By “research,” I don’t necessarily mean that you have to go to the Library of Congress, or carry around a reporter’s notebook and interview people. To a certain extent, in all literature, some research will be required, but memoirists will say, “I write about personal experience—things that have happened to me, alone. It is my story, so where’s the research?”

“It’s your story,” I will reply. “Your story—or the facts in your story—is research, too.”

Wild is a wonderful book, the story of Strayed’s thousand-mile trek, from preparation to her arrival in Portland, Oregon—and that’s research. She kept detailed journals, which she went back and re-read, and also spoke with fellow hikers, asking them what they remembered from their time with her on the trail—and that’s research, too. Fundamentally, Strayed’s research—although much of it was based on her personal experiences—required the same hard work, patience, and persistence we expect from the finest literary journalists, like Gay Talese and John McPhee.

I think there are a lot of women writing serious nonfiction; they’re just not getting the serious attention they deserve.

I make this point because women writing creative nonfiction have often been memoirists—maybe because “being in the field” presents many challenges, and more so for women than for men, particularly if they have children. In a recent Encounter in this magazine (CNF #46), Geraldine Brooks commented that she transitioned from nonfiction to fiction in part because of the responsibilities and demands of having and raising a family: “I haven’t given up on [nonfiction],” she said. “But, it doesn’t suit the mothering of young children, because, in the pursuit of nonfiction, you have to follow the story wherever it leads you for however long it takes.” In another Encounter (CNF #42), Susan Orlean observed that most of her editors at The New Yorker, where she is a staff writer, are women, and they work just as hard as the writers they edit—only on a more normal schedule. “Editors don’t travel,” she pointed out. “They don’t go to weird events at weird times, places where you wouldn’t take a child.”

Orlean, who is the author of The Orchid Thief, among half a dozen other books, did not have a child until she was in her late forties, by which time she had built a solid career as a writer. After giving birth to her baby, she went back on the road, for three years, off and on, producing a fascinating, in-depth biography of the famous movie star German shepherd, Rin Tin Tin. I recently interviewed Orlean about the process of researching and writing Rin Tin Tin: The Life and the Legend—and about her life as a writer—for an hour-long video, produced by Simon & Schuster, that is available online.

Susan Orlean is probably the first writer a lot of people think of if asked to name a woman writer of narrative nonfiction—that is to say, not memoir. (In fact, to judge from some anthologies, she’s one of the few women writers editors can think of, along with a few writers from an earlier generation—Joan Didion, Jane Kramer, Janet Malcolm.)

But, of course, it’s not true that women write only memoir or that they don’t write about “serious” topics—and I hope this issue demonstrates that. I should point out that we didn’t set out to publish an all-women essay section, but CNF consistently receives more submissions from women than from men. As we read for this issue, we were drawn to a number of essays about, in some way, “the senses”—hearing, sight. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say they’re about “perception.” It just so happened that all of them were by women.

But I don’t think it’s an accident that we ended up with a collection of essays by women—some personal, some less so, and all of them with a significant amount of information about and engagement with their topics, which include genetics, molecular biology, entomology, archaeology, and ophthalmology. I think there are a lot of women writing serious nonfiction; they’re just not getting the serious attention they deserve.

The writers in this issue—and Strayed and Orlean—are of different generations and, perhaps, of different sensibilities in relation to how they express themselves. But each, in her own way, practices the combined art and craft of creative nonfiction, researching and writing like . . . well, you know what.

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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