What’s the Story #50

"This issue offers insight into the work, heartache, and challenges of publishing a literary magazine—and perhaps that's the most fitting way to make this milestone."

The early 1990s, when Creative Nonfiction was launched, were a heady time for me: in addition to writing books and teaching, I devoted a good deal of my time and effort defending not only what I was doing, but what the masters of the form—among them John McPhee, Gay Talese, Kathryn Harrison, and Mary Karr—were writing. Back then, creative nonfiction—the genre—was under attack from many different quarters. There was a great deal of resistance to this form from both journalistic and academic quarters.

I’ve revisited that time period in a long memoir for this, our fiftieth issue. But before I get to that, I’d like to talk about the journal—now magazine—and how it has evolved.

In some ways, the first ten issues of Creative Nonfiction, published between 1993 and 1998, were the most difficult to put together because, of course, we were brand new and operating somewhat blindly, more on instinct than with knowledge and confidence. We learned as we went.  In other ways, they were the most satisfying to build. In Issue 2, “Poets Writing Prose,” we heralded the poets, like Charles Simic, who were crossing genres and embracing creative nonfiction. In Issue 3, “Emerging Women Writers,” we acknowledged the fact that women in particular were finding a voice and a platform of expression in creative nonfiction. (That’s been an ongoing theme and interest here—with two other issues, #12 and #47, featuring the work of women only.) Issue 4 reintroduced classics from Gay Talese and John McPhee, who, subsequently, in Issue 8, shared for the first time passages from a memoir-in-progress he was calling An Album Quilt.

During that time, we introduced new voices, writers who became literary superstars, like Lauren Slater. Work by Mark Bowden, Lewis Simpson, Phillip Lopate, Madison Smartt Bell, and many others appeared in Creative Nonfiction during that period. Ever so slowly—and quite astonishingly—other literary journals that had been downplaying or ignoring narrative nonfiction began to seek out true story submissions.

In 1997, we teamed with Goucher College to launch a creative nonfiction writers conference—the first in the country—followed the next year by the first low-residency creative nonfiction MFA program, ever. Previously, the University of Pittsburgh, where I was then a faculty member, had launched the first MFA program in creative nonfiction in the country. Now there are probably one hundred such programs of one sort or another worldwide. You can get a Ph.D. in creative nonfiction in the United States, Australia, and New Zealand.

Like I said, it was a heady time. Still, nothing was easy: we had to fight for funding, acceptance, and an acknowledgement of legitimacy in the ranks of journalism and inside the academy, primarily in English departments. I remember this time as a time of war—frustrating and exhausting, but sometimes, thank goodness, marked by victories.

The issues after the first ten stream by in my consciousness; each was meaningful in a different way. Issue 19, “Diversity Dialogues,” featured new work by John Edgar Wideman, Richard Rodriguez, Diane Ackerman, Jewell Parker Rhodes, Terry Tempest Williams, and others. We sold tens of thousands of copies of that issue, most of them to an international bank, JPMorgan Chase, devoted to promoting diversity. With Issue 21, “Rage and Reconciliation: Inspiring a Healthcare Revolution,” we began demonstrating how true storytelling and compelling first-person voices can communicate information and make vital statements that affect our nation’s direction. For Issue 24/25, we published a book with W.W. Norton, In Fact, which collected the best essays from Creative Nonfiction’s first ten years: work and commentary by distinguished writers like Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams, and Francine Prose. Today, teachers on all levels still use In Fact in classrooms, for it represents the wide swath of the form.

In 2005, in response to the James Frey/A Million Little Pieces controversy, when it was discovered that Frey had embellished his (Oprah-endorsed) memoir, we published Issue 29, “A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF,” which outlined guidelines and parameters that we felt clarified the often murky line between truth and imagination.

It was perhaps that issue and the national debate that it captured, combined that same year with the first in a series of Best Creative Nonfiction books, published by W.W. Norton, that made us realize that the genre had gone through a significant transition. Creative Nonfiction was finally a part of the literary landscape. Not only did writers, readers, and literary critics want to read high quality true stories, but they wanted to understand, debate, and dialogue about the form. Around this time, we began to plan Creative Nonfiction’s major transition from a literary journal to a magazine format, which launched in 2010 with Issue 38.

During all this time, we maintained our independence—not out of choice, necessarily, but more as a necessity, finding funding for the magazine by expanding our activities, maintaining our mission of informing the world about the genre, and introducing new and established voices. (I do mean the world, by the way. We’ve devoted issues to Mexican and Australian nonfiction, and the magazine has subscribers in more than forty countries.)

Over the years, I have become less of an on-the-scene editor and more an editor-publisher-entrepreneur—establishing a one-on-one mentoring program, starting a book imprint (In Fact Books) as well as an online school that has served hundreds of students worldwide, and helping to launch writers conferences in Pittsburgh and Mississippi. Meanwhile, the magazine’s presence has grown steadily; today, you can find issues of Creative Nonfiction not only in bookstores, but also at Whole Foods.

So we’ve been successful, generally—here we are at Issue 50—but I have to tell you that it has been an awful struggle. Sometimes, I have to admit, I honestly feel all alone, not knowing what to do next to keep us afloat and quite frankly feeling exhausted by the ongoing and unrelenting effort.

Which brings me to this fiftieth issue. Many months ago, my staff began to hound me about the plan for this issue—a milestone for any publication and especially for one that has maintained its independence for so long. I procrastinated. To tell the truth, I didn’t know what to do; it made me feel old and worn out just to think about it having published fifty issues. So, in an attempt to put my thoughts in order and decide how to acknowledge this milestone, I did what any self-respecting writer would do: I began to write about it, starting from the absolute beginning. I started what has turned out to be a memoir of my own personal discovery not only of the genre but also of the vital role literary or “little” magazines have played in the lives and careers of many of this country’s finest and most distinguished writers.

This—the literary world, the vital impact of little magazines—was new to me, incidentally. (You might not know this, but even though I have established MFA programs and served on dozens of PhD committees in writing, literature, and communications, and have written or edited more than thirty books, I am self-taught. There are no advanced degrees beside my name. Call me Mr. Gutkind—not Dr. Gutkind.)

I began recounting the rocky road that brought the genre and the journal together, and an excerpt of this memoir, describing the events leading up to the publication of the first issue of Creative Nonfiction, has become part of this fiftieth issue. Mostly, as you will see and as I have hinted at here, it is a war story—a series of battles that played out on many different fronts over twenty years. A longer version of this memoir will appear in a book, True Stories, Well Told: From the First 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, to be published next summer.

Of course, I am not at all the only person who had anything to do with the rise and development of this magazine, and I am happy to say that you will meet some of the major players in this issue—the editors and supporters without whose efforts Creative Nonfiction could never have survived for so long. I did not raise the resources, fight the battles, read the manuscripts, do the proofreading, follow the issues into and through production, on my own—not by a long shot.

In this issue, you will meet Patricia Park, Leslie Aizenman, Jessica Mesman Griffith, and Jill Patterson, all of whom worked tirelessly and for very little compensation for the publication as we grew more established, as well as the current editors, Hattie Fletcher and Stephen Knezovich, and Anjali Sachdeva, our co-director of online education. I asked each of them—along with Dinty W. Moore, the editor of Brevity and a longtime board member and friend of Creative Nonfiction—to select his or her favorite issue from the forty-nine we’ve published so far and to pick one especially memorable or touching or challenging essay from that issue; we’ve republished their selections here. I also asked each of them to explain to readers why that issue and essay resonated over all of these years.

The result, I think, is a captivating collection of some very compelling narrative nonfiction reading by writers who span twenty years of the magazine. More than that, I think this issue offers insight into the work, heartache, and challenges of publishing a literary magazine—and perhaps, it occurs to me now, that’s the most fitting way of all to mark this milestone.

Of course, none of us at Creative Nonfiction, this founding editor included, would have been able to serve or to have experienced the joy and satisfaction of achieving so very much in the literary world without the support of readers. Speaking personally, it has been an honor to work for you and with you, to share the challenges and joys and even the heartache as creative nonfiction—and Creative Nonfiction—has become a reality and even a literary movement. I hope that you will continue this support by renewing your subscription or starting a new one; contributing your work, your thoughts and ideas; or even, if you can, sending an additional tax-deductible contribution. Any of these would greatly help Creative Nonfiction surge onward toward the next fifty issues.

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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