What’s the Story #52

"The stories we tell have to matter—not only personally, but to the world at large"

I’ve told this story before, but bear with me: fifteen years ago, Vanity Fair, in a four-page article entitled “Me, Myself and I,” lambasted me and most other creative nonfiction writers as “navel gazers” writing “civic journalism for the soul.” The article was precipitated, more than anything, by the sudden popularity of memoir—books by Mary Karr, Tobias Wolff, Kathryn Harrison, and others—which added a very intimate element to the creative/narrative nonfiction world. It is not as if memoir was something new in the literary world, but it was the sudden onslaught—the “memoir craze,” the critics called it—that put critics and the traditional journalism community on the attack.

Today, for the most part, memoir is no longer a craze or an object of criticism and derision—just a reality and a thriving segment of the publishing world. (Sure, there’s still a bit of controversy now and then—some writers perhaps reveal too much about themselves and the people they are writing about, and others, like the infamous James Frey, get carried away with the idea of storytelling and unfortunately make stuff up to enhance their story. And then there’s a spate of critical essays warning about the potential evil of creative nonfiction. So it goes.)

But as much as I love memoir—in fact, we’re currently working on a memoir issue, due out next spring—I am sometimes frustrated that creative nonfiction and memoir have, in some ways, to some audiences, apparently become synonymous. As I see it, creative nonfiction is an umbrella term, and memoir is only one of the forms included under its shadow. The fundamental building blocks of creative nonfiction—that is, storytelling techniques used to communicate important factual information—can certainly be employed in telling a personal story, but they can be used equally effectively to tell a rich and compelling true story about any subject or character. For this reason, I believe, creative nonfiction has been gradually expanding beyond the creative writing community and the journalism and publishing worlds—and into other parts of the Academy, as well as to fields like law, economics, medicine, and other serious professions. Slowly but surely, we are beginning to see that we can use the storytelling craft—writing in scenes and establishing suspense and drama—to capture information about important societal problems and innovations and to communicate complicated and elusive ideas and messages.

This issue of Creative Nonfiction explores some of these broader uses of storytelling. Our longtime (but very part-time) copyeditor, Leslie Jill Patterson, introduces us to her work writing case narratives for capital murder cases in Texas, and Sayantani DasGupta, who teaches in Columbia University’s Narrative Medicine program, explains what “narrative medicine” is and how it can make doctors better healers. Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Sheri Fink discusses the work that went into researching her best-selling book Five Days at Memorial: Life and Death in a Storm-Ravaged Hospital. Plus, there’s a special section devoted to the explosion of live storytelling events—a slightly different medium for making a maximum impact on your audience.

The stories we tell have to matter—not only personally, but to the world at large. Storytelling is our oldest, most powerful art form; we use it to entertain, to inform, and to inspire. A good story can change the world. That is what this issue is all about.

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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