What’s the Story #75

"One of my reasons for starting Creative Nonfiction was to make the genre seem more legitimate and to secure its place on serious bookshelves"

The first issue of Creative Nonfiction was published in early 1994. It was a literary journal then, or “little magazine,” as such publications were sometimes called, and a modest affair—ninety-two pages, perfect bound, no illustrations save for a really cool paper tear on the cover.

When I first came up with the idea of a journal devoted exclusively to creative or narrative nonfiction, the genre was an outlier in the academy, thought by many to be superfluous, or a passing fad. Creative writing programs weren’t as ubiquitous then as they are today, and the courses and workshops that existed focused mostly on poetry and fiction. Essay writing and other nonfiction-centered courses were offered, but rarely were they part of a program or a concentration of study. In fact, one of my reasons for starting the journal was to make the genre seem more legitimate and to secure its place on serious bookshelves, like those of my colleagues, filled with academic journals featuring serious studies and newly discovered work.

I was also convinced that there was a need for a publication that invited and appreciated nonfiction narrative specifically. I had traveled the country, over the previous ten years, beating the creative nonfiction drum and defending it as an art form as vital and challenging as poetry or fiction or playwriting. As I traveled, I met more and more writers and would-be writers, in and out of the academy, who were writing creative nonfiction (whether or not they knew it) and had no idea where to publish it. The slick markets—the New YorkerEsquire, etc.—were certainly favored destinations, but they were as highly competitive then as they are today, and the pieces they published mostly focused on reportage, which was not exactly what many creative nonfictionists were all about. So—in a nutshell—I decided to make a place for those writers.

We received about a hundred submissions for the first issue of Creative Nonfiction, and we had not too many more subscribers than that. But by our tenth issue, we had, quite amazingly, more than two thousand subscribers, pretty significant for a literary publication.

But it is not just Creative Nonfiction’s success I want to talk about, but more so the ways in which the genre has grown. In the early 1990s, very few literary journals were interested in nonfiction narrative; most of the nonfiction they published was critical essays. Of course, there were personal essays or narratives published in journals like the Georgia Review and the Gettysburg Review, but for the most part, creative nonfiction was rarely encouraged. Today, a great many literary journals are actively soliciting creative nonfiction, and other publications that feature nonfiction exclusively have been established. University presses have not only welcomed creative nonfiction essay collections and memoirs, but have even established creative or literary nonfiction imprints. In the larger publishing world, trade presses and literary agents are actively seeking writers who can write nonfiction that appeals to a general readership—and they’re not just looking for professional writers, but for scientists and physicians and economists—anybody who has a fascinating and information-rich story to tell.

I am certainly not saying that the founding of our little magazine was responsible for this “true story movement”—it was inevitable and would have happened anyway, sooner or later—but I like to think that we were part of what got things going and growing.

Over our first fifteen years, there were thirty-six more issues of the journal—more pages and contributions from both prestigious writers and total newbies—and that same old paper tear we loved. In 2010, with issue #38, we made a big change to accommodate our growing constituency and to reach readers who were not in the academy, leaving our traditional literary journal format to become the magazine we still are today—at our 75th issue! There have been many other changes over the past decade, too. We published anthologies of our best work, and even started a book imprint, In Fact Books. We introduced another magazine, True Story—a genuinely little magazine, pocket-size, that features one work of longform nonfiction prose per issue. And every Sunday, you can receive a bit of flash nonfiction in our Sunday Short Reads email.

Now, as we continue to grow, and as the creative nonfiction genre continues to evolve and expand, it’s time for Creative Nonfiction, our flagship magazine, to evolve as well. Our next issue, #76, will look different than the one you are reading now, with a new look and feel and size, though we’ll still feature outstanding essays, as well as writing that provides insight into the genre to which we are dedicated. And very soon, even before the debut of the redesigned magazine, we’ll also have a new website that replaces the site we launched in 2012—practically a lifetime ago, in internet years—to help mark our transformation from journal to magazine. If you’re a subscriber, you will soon receive helpful information about all of the new things our website will offer, including almost all the work that’s ever appeared in Creative Nonfiction.

To mark this milestone, we’re very pleased to revisit, in this last issue of the “old” Creative Nonfiction, some of our favorite prizewinning essays, representing issues that focused on themes ranging from memoir to “real-life Frankenstein stories” to the weather. You’ll also find brief excerpts from some of the phenomenal interviews we’ve published in our Encounters section over the years—advice and reflections on craft from writers such as Dave Eggers, Leslie Jamison, Patricia Hampl, and many others.

I hope you enjoy this retrospective issue as much as we have enjoyed putting it together, and I very much hope you’ll stick with us, both online and in print, as we continue to grow, break barriers, and expand our vision and mission to bring more writers and readers into the creative nonfiction sphere.

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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All current print magazine subscribers (Creative Nonfiction and/or True Story) also have access to our entire digital archive. That’s nearly 30 years’ worth of true stories, well told! 

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