Creative Non-What?

I had this really elegant post planned for this morning, based on a peach. You know, it’s Labor Day here in the States, the non-official end of summer, and I bit into a peach for breakfast and it was stringy and lacking flavor, which means it’s time to move into apples and pears and squash and such, and then I was going to write all about my hometown. But all of that is simply going to have to wait for another time because this morning I was quickly perusing my blogroll when I came across an earlier post by Ms. Make Tea discussing (mostly in the comments section) what creative nonfiction (no hyphen, according to my professors) actually IS. Ms. Tea had read How to think Like your Editor, a book that claims to aid writers in producing their first nonfiction book proposal. I’ve read it and it’s okay, some good advice but the author grated on my nerves a bit. This post encouraged a small flurry along the lines of – what is creative nonfiction?

You would think, as someone with her MFA in creative nonfiction from the oldest creative nonfiction program in the country (they tell us to say that), I’d have an answer. Alas, I really don’t, although I still suck in a breath of despair when I read it even marginally criticized.

When I first decided to apply to graduate school for writing, I knew I wanted to pursue nonfiction, but I was looking more along the lines of writing literary biographies or journalism or possibly, maybe, historical biography. Since I was unemployed and living in a small town in West Virginia at the time, I had ample time to thorougly research the schools I could apply to, and that’s when I first noted that about four or five schools creative nonfiction programs. Since I had all of these essays written about my grandfather and my dad, I thought, well, hell. This must be what I’ve been writing! I’ll be a creative nonfiction writer! And so I did, and a couple of schools accepted me, and one gave me a scholarship and thought I could teach, and S. and I packed up and left West Virginia and moved to an actual city with things like farmers’ markets, plays, bars and a gray grittiness that seeped right into our DNA. And I learned these two things about creative nonfiction:

(1.) Creative nonfiction uses the literary devices applied to fiction (metaphor, allusion, alliteration, developed narration, plot, etc.) to tell a true story, and

(2.) Most people will never understand your degree, or they will think it is bullshit, except for other nonfictioneers.

The program I graduated from places great emphasis on diversifying your writing, so I took classes not only in creativen nonfiction but in poetry, screen writing, fiction, the Victorian Novel, composition pedagogy for the classroom, Women in Restoration Literature, etc. It promotes the belief that writers need a solid literary and theoretical background to approach their work, a belief many writers bemoaned but one I enjoyed since I was also a ph.d wanna be. The education I received was wonderful, but explaining the degree I was pursuing caused one headache after another. My mom finally metaphorically wiped her hands of explaining it and just told her friends I was in a creative writing program, and that’s eventually what I did, too, but not before my father-in-law accused me, over Christmas dinner, of being on an extremely slippery AND trecherous slope with pursuing such an education (he’s a biologist) and, one year in, my husband said “Doesn’t creative nonfiction mean you are playing around with the facts, inventing stuff? Why are you doing this, again?” – but then, S. doesn’t read my writing and, on the rare chance he does, refers to it as ‘cute,’ and if we ever do get divorced I know all of you will understand why. In the midst of my degree I realized very few people outside my circle of peers would understand why I was pursuing such a degree, and I think most people were just thankful I was spending any actual money on it.

My thesis was a book of essays called Haunted By Hemingway, which explores the themes from Hemingway’s Nick Adam’s short stories, using feminist theory and personal experience to discuss them. Other students wrote, in no particular order, about the history of Alaska, the Vietnam War, the homeless, alternative medicine in America, fire fighters, their mothers, their fathers, their families, living in Africa, living in Japan, being molested, being a stripper, etc. Memoir dominated, and since memoir has come under such criticism lately sometimes the fiction mfa’s would dismiss us pretty easily, which once caused my friend J. to tell them after too many drinks one night in a bar “Hell, at least we are being honest in our writing. You know all you shits are just writing memoir too, and disguising it as fiction.”

For classes, we read, again in no particular order, Gay Talese, Ernest Hemingway, Joan Didion, Maxine Hong Kingston, Hunter S. Thompson, Kathryn Harris, Anne Lamotte, Annie Dillard, Lauren Slater, Atwul Gawande and Francis Prose. And loads more.

We were obviously instructed to never ever ever ever ever ever under penalty of expulsion to  state a fact we weren’t entirely, 100 % sure about, the same punishment appied to plagiarism applied to not doing our fact-checking. In class, we talked about reliable narrators, development of character, development of story (what is this really about, we’d ask each other, seriously), we haranged the student who glorified his stripper girlfriend and his coke addiction, we recognized the considerable innate talent in a couple of students, we had potlucks and drank wine and were encouraged to read the NYTimes every day. Because of this we talked politics and plays and imagined lives as intrepid New Yorker staff members upon graduation. We wrote book proposals and magazine pitches and many of us are now writing for our jobs and many more are getting published here and there. And very few of us can probably define creative nonfiction any further than I did above. But we can tell you what we read and what we write and what we believe, which is sometimes there is more truth in an essay exploring an event than there is in reportage. See John Edgar Wideman, see John McPhee.

It’s funny now to think I’m writing fiction, but I am. I never before thought I had the imagination for it, but I do, and it allows a freedom with language that creative nonfiction doesn’t. If I say the sky is orange, nobody will tell me, well, that was four days after the winter solstice so wouldn’t the sky be, say, more reddish? But I’m taking notes for my next nonfiction book, and will be practicing immersion journalism next winter, and this time thoroughy enjoying the process of writing my next nonfiction with the luxury of time and proper research, which the demands of graduate school simply don’t allow for, between grading papers and reading Dickens and, well, trying to read the NYTimes.

I think the best thing attempting to understand creative nonfiction can do is help us recognize that there are stories all around us. From the homeless man who camps on your corner to the paper plant in your hometown, from the many movies you’ve seen over the course of your life to a day spent at the beach, your life is made up of stories, and stories make up your life, and creative nonfiction writers are simply trying to tell the truth the best way they know how, understanding at a very organic level that there are stories, stories EVERYWHERE, and the creative comes from the unique approach to telling them.

And now, I have to complete the second chapter of my novel…

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11 Responses to Creative Non-What?

  1. Emily says:

    Seems odd to me that anyone would have to describe “creative nonfiction.” It’s the most enjoyable sort of nonfiction there is.

  2. Emily says:

    Seems odd to me that anyone would have to define “creative nonfiction.” It’s the most enjoyable sort of nonfiction there is.

  3. yogamum says:

    I love that: “Most people will never understand your degree, or they will think it is bullshit, except for other nonfictioneers.”

    I took a couple of creative nonfiction classes and I absolutely loved them. It is one of my favorite genres to read, as well.

  4. litlove says:

    Well this sounds to me like an excellent education in the art of writing. I’ve always wanted to write a book about the way stories invade our lives because no one know how to look for them now – in politics and the media and the law, for instance. No factual account is without creativity, just as no creativity can exist without a solid basis of the real and the true. I’d have loved to do your course, I think.

  5. Dorothy W. says:

    Great post! I love the genre of creative nonfiction, and really don’t get why writers of other genres would give you and your peers a hard time. Creative nonfiction can be so innovative and exciting. I’d be curious to hear who your favorite writers in the genre are, and maybe your favorite books/essays.

  6. Make Tea Not War says:

    Thanks for this- very helpful. I’m thinking about maybe taking a creative non fiction class as I think it would be good to have the discipline and structure that would impose.

  7. BikeProf says:

    This is the best discussion of creative nonfiction I’ve ever read. It’s a tough term, implying as it could that there is that noncreative stuff out there, too. I sympathize with you over your family’s confusion. When I was working on my diss, my uncel asked me if, once I finished the diss, I wold then be going on to write novels. He seemed to think that the diss was some sort of license to write novels.

  8. Emily – I agree, definately, although I do think there should be lines to distinguish this genre from general reportage, and i think that’s where the confustion comes in often. It really is such a blanket term so I completely rely on the definition I put forth earlier.

    Yogamum – always love having another ‘student’ of creative nonfiction out there!

    Litlove – “No factual account is without creativity, just as no creativity can exist without a solid basis of the real and the true” – absolutely right! The course I did was really stupendous, and happily the program is slowly growing and gaining recognition. I was lucky to find something to suit me so completely for my graduate education.

    Dorothy – I have no idea why the fiction folks would give us a hard time, but they often did, and we did them. I think the level of competition is so high and tense in pursuing an mfa – people publishing all the time already, etc. that sometimes it made us mean spirited. Some of my favorite nonfiction writers include David Sedaris, (now) Bill Bryson, Maxine Hong Kingston, James Baldwin, Bruce Chatwin, Truman Capote, Richard Rodriguez and Anne Lamotte. My favorite creative nonfiction book of all time is impossible to name, but one I had success teaching and have read five times and never get tired of is A Woman Warrior, by Maxine Hong Kingston. It is remarkable in its approach to story-telling. My favorite essays, ridiculous but true, are in Me Talk Pretty One Day, simply because they seemed ground-breaking when I read them. Barry Lopez is another favorite essayist.

    Make Tea – oh, you should take a course. What can it hurt? I thoroughly recommend it!

    Bikeprof – first of all, i am pleased to see on litlove’s sight that there is someone else who has read the unabridged edition of The Stand. Secondly, thank you for the kind words – how funny about your uncle. To me, the concept of creative nonfiction, the concept of a dissertation, well, they aren’t that difficult to understand, but then again, most people aren’t engaged in academics, and it’s hard to remember that sometimes!

  9. Dorothy W. says:

    Thanks for the list of authors! I’d like to read Chatwin, especially, as I’m interested in travel writing. I love The Woman Warrior too, and also Baldwin’s essays and Rodriguez. I haven’t read Lamotte or Capote — should check them out. Thanks!

  10. kj says:

    Again, you have floored me. This is a well-written, informative piece that makes me realize how little I know about writing. It’s like I’m an ape, trying to write with a rock. And I thank you for putting me in my place. Boy, I have a lot of work to do. NICE WRITE!!

  11. Jamie says:

    So I’m looking into programs for creative non-fiction graduate studies. Any advice?

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