Here are some thoughts/notes on writing creative nonfiction, using Lee Gutkind’s excellent book published in 2008, on the subject: Keep It Real. I highly recommend reading it.
Keep It Real, a collection of writings on narrative nonfiction and memoir was compiled by Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction. The subtitle of the book is Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction. I was intrigued by this title because I am very interested in the blurry lines between fiction and nonfiction. Maybe this book would help me to see what those lines are in a way that might help me in my own work. Every time I read fiction I find myself wondering how much of the fiction is from the author’s own life and how much is completely from an author’s imagination. Does it matter?
In Poets & Writers, in an interview of fiction writer Mary Gaitskill, interviewer Nina Shengold notes, “She scatters autobiographical crumbs throughout her fiction.” What makes this autobiographical fiction writing different than creative nonfiction then? In Gutkind’s book he tries to address this, “…the anchoring element of the best creative nonfiction requires an aspect of reportage.” And, “…creative nonfiction…presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact.”
Gutkind then goes on to discuss how creative nonfiction differs from journalism, or straight reporting: “…how the research, reflection, and real-life experience are arranged to make a story meaningful and important to readers. The primary way this is accomplished in creative nonfiction is through the use of scene.” Hmmm, isn’t this a basic tenet of fiction writing as well? Then the writer must use “intimate and specific detail” and “special observations that symbolize the intimacy they have attained with their subjects.” These scenic guidelines will build “the frame of the story.”
The essays in Keeping It Real are compilations of writings and observations of several nonfiction writers, who are credited in the book. They not only deal with matters of craft, but also with larger moral issues such as checkbook journalism, recent “scandals” in memoir publishing (a la James Frey), use of composite characters in journalism, defamation, and the tricky matter of veracity of history (an event doesn’t get interpreted by any two or three or one hundred people in the exact same manner).
One way to approach creative nonfiction is that most of us would probably say it has more of a basis in “facts.” Some interesting observations are made in Keeping It Real. “Defamed for simply providing information, facts are the underdogs of creative nonfiction. In reality, facts build upon and enhance the overall narrative structure, supplying tensile strength and depth to whatever true story is being told.” And later, “Facts hold creative power and possibility.” A quote from Alan Lightman, author of Einstein’s Dreams illustrates, “A prepared mind immersed in the facts and research comes before the creative moment.”
Discussion of facts is a different discussion that that of truth. Truth is a whole different animal. On the surface it seems that of course truth has to have its basis in fact. But here it is noted that, “Truth is precarious, unstable, and elusive, and this… is the real drama of the past.” The creative nonfiction writer, “…is bound by an implicit and sometimes explicit contract with the reader, to make sure the architecture of his story is based on authentic and reasonably verifiable experience.” Contrast this to, “Fiction explores the human heart and the emotional truth of human experience.”
Of course good nonfiction writing is an art, just as good fiction writing is. It can’t just be a recitation of facts and events, and “truths.” Examples are given throughout the essays in this book about just how nonfiction writers approach narrative writing. One example given is Sebastian Junger’s A Perfect Storm, the telling of a ship and its mates lost at sea in a storm. Obviously, since all on board died, there is no first person witness left to tell us exactly what happened. But Junger, in the tradition of great nonfiction writers, uses as many facts and interviews as he can, and constructs his compelling “true story” from these. “What results has the ring of truth, rather than the solidity of fact, and is perhaps the more powerful because of it.”
There are several good essays here about the genre of memoir writing. “Given the importance of sharing stories, we should not be surprised that the age of literary memoir has flourished in an age of disconnection. Despite our isolation, we are drawn to story, and the more emotional the tale, the deeper the salient information lodges in our memories.” Phillip Lopate is quoted here, “The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom.”
The authors make the point that memoir writing is not the same as “navel-gazing.” “A good memoir does more than that. A good memoir writer uses life experience, not to go more deeply into the self but to reach out to others. A good memoirist makes connections. A good memoirist’s primary goal is to show us something true about ourselves, about what it means to be human.”