AWP 2012 – “All Nonfiction Employs Art in Service to Facts”

March 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

By Julie Farrar

R236 What’s Wrong With the Whole Truth / Thursday, Mar. 1, 4:30-5:45 p.m.
S198 Critical Divide: The Personal Essay and the Critical Essay / Saturday, Mar. 3, 3:00-4:15 p.m.
S219 The Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms or a Form of Collapse? / Saturday, Mar. 3, 4:30-5:45 p.m.

This was my first AWP conference.  I was adrift trying to identify the structure of the at-large writing community, trying to distinguish the term-du-jour, the ongoing issues, and whose voice holds prominence in the critical discourse of the field vs. the literary.  I fretted that I didn’t know that black nails was the new black among writers and that I had not a molecule of purple or orange dye highlighting my own hair.

These first date jitters proved unfounded, however, when I realized that many share my same unease over the unwieldy term “creative nonfiction” and all it infers.  What no one mentioned was that the essential questions they were asking had been grappled with for centuries.

Let me say up front that I fell in love with Sven Birkerts when he used the terms “belletristic mode” and “polemic” in the same sentence in the session “Critical Divide: The Personal Essay and the Critical Essay.”  The question he was addressing when these gems popped out is why such a tension exists between “creative” and “nonfiction.”  Why does nonfiction need the reinforcer in front of it?  Is the category so vast (on a suggested spectrum of documentary writing at one end, academic writing taking up the middle, and CNF at the other end) that most of it doesn’t even earn the label “creative”?

Fiction and poetry invent; therefore, to the world at large they’re obviously creative.  Birkerts argued, however, that creativity in non-fiction has less to do with the “what” and more to do with the “how.”  Discovery is creative.  Searching out patterns within information and the form writers make out of those facts require imagination or creativity as much as the other genres.  Or, as Fiona McRae put it in the same session, CNF is more than just filling in the chronology.  And just because a writer uses the “I,” that doesn’t make it creative.

Rebecca Skloot,  as part of the panel “What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth?”, asked the same question.  The confusion for people about “creative nonfiction,” she said, lay in the implications of “creative,” as in creative-with-the-facts (the John D’Agata controversy was never far from the surface in many panels).  If we think about the term only as applying to content, then it’s easy to see how anyone within or without the genre can doubt that any identifiable boundaries exist. It can give those within the genre license to play with “truth” in pursuit of “Truth.”  For those outside the genre, well, it makes them wonder what we’re up to over here.

Although no one used the term “rhetoric,” they were more or less positing support for Cicero’s ancient canons – invention, arrangement, style, delivery – as the defining features of nonfiction.  Philip Gerard and Peter Trachtenberg channeled Aristotle in the “Whole Truth” session, hammering home the ethical obligations of the writer (his or her ethos) to get the facts right, especially when telling stories about other people.  Aristotle schooled us in ethos (the character of the speaker), pathos (the emotional presence of the issue language creates), and logos (the discovery and arrangement of the material).  Rhetoric itself covers Birkert’s spectrum with deliberative, forensic, and epideictic speech.  Modern rhetorical theory has even broken out of this arrow-straight spectrum, while still maintaining the essential ethos/pathos/logos triangle.

I have more discovery of my own to accomplish by next year’s conference regarding the tension between “creative” and “nonfiction.”  However, Ned Stuckey French in discussing “The Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms or a Form of Collapse?” came closest to articulating a vision of CNF-as-rhetoric.  The qualifier “creative” implies fiction as the norm, he said, like if instead of calling an apple a fruit we called it a “non-meat.”  Since all rhetoric engages the imagination in invention, arrangement, et al., perhaps at some future AWP conference we’ll shift from trying to make our nonfiction apple into a palatable non-meat dish fancied up with a bit of “creative” sauce.  We’ll claim a straightforward label, saying that all nonfiction employs art in service to facts.  Not the other way around.

Julie Farrar earned her PhD in Rhetoric from Purdue University a lifetime ago, taught more freshmen than she can count how to reseach and write essays, and now sits at her computer in St. Louis working on a memoir about raising her adopted children, travel essays, and personal essays.  She has much to learn about writing, but recently earned first place in the Travel and Shopping category of Travelers’ Tales 6th Annual Solas Awards.

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