Beyond Just Reporting: The Creative in Creative Nonfiction
August 9, 2019 § 17 Comments
by Jan Priddy
Students ask: What is creative nonfiction? Is it made up? Who got the idea first?
Lee Gutkind, founder of Creative Nonfiction magazine, is on the record that he did not coin the term, that the concept predates him, whatever it’s called. The genre of creative nonfiction covers a lot of ground. It is a true story, well told, not invention but truthful art in expression, exquisite perspective without deviating from fact. The creativity is in the telling, not the story. Nonfiction.
Maybe it’s whimsical or informal in tone and uses first person in greater or lesser capacity—it steps beyond objective journalism while never avoiding truth. Memoir is only one form. Robert Louis Stevenson’s first travel book in English, An Inland Voyage (1878), about boating on rivers and canals, < travel books by Ibn Battuta and Basho, Thoreau’s nature writing, Woolf’s meditations on women who write. People have been writing stories incorporating personal experiences and exploring how these experiences lead to broader insight . . . forever.
Naomi Shihab Nye, in conversation with Bill Moyers in 1995, cautions that “students, the high school students, frequently want to talk about emotion as the key to life. … I think … it’s more energy and energy comes from many kinds, it comes from juxtaposition and things coming together. … And I think that our brains are desperate for that kind of energy.”
An essay I assign suggests a more concrete approach to writing creative nonfiction: You might begin with an experience that had an impact upon you personally. Clarify the moment, what happened, ponder how it moved you, then turn around and look at the world from that vantage point. Find what matters. I warn them against writing about romantic love. They are often wrong in thinking they know what matters when they start. I force them to alter structure, reconsider verb tense and point of view. I provide models.
Diane Ackerman’s essay “Mute Dancers: How to Watch a Hummingbird” leaves personal experience behind without completely abandoning it. “A lot of hummingbirds die in their sleep”—who can resist an opening like that? The author does not know this from personal experience; it is clear she has done her research. Her presence barely registers, and most students struggle to pinpoint the instant the author says “I.” Her collection The Moon by Whale Light follows her slog through Florida’s swamps, the stink of bat guano, yet even in describing the cacophony of hearing her assigned penguin chick in a roomful of babies screaming to be fed, her epiphany concerns penguins, not herself.
That’s one way: The author is fully present but not the point.
By contrast, Zora Neale Huston’s 1928 essay “How It Feels to Be Colored Me” speaks back to a particular claim of racial damage. She describes her personal pride having been raised in an all-Black township and how her individuality overcomes racial identity. “Among the thousand white persons, I am a dark rock surged upon, and overswept, but through it all, I remain myself. When covered by the waters, I am; and the ebb but reveals me again.”
Her life experience is front and center: “I am not tragically colored,” she insists. “I have seen that the world is to the strong regardless of a little pigmentation more or less. No, I do not weep at the world—I am too busy sharpening my oyster knife.”
My assignment suggests personal experience as the centering tension or image, the easy part. Description is hard enough, but my students struggle to “turn around and look at the world.” How does their life experience or a moment’s perspective illuminate the world at large or even their place in it? How to find that grander view?
Students fear I am asking for wisdom, but really I want patience. What might they come to understand through sustained focus, deep thought, and messing about with words? Where does their experience lead them? If they stick with it, they hardly notice as step by step they grow more powerful on the page.
Creative nonfiction may alter our recognition of ourselves in the world beyond. In every case the connection to poetry is significant. Experience as metaphor. Precise observation develops principle and connection, even what we like to call meaning.
Beyond reporting, we locate ourselves in space, notice how the wind blows, push through dream and beyond to possibility. Observed closely, we may recognize our identity among our fellows and among that greater reality of nature, the life we have in common, the painful memory that triggers compassion, that joy and sorrow and lived truth. The writer’s experience can be startling.
It is the shock as we walk barefoot through our own house, squish on something, and realize what it is.
Jan Priddy taught art, high school English, and college writing for over forty years. Her work earned an Oregon Literary Arts Fellowship, Arts & Letters fellowship, Soapstone residency, Pushcart nomination, and publication in journals such as Brevity, CALYX, Liminal Stories, Raven Chronicles, The Humanist, North American Review, and anthologies on running and race. An MFA graduate from Pacific University, she lives in the NW corner of her home state of Oregon and blogs at IMPERFECT PATIENCE: https://janpriddyoregon.wordpress.com