The Origins of the Term “Creative Nonfiction”

July 17, 2015 § 3 Comments

Dinty W. Moore and his Polar Bear Friend

Dinty W. Moore and his Polar Bear Friend

This essay from our fearless editor Dinty W. Moore circulated earlier this week, but the Creative Nonfiction magazine website had a glitch denying anyone access to the comments thread, so here we go again.  You can now visit the comment thread and complain about the ambiguous term all you want now.

The Origins of the Term “Creative Nonfiction”

The Blurring of Fact

July 17, 2015 § 2 Comments

Tom Montgomery Fate Tom Montgomery Fate offers a thoughtful and enlightening look at the misuse of the term creative nonfiction in light of Rachel Dolezal’s recent use of the term. Here’s an excerpt, followed by a link to the full essay:

Dolezal’s misunderstanding of creative nonfiction is not hers alone. And it may reveal something about our culture’s increasing tendency to blur facts and truth when it’s convenient or entertaining. The perpetual tsunami of “news” on a 24-7 cycle, and the lightning speed of new technologies — smart phones for instance — makes this blurring both easier to practice and to identify. And as more people experiment with constructing multiple identities — on Facebook and other online communities — the virtual truth of personal identity may sometimes veil or distort the actual. If NBC news anchor Brian Williams had not been caught in the “creative nonfiction” that he came under enemy fire in Iraq in 2003, this virtual fact might have appeared in his memoir (which he needn’t now write). Should the economic opportunities be irresistible, and Dolezal decide to tell her “black is the new white” story in a memoir, the actual and virtual truths may again blur.

When we discuss fact and truth in the creative nonfiction classes I teach, we often read “The Site of Memory,” an essay by Toni Morrison, in which she reminds readers that while facts are random and do not require human intelligence, literary truth is not random and does require human intelligence. We spend significant time talking about what Morrison means-about why/how/when we can distinguish between fact and truth in our own work. That’s sometimes not as easy as it sounds.

The two facts I listed above about Dolezal are empirical — provable. That is one of the qualities of a fact. Right? It’s a fact that my teenaged son is 5 feet 9 inches tall. However, that fact was not true last year. It’s a fact that there are seeds in a watermelon. Or, well, at least that was a fact when I was a kid. Now there are seedless hybrids. It was once a fact that the world was flat. Another wrinkle: empiricism is relative and facts evolve. “Facts are facts,” but they can be wildly manipulated — often by politicians and corporations — to “prove” the truth they must construct in order to get elected or to sell stuff.

Read Fate’s entire essay in The Chicago Tribune

Where Did the Term ‘Nonfiction’ Originate?

July 15, 2015 § 3 Comments

Norman Podhoretz

Norman Podhoretz at the Commentary offices in the 1960s

In the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction magazine, Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore traces the origin of the term “creative nonfiction” all the way back to 1969, and Commentary editor Norman Podhoretz.

By coincidence, the Dallas Morning News earlier this week ran an article by George Getschow, director of the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Conference, shedding light on when and where the term “nonfiction” came into common use. Here’s an excerpt from Getschow’s piece:

Richard Rhodes, a Pulitzer Prize-winning author who writes both fiction and nonfiction, believes that the worst thing that ever befell literary journalism and narrative nonfiction happened in 1867, when a Boston librarian designated the kind of writing we do with a negative: nonfiction, meaning “Not fiction. … Reminding us that we dwell in the swampy depths beneath poetry and fiction’s golden-lit Olympus.”

When nonfiction was split off from fiction, nonfiction was devalued in the eyes of the academy — a terrible tragedy, Rhodes says. He considers narrative nonfiction — or “verity,” as he likes to call it — a more challenging art form.

Read Moore’s essay in Creative Nonfiction Online

Read Getschow’s article in the Dallas Morning News

On Memoir: Mommy, You Did What?

July 14, 2015 § 3 Comments

Little girl looks shocked at something she sees on the computer

Holey Moley Mommy!

In the NY Times Sunday Book Review, Noelle Howey examines those awkward moments when a memoirist’s children are old enough to read the book. An excerpt below followed by a link to her entire article:

The moment I walked out of the closet, I eagerly climbed onto a soapbox. If a thought felt taboo or inappropriate, that meant it warranted — no, demanded — expression. So I shared how, at the age of 9, I made out with a neighborhood companion. How at 15, I implored my boyfriend to have sex. How I stole my mother’s lingerie, and wore it while humping a door frame.

I could go on, but I won’t — largely because, somewhere in my 30s, I developed the ability to become embarrassed. I’m no longer quite as thrilled that all my youthful misadventures have their own I.S.B.N. And practically speaking, my book’s tell-all nature has complicated my life as a parent. For example, if my middle-school-age daughter ever asks me when I lost my virginity, I have to tell her the truth. After all, it’s searchable on Google Books.

Read They’ve Said Too Much

Writing the Unthinkable: An exploration of Charles Pierce’s Esquire column on the Charleston massacre

June 29, 2015 § 3 Comments

A guest post from Keysha Whitaker


Keysha Whitaker

When I digitally stumbled upon Charles Pierce’s essay “Charleston Shooting: Speaking the Unspeakable, Thinking the Unthinkable,” I almost didn’t read it. I am not the average reader of Esquire magazine, a 45-year-old affluent, likely white, male; I’m a 36-year-old brown woman with a negative net worth. However, I am a sucker for a good title, so I gave the piece a few minutes of my internet attention.

It only took a few seconds to understand why the essay has over 200,000 social media shares. Pierce hooked me at the first sentence: “What happened in a church in Charleston, South Carolina on Wednesday night is a lot of things, but one thing it’s not is ‘unthinkable.’”

As a TV news junkie, I recognized the word. It’s one of the many clichéd responses in the human vocab bank, usually placeholders for more authentic thoughts. News anchors pin the sound-byte to segment intros and correspondents coax it out of sources:

“Did you ever think something like this would happen here?” Roving Reporter asks.

“No, not in a million years,” Barry Bystander says. “It’s unthinkable.”

But Pierce’s essay isn’t about overused language; it’s about hiding behind it. What happened, he argues, is quite thinkable. In rest of the paragraph, he parses the thoughtful and deliberate actions of the murderer, a play-by-play that leaves little wiggle-room for misunderstanding and ensures we arrive at the same point of reason. None of this is unthinkable, and as Pierce says next, unspeakable. He writes, “We should speak of it loudly. We should speak of it as terrorism, which it was.”

In the midst of a subject that is an emotional quagmire, Pierce’s piece rants not. Perhaps his use of repetition contributes to the steady pace that at times feels like an incantation – slow, repeated, deliberate, musical lines which seem to have a higher purpose. He writes,“It is not an isolated incident, not if you consider history as something alive that can live and breathe and bleed.”

When I arrived at this sentence, I had to re-read it. Not for clarity, but something in the lyricism of the “live and breathe and bleed” arrested me. Internal rhyme comes to mind, but alas, high school lessons on any pentameter were 20 years ago, so don’t quote me.

The personification of “history” also works a second job. It hearkens us to our universal humanity – whether we are penis or vagina, conservative or liberal, loaded or poverty-stricken – and begs us to consider how the past might dictate the future. History not only lives, breathes, and bleeds. It repeats.

And then, in the next sentence, something happens. The piece picks up speed and urgency with a series of exhortations reminiscent of the idealistic and sermony “Let freedom ring” refrain in Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech but still contemporary and even quirky .

He writes, “Let Hillary Rodham Clinton and Jeb Bush, both of whom want to lead this troubled country, consider what it meant to absent themselves from campaign events in Charleston and think of these things and speak of them before they turn to their consultants about whether or not staying in a grieving city was what a leader should have done . . . Let Squint and the Meat Puppet think about these things and speak of these things before inviting Donald Trump, who is a clown and a fool, to come on national television and talk about his hair.” (I did have to Google “Squint and the Meat Puppet” and it appears to be a reference to Joe Scarborough on MSNBC in the morning, a nickname invented by Pierce himself. Also, the humor of “a clown and a fool” is not lost on me.)

The “let” passages are the essay’s peak, followed by Pierce’s resolutions which really are directives for getting ourselves out of the hole the founding forefathers dug. He argues, “Think about what happened. Think about why it happened. Talk about what happened” because ultimately “There is a timidity that the country can no longer afford.”

Before closing the essay with a classic full-circle move that returns to the idea in his intro and adds new insight, Pierce warns that those who refuse to talk and think about what happened “do not want to follow the story where it inevitably leads . . . all the way back to the mother of all American crimes.”

And here is where I and the Esquire writer, who I certainly will read again, part ways. I’m tempted to argue dehumanizing blacks and forcing them to work the land isn’t the mother of all American crimes; it’s swindling, sickening and slaughtering the Native Americans to steal the land in the first place.


Keysha Whitaker is a lecturer of English at Penn State Berks and host of Behind the Prose podcast for writers. She holds an MFA in Creative Writing from The New School. Her work recently appeared in The Forward, Full Grown People, and The Reject Pile.

Can Young People Write Memoir?

May 20, 2015 § 11 Comments

Leslie Jamison offers up her usual incisive brilliance in a NY Times book review discussion titled “Should There Be a Minimum Age for Writing a Memoir?” Here’s a bit, followed by the link:

I probably shouldn’t venture any further into my defense of young memoir before acknowledging that I’m a young writer who has written about my life. I’ve got skin in the game. And my skin flinches, in particular, at the second part of Yardley’s argument: the notion that even those who have had experiences worth narrating will be “too young to know what to make of them,” which feels like a willfully reductive evasion of a more complicated truth.

I do see where the critique comes from. In its sophisticated form, it’s a call for drafting and revision, for the ways we can productively re-examine our own stories and dig underneath our familiar narratives of self to find the more surprising layers beneath. The work of this excavation can often happen more easily with distance. But it seems futile to project categorical algorithms onto when this excavation can happen — how long it will take, how many birthdays it requires.

Of course someone will look back at his first broken heart with a different perspective at the age of 40, or 60, or 80. But that doesn’t mean that these perspectives are better, or that our self-­understanding travels toward some telos of perfect consummation with every passing year…

Benjamin Moser’s take, following Jamison’s, is well worth reading too:

Happy Birthday Assay

April 24, 2015 § Leave a comment

Here at the Brevity blog, we like to boast that we are the single best resource for all things nonfiction, but we are boasting a lot more softly these days, sort of whispering actually, because the new website Assay — a magazine, blog, pedagogical resource, research hub — is doing such a stellar job.  Assay just completed its first year and has published an Annual Report outlining what has been accomplished and great plans for the coming year.

Hint: Blog reports from NonfictioNOW, an exploration of Best American Essays (both critical and statistical), more syllabi and topic lists for classroom use.

Someone’s breathing down our neck. And we couldn’t be happier.

Where Am I?

You are currently browsing the Teaching Resources category at BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 24,445 other followers

%d bloggers like this: