May 5, 2014 § 3 Comments
As the 20th Anniversary Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference draws near, Brevity contributor Amy Wright interviews CNF Founder Lee Gutkind about the genre, the journal, and storytelling in the 21st Century:
Amy Wright: Before the term “creative nonfiction” was ubiquitous, someone referred to you as the guy who “does Creative Notification,” as if there were a company that releases starlings to announce you’ve won the Guggenheim. Do you encounter less confusion about the term now?
Lee Gutkind: Of course, much less confusion generally than before, and a growing awareness of the power of true stories in academic and professional circles. The awareness and appreciation is also taking root within the general public—writers and wannabe writers. I can’t tell you—couldn’t count—how many people tell me, quite spontaneously, “I have been writing this way for years—and now I know what it is called!” It makes them feel anchored, as if they belong in and are part of an enlightened community. That said, there remain many readers and writers in the dark. We will light them up!
AW: Have you ever been “creatively notified” of anything?
LG: I have been creatively crucified—which is kind of being notified—by James Wolcott in Vanity Fair who called me “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction.”
AW: On the New York Times Opinionator blog, you say the “challenge and goal of all who write narrative or creative nonfiction” is to recreate a scene from which readers can “learn and enjoy at the same time.” Why do you think the two are aided by scene setting?
LG: Well, not to be overly technical, but “scene setting” is only a part of writing in scenes. A scene has a setting, of course—a place. But it also has a beginning and an ending and an action in between. Something happens, in other words. Good scenes have dialogue and evocative characters and memorable places—all of that and more represent enjoyment, entertainment and a compelling storyline or plot. These story elements bring readers to the plate, so to speak—attracts attention and holds their interest. Especially the reluctant readers—those whose minds are not open to learning about this particular subject or who are simply too busy to focus on something that he or she knows little about. The scene, the story—the elements mentioned here, triggers curiosity and creates interest, which then provides the writer the opportunity to add the learning part—to teach or inform or persuade the reader. (At this point, the reader’s attention has been captured by the scene.) We are talking about a balanced mix of style and substance.
There’s all kinds of interesting research studies now that demonstrate that readers remember more information for longer periods of time when those facts and information are presented within a story. Same thing with ideas that will change a reader’s mind or persuade them to think in a certain way. Why is the personal essay—creative nonfiction—so popular for op-ed pages like the NY Times these days? Because people don’t want to be told what to do or how to think: Writers who write true stories that illustrate their ideas will attract attention and make the desired impact. To use a George W. Bushism—the scene/story is the decider.
AW: But Godfather, surely as editor of Creative Nonfiction you are faced with questions of whether a scene/story lives or dies…how do you decide?
LG: Well, ask yourself: Does it work? Does it achieve your objectives as the writer of your essay, chapter, book? Does it have a beginning and an ending, does it represent an aspect of what you want to say or what you want your piece to say, is it compelling to your reader, will it keep your reader engaged, does it fit in with the overall story line? Remember that writers have a readership—an audience. You are not talking to yourself; rather you are talking to a much larger world and that world is where your words and your scene must resonate.
AW: Your more than thirty books make it enjoyable to learn about such subjects as health care, writing, baseball, and how robots think, but considering you teach at Arizona State University and present at conferences, does that guiding principle also inform your lectures?
LG: How could it not?
AW: I well remember a point you made at the 2013 CNF Conference about an elderly woman who was never far from Frank Sinatra’s side while Gay Talese was shadowing him for a 1966 piece in Esquire. You made Ol’ Blue Eyes toupee keeper a character as you illustrated the process of finding a buried lede. Do scenes/stories present aloud similarly to on the page?
LG: That’s a difficult question with more than one answer. The presentation in public—aloud, in person, etc. and its effectiveness, of course—has mostly to do with the skill of the writer writing the story—the material. But writers, especially these days, need to work to learn to tell their stories to larger groups—in person—either by reading with clarity and feeling or speaking with animation and passion. After all, this is the age of the TED talk, Jon Stewart and Morning Edition—we are sometimes presented with the opportunity for writers to go public and become the three-dimensional person their work demands, whether on paper or in the flesh. This is a new age—it is not your grandmother’s nonfiction anymore. We are not waiting for people to buy our book and reach out to us—we will wait a long time for that; rather, we are bringing our work to the readers.
AW: In You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, you offer a wealth of writing tips, including the necessary “drawer phase” and how to utilize inner point of view. Will this guide inspire your presentation at the 2014 Creative Nonfiction conference?
LG: I am going to start off by discussing the basics of the genre—which includes scenes, as we have noted above, the use of dialogue and description—and some of the “R” words I often talk about in my public presentations and in my writing—research, real life, revision and reflection. I will isolate the elements of a good essay by deconstructing one or two—show attendees the classical structural framework of creative nonfiction. “Structure” is all-important and not often dealt with in the classroom or in books. Later that day, after a presentation on the short form, I will deal with “long form” challenges—from essay to book length. Writing in long form is a different ball game, believe me. The challenges are different and the satisfactions—awesome.