Beyond Just Reporting: The Creative in Creative Nonfiction

August 9, 2019 § 17 Comments

priddyby 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:

The Art of Literary Olfaction

December 12, 2011 § 4 Comments

The Art of Literary Olfaction, or Do You Smell That?

A new Brevity craft essay, from Jill McCabe Johnson:

Two confessions: I have a big nose, and my nose leads me. Not because it’s so big that wherever I go it arrives well before I do, but because that big nose of mine takes in a lot of smells. Last night, my husband and I took the dog for a walk. Right as we stepped outside—before feeling how cool the evening was and the slight mist to the air like it wanted to rain, before noticing the mint plants looking leggy and spotted, before seeing the hazard of a hose across our path—I smelled the sweet-acrid scent of burning wood, smoke from a neighbor’s chimney that told me more about the temperature and season than any other single item I encountered. But that smell did more: it reminded me of the comfort of a fire, the radiant heat, hissing and crackling, the hypnotic flames. The smell conjured home, afghan strewn across the lap, mug of cocoa, engrossing book.

That’s a lot to pack into one little sensation, and not necessarily the same thoughts and feelings that would be evoked in someone else. Still, if I ask you to recall the smells from school lunch sloppy joes, the rubber in a tire store, decomposing murk in a fish tank, or the inside of a pencil sharpener, are you transported more authentically into an experience than if I just mention a school cafeteria, tire display, dirty aquarium, or sharpened pencil?

“Our cerebral hemispheres were originally buds from the olfactory stalks.  We think because we smelled.”

Diane Ackerman, A Natural History of the Senses

 Smell speaks to our primal mind. The importance of including the sense of smell in our writing is not just to follow the age-old advice to “use sensory language” to engage the reader, though smells can engage the reader more deeply and directly than any other sense. More than that, smell acts like a laser, cutting straight through to our emotional cores.

“No other sensory system has this type of intimate link with the neural areas of  emotion and associative learning, therefore there is a strong neurological basis for why odors trigger emotional connections.”

Rachel S. Herz, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Brown University

Scientific American, October 2011

 Given the power of smell, you’d think authors would cram their work with scents, but we don’t. Open any literary journal and compare the instances of visual imagery with the number of references to smell. In fact, leaf through your favorite literary journals and see if you can find a reference to smell at all. Most “creative” writing is oriented toward the visual—what the setting looks like, what the characters look like, what the objects at hand look like—which is important. Sight is a key tool for recognition and navigating space. Yet smell informs the very basics of our survival—eating, mating, and safety from predators—and it does so on the brain’s most fundamental level. Sight and the other senses—taste, touch, sound—take a circuitous route through the brain, and the memories associated with them are subject to distortion and reprogramming. Smell, on the other hand, has a direct line to our pre-cognitive brain functioning and the emotional memories associated with each odor. A writer’s references to the other senses help readers create an imagined facsimile, but with smell, readers just know. Not only can they experience an immediate, intimate understanding, but smell might actually help readers set aside their disbelief and bond with the characters, because smell—even the memory of smell—is believed to trigger oxytocin, and oxytocin has been associated with our ability to trust and form attachments.

“Oxytocin’s presence in the olfactory bulb of the brain helps explain the important role of smell and odor in the bonding process.”

Joseph M. Stookey, Ph.D.

            “Oxytocin … instills trust, increases loyalty, and promotes the ‘tend and befriend’ response.”

Kenneth Cloke, Ph.D.

 Before we start to think that smell is the writer’s new, literary magic potion, it’s important to remember that references to smell can have their downsides, too. For one, the emotions associated with specific smells vary by each person. The smell of freshly cracked pecans reminds me of Thanksgivings when my sister and I cracked nuts for each other to eat. For someone else, that same smell might trigger the alarming memory of his throat closing in a life-threatening allergic response. And one person’s perfume can be another person’s poison. For example, the chemical responsible for the earthy bouquet of a fine Roquefort or Gorgonzola cheese is the same chemical responsible for stinky feet.

“The sense of smell and the molecular, genetic and physiological mechanisms make the vertebrate nose the best chemical detector on the planet.”

Dr. Stuart Firesetin, Columbia University

 Although my overly sensitive nose is handy for determining if my cranberry muffins are ready to come out of the oven simply by smelling the caramelization of the sugar as they bake, there are times I wish I could turn off my sharp sense of smell. Like the night my husband took me to a chichi French restaurant, nine-course prix fixe menu beginning with creamy eggs served in the shell and topped with caviar and crème fraîche. The delicate scents of egg, cream, and a faint waft of the sea were as perfectly composed as the visual display.

There aren’t many flavors we actually taste: salt, sweet, sour, bitter and umami. Everything else is actually experienced through the nose. So when we eat our food, much of the enjoyment comes from how it smells. Which is why I was so disappointed when a woman sat down at the table next to us, and I could smell her Chantilly perfume, Aqua Net hairspray, and thickly applied lipstick that had started to turn foul. After that, a couple was seated on the other side of us, and the competing smells of the man’s aftershave and mothball-infused suit fought for attention in my brain. All those colliding odors created a cesspool of stink. Which is what the military wants to do.

“First, people’s heads would jerk back, their face would contort with revulsion,  and then they would hold their breath for as long as possible.”

Pamela Dalton, Monell Chemical Senses Center

In the search for universally offensive, weapons-grade odors, researchers have observed that people react most to scent cocktails of biological odors like vomit, body odors, poop and burnt hair, plus rotting garbage and flesh, the combination of which induced nausea, faster heart rates, and a desperate desire to get the heck out of there. Interestingly, a mishmash of odors was worse than any single odor, producing a sense of panic and causing some testers to scream. My guess is that most writers don’t want their readers to run away screaming, and although the Department of Defense may be interested in using stink-bombs as a weapon, smell is not the writer’s secret weapon, though it can be an effective tool for establishing shared experience and emotional connection. If nothing else, including smells in our writing helps create a more complete sensory picture.

“In terms of cognition, mood has been shown to influence creativity with the typical finding that people in a positive mood exhibit higher levels of creativity than individuals in a bad mood. Odors can also produce the same effects. When people were exposed to an odor they liked creative problem solving was better than it was when they were exposed to an unpleasant odor condition.”

Rachel S. Herz, Assistant Professor of Psychology, Brown University

Scientific American, October 2011

Ultimately, we have no more control over how, or even whether, references to smells in our writing will affect readers than we do over the effects of anything else we write, but at least we can take comfort in knowing that smell can still help us. The next time I’m stuck on a word, can’t remember what someone said, or am uncertain how to proceed in an essay, I’ll pick a sprig of rosemary, open the cinnamon canister, or squeeze a lemon. The odors just might kick-start my memory, spark creativity, or help me problem-solve; at the very least they’ll put me in a good mood.

And now, the test:

How to Tell if You’ve Given Your Readers Adequate Olfactory Cues

~ or ~

The Nonfiction Writer’s “Does My Writing Stink?” Test


Jill McCabe Johnson is the director of Artsmith a non-profit organization promoting arts education and the creation of new works of art. She is the editor of Becoming: What Makes a Woman, an anthology of essays and poetry forthcoming in spring 2012 from the University of Nebraska Gender Programs. Jill has an MFA from Pacific Lutheran University Rainier Writing Workshop, and is pursuing a Ph.D. at the University of Nebraska. She is the recipient of an artist residency from the A.P. Anderson Center for Interdisciplinary Studies, an Edgren Fellowship, and a Deborah Tall Memorial Fund Fellowship. She received the 2010 Editor’s Choice Poetry Award from ScissorTale Review, and the Paula Jones Gardiner poetry award from Floating Bridge Press. Her poetry, fiction, and essays have received Pushcart nominations, and her work has recently been published in journals such as Harpur Palate, The Los Angeles Review, and Iron Horse Literary Review.

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