October 21, 2020 § 6 Comments
By Dinty W. Moore
Lee Gutkind has played a singular role in shaping the world of creative nonfiction, as an author, as a teacher, as a public advocate for the genre, and by founding Creative Nonfiction magazine (and the many offshoots that form the Creative Nonfiction Foundation.) Though his best-known books over the years fall into the category of immersion journalism, his latest book, My Last Eight-Thousand Days: An American Male in His Seventies, tackles two acutely personal subjects, aging and death. I recently spoke with Lee about the book, the challenges of memoir, and how he turned his immersion skills around to focus on the self:
DINTY: You say in your book, “Aging for most of us is a silent process,” yet you explicitly decided to do the opposite, to speak up on a subject many people try to ignore or avoid. Do you remember the impetus for this memoir? Did you decide one day, “I’m going to write a book about age and its challenges,” or did the subject sneak up on you, as they sometimes do?
LEE: Actually, My Last Eight Thousand Days had been a work in progress for at least ten years, maybe more. Just as my life had been a work in progress for seventy plus years. And I like to think of the book as a transition or transformation from the Lee I used to be to the Lee I am now. Which is not to say that I am a hell of a lot different—a totally new person than I once was—but writing the book helped me analyze my life and adjust to a more satisfying and realistic future. For whatever of my last eight thousand days that I have left.
The book is about aging, obviously—a subject and a reality that I had aggressively avoided for my entire life. Until my seventieth year, when my two best friends died, and when my mom, my real boon companion, died five days before my seventieth birthday. And a book that I had hoped would be the triumph of my literary career fell apart—was cancelled. Other stuff happened, bad stuff, during that year leading up to my seventy-first birthday, and I was quite shaken. I felt trapped and blocked.
As all writers, I spend a lot of time by myself, at home with my notebook, display and keyboard. Not getting out too much or working too hard to establish a life away from my work. Almost all of my books have been what might be called “immersions.” I devote lots of time—years!—investing myself in the lives of others—organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires and more—trying to understand and recreate the characters about whom I am writing, seeing the world, their challenges and passions, through their eyes. But doing that conscientiously and obsessively for so many years made it easy to ignore my own circumstances. And don’t forget, I am leading a literary organization and teaching full-time. A lot to do. I’m not saying that I have been all alone, but my work has been my all-consuming priority; I didn’t need or want much else. Until my seventieth year. Losing my friends, my mom, my book—my support system—forced me to realize that there was something more to life than my work and that some sort of change must occur.
One change was writing something different—out of my well-established bailiwick. A big challenge. All my life I have been writing about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds. It was time, I decided, to turn the lens of my mind around and do a deep dive into myself. It wasn’t easy to make that transition. I had a lot to learn not only about writing in this new way, but about myself and what made me who I am. The process is not unlike devoting a half dozen years to therapy. You sit in an office, prompted and encouraged by a nod of their heads and encouraging sounds, and you spill out your stories. And then over the week you think about and ponder the memories and ideas you shared, and when you next sit down on the couch, you often tell the story a bit differently, or go deeper, sometimes changing the entire narrative. That’s part of the process of writing memoir. It is not a one shot deal; it’s more like a shot-gun. Memories scattered, revision after revision, tangent after tangent, although you never know until months or years later that you’ve got it right. If you ever know it at all.
DINTY: I love the memoir as therapy metaphor, primarily because you frame it quite differently here. Too many times I’ve heard the idea of memoir as therapy reduced to the idea that we are writing “just to make ourselves feel better,” which is often used as a put-down of the memoir genre, and is an overall misunderstanding. But the idea that—after having written our memories onto the page—we turn these memories over in our heads, question what we have written, and through that process go a bit deeper and possibly crash through false narratives, addresses the act of discovery, the shattering of convenient truths and assumptions, that powers the best memoirs. Can you articulate a moment in your personal narrative that you saw somehow differently after this process of writing, revision, re-revision, and revising again?
LEE: No lightbulb moment here. And just to clarify, I did not write a memoir to feel better. In fact, there were many times, writing, that I felt pretty bad. And even now, re-reading, there are passages and notions that bring me down. But my change in perspective was a process—through revision. I sent an early draft to a friend who said all the right things about my writing, the stories, etc. But he also said that I sounded somewhat antagonistic, sometimes even angry in my telling. I was kind of puzzled. I admit I wanted to be provocative, but I did not want to be “stinging” or blaming other people. That’s not what I wanted my memoir to do—and not what the best memoirs achieve. Memoir is not a blame game. I just wanted to write my story—be honest about the stuff that had happened to me—or what I perceived had happened to me and how what happened changed me. So, I began to re-read the draft and adjust the tone. I even read some of the passages out loud, and I could hear in my voice an in-and-out wave of pent-up resentment and frustration that I did not want to impart and, most importantly, did not even feel—toward others. While going through this process, the composition of my stories changed and evolved. Not the facts, of course, but how I had perceived them. And I began to realize that if the antagonism and anger did sometimes exist in my writing, the tone and orientation was mis-directed. I was angry at times, yes, but much more so at myself than at others. And so . . . reflection along with revision came to eventual realization. I have to say that this realization changed my next many drafts. If my book helps readers to smile and even sometimes laugh and empathize, it is because I was eventually able to perceive my story more positively. The last part of the book, the re-affirming part—my transformation from the Lee I was to the Lee I think I am now could not have been written without the deep dive into the process of listening—not just reading—what I was writing and saying.
DINTY: You mention above that throughout most of your career you wrote “about other people, being a chameleon in various and seemingly exotic worlds,” doing immersion research into “organ transplant surgeons, roboticists, baseball umpires.” That required certain skills of listening, and seeing, certainly, even before you began to put words onto the page. Did those skills manifest themselves somehow in this project? How does an immersion journalist immerse himself in, well, the self?
LEE: For me, doing an immersion is not only being a chameleon—but also being a camera. I observe the worlds about which I am writing as if I am making a movie. And then, at some point, I recreate the action—the scenes—at my desk, on my keyboard or notepad. I read and “watch” carefully until I think I have it right—or as right as I can get it at that moment. And then, and only then, do I begin to enter into the scene, the text, and allow myself to think about how I feel about what I have observed and composed.
More or less, I followed the same process writing this memoir and digging into me. I wrote the scenes that I remembered, the cinema I wanted to re-live and share with my readers, through the eye of my “self” camera, and then allowed myself to enter into the action in a deep mind-meld way. Ordinarily the reflection part of the immersion should be limited. After all, you are writing about other people. But memoir is about you, and so my reflection, my feelings, ideas, emotions had no boundaries. I allowed myself to go on and on. Paragraph after paragraph and page after page, if I felt so inclined. Until the stories I wrote were put into context and a balance was established between story and meaning. I am not saying that I stuck rigidly to this process because feelings often led to other stories—stuff that I didn’t even know I remembered or cared about. Tangents that sometimes went nowhere and sometimes also, embraced and clarified a great deal. I am also not saying that I knew exactly what I was doing, but that was my plan of action–the way in which I entered into the book, the method I knew best. What had worked for me in the past—over a lifetime. I guess you can’t, as they say, teach an old dog new tricks. But there’s always room for spontaneous adaption—tricking yourself, so to speak. That’s also the creative part of creative nonfiction—the “trick” that makes it work.
Dinty W. Moore is the founding editor of Brevity and author of the forthcoming memoir, To Hell with It: Of Sin and Sex, Chicken Wings, and Dante’s Entirely Ridiculous Inferno.
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
September 3, 2014 § 1 Comment
Burlesque Press has announced its second annual Literary Festival with Keynote Speakers Joy Castro and Lee Gutkind. The Conference will be held December 28, 2014 to December 31, 2014 at the Maison St Charles, in New Orleans. Yes kids, you heard us right! Visit New Orleans for New Year’s Eve, and call it professional development.
This year’s festival theme is Silver & Gold: Wealth and Economics in Creative Writing and Literature. The Masquerade Ball will also have a silver and gold theme. Presentations are, however, invited on any aspect of creative writing and contemporary literature.
Suggested topics include, but are not limited to the following:
- Economics in Literature
- The role of wealth in fairy tales
- The use of “rags to riches” plot devices
- Creative Writing Pedagogical Issues
- Creative Writing in the Composition Classroom
- Analyses of Contemporary Literature
- Contemporary Author Spotlights
- Southern Literature Past, Present, and Future
- YA, Fantasy, Crime Fiction, and Sci-Fi
- Online and Traditional Publishing
- The Current and/or Future State of Publishing
- Individual or Group Readings of Creative Work
Students at all collegiate levels are invited and encouraged to submit proposals.
We will also feature a book section where presenters, local publishers, small presses and others are welcome to display their work. Contact email@example.com for more information.
To submit, include a brief description of your proposed panel, reading, or paper in a word document along with the names of fellow presenters or panelists and submit it free via Submittable: http://burlesquepress.submittable.com/submit/27866
To register for the conference, or to learn more about the Hands On Literary Festival and Masquerade Ball, or for any and all inquiries about the conference, please visit our website www.burlesquepressllc.com or contact the director of Burlesque Press, Jennifer Stewart at firstname.lastname@example.org.
May 29, 2014 § 5 Comments
Following the 20th Anniversary Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, guest blogger Julie Strauss Bettinger reports what’s new in the genre:
Over Starbucks green tea, author Leslie Rubinkowski and I were talking about the merits of admitting how long you’ve been a writer of the relatively youngish genre of Creative Nonfiction. A fact generally used for building credibility can make you feel so old.
Let’s just say we’ve been around long enough to remember the making of the “godfather,” Lee Gutkind – she as a student at the University of Pittsburgh and me from the earliest CNF conferences at Goucher College in Baltimore. That’s when Gutkind was first defining our art and marshaling its various titles – New Journalism, Literary Nonfiction, and Narrative Nonfiction included – under one identity.
So the 20th Anniversary Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference in Pittsburgh last weekend was a coming home of sorts for some of us. And, yes, there was Gutkind, still defining our art.
Among other things, the CNF conference offered aspiring writers the surprising news that publishers and editors don’t look at the process of rejecting our work as a blood sport (thank you, Dinty W. Moore, for that reassuring statement).
Other high points:
- Literary journal and book editors are awash in submissions. Keep submitting.
- Creative Nonfiction is the fastest growing genre in the publishing industry, surpassing journalism. Besides CNF’s expansion in high school arts and university English departments, specialty courses such as narrative medicine, narrative science and narrative law are cropping up, too. There’s a reason, says Gutkind. “Our brains are wired for story. People remember more facts for a longer period of time when they are connected with story.”
- In the best practices category, simultaneous submissions are OK. No need to include it in your cover letter. But if another publication accepts, it’s common courtesy to notify all others. Preserve those relationships for future submissions.
- Build your platform. Now. Blogs, Twitter, Mom’s bridge club members. Even before your manuscript is complete, as these will establish a fan base.
- Have no fear of the giant Penguin and Random House merger, e-book explosion and Amazon flavor-of-the-month services. Think of them as opportunities. Book editor and agent Emily Loose likes the term “artisanal” vs. self publishing. Says Loose: “Shoot for legacy publishing, but do some self and digital publishing, too. It will add to your platform.”
- Check out Inkshares.com, crowdfunded publishing. Chairman and publisher Larry Levitsky offered an impressive breakdown of how his new business model pays authors higher royalties than traditional publishing houses.
- Regarding common roadblocks in memoir: do not second guess yourself. The event or life experience isn’t as important as what you make of it. Author Jane Bernstein: “Instead of asking yourself, ‘Why should anybody care?’ make them care (through the writing).”
- Stop thinking about what your husband/employer/pet alpaca will think. Tell the story with no limitations. Says Bernstein, “Do not censor yourself, or your story will die on the vine.”
- A lot of stories begin with a question. Enlist the reader; ask them to join you in your inquiry. Switch from “teller” to “inquirer.” Do not expect to find an answer. Your role is to ask questions, not necessarily answer them. Says author Peter Trachtenberg: “Find your question.”
- Publishing in literary journals doesn’t come with monetary compensation (and you can expect to pay a minimal submission fee), but agents and editors peruse them for new talent. Brevity’s Dinty W. Moore offered this translation of the question: “Do you have a book in you?” It really means “Can I make any money off of you?”
Any gathering of writers would be incomplete without a reading. Like an undercurrent, the stories swept us out to sea and we were adrift, then just as swiftly, tossed back on to dry land. Our adventure ended when the reader closed her notebook. We dutifully applauded as we pondered the questions that all good creative nonfiction inspires: Will the stranger who punched Jane in the park ever get caught? Will Mister Essay Writer Guy ever get the girl? Check bestsellers next spring for answers.
Julie Strauss Bettinger received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction at Goucher College in 2013. She is working with literary agent Joanne Wyckoff on a book about a Hurricane Katrina rescue and Courthouse Therapy Dog named Rikki. Find her at: juliebettinger.com.
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.
March 6, 2014 § 2 Comments
The panel, which was run as a Q&A, began with the presenters sharing their research specialties, which included homicides, dance halls, health care, Iceland, and oil fields, to name just a few. Many of the questions were from Gail Folkins, the moderator, but others were from the audience.
How would you describe your research styles?
Kurt Caswell said that he is “a writer who tries to be careful,” always making sure he has the correct information, one who tries to get to the “center” of the source. Toni Jensen, on the other hand, comes at nonfiction research in a roundabout way: she is often doing research for the fiction she writes about the American West, and but uses that research to write nonfiction as well, focusing on touring facilities and digging into archives. Lee Gutkind called himself an “immersionist” who tries to experience the life of the subjects and come away with questions, which then lead him to stories. It is, according to him, all about the people and the stories. Jill Patterson and Gail Folkins also focus on people. Jill, who researches homicides, describes “eating and folding laundry” with the families of the convicted, hanging out “in the field” so that she builds relationships with the people whose stories she tells. Gail, who studies dance halls in Texas, tells of volunteering at the door or backstage during concerts, being the first to get there and the last to leave.
What are some of the constraints of research, and how do you overcome them?
Kurt pointed out, as everyone was obviously thinking, that the two big constraints are time and money. But, he said, the real issue is “largely a people issue.” If you speak to the right people, they will connect you to the people with the stories. “If you’re willing to work at it, you can get to the point,” he said. However, there is still the issue of money. Jill and Joni both encouraged writers to apply for grants inside the field of study, not just grants to artists and writers. Noting the difficultly of traveling, Lee recommended that writers “think local…It’s easier when your subject is two miles rather than two-thousand miles away.” Every community has stories the whole world will find interesting, he said.
Once you have an idea for a story, how do you find the first source?
Jill recommended looking to the local university. Many universities have specialists in local events or industries who have done their own research, so starting there will be a good place for contacts. Toni also mentioned hanging out at the bars where the people she wanted to interview hung out—make friends with the barkeeper and you’ll know when everyone is coming and going. Essentially: get in touch with the people who know people, who ever that is.
How do you get documents?
To be brief: courthouses. For nearly everything the cops, the courts, or the government has done on most of what you’re researching, you can get copies at the courthouse where it happened. The records are inexpensive, though you will often pay for copies by the page, so things can add up.
What happens when you hit a dead end? How do you even know that has happened?
Jill’s advice was simple (and cheeky): just walk away. But Curt and Lee both reminded us that sometimes the search for answers is the story itself. Where the dead ends are is often as interesting a story as you might find anywhere, as is the writer’s own search for answers. But Joni reminded us of what had been said earlier, that the best way to get the stories is by talking with people. If you think you have a dead end, talk a little bit longer. It may take a year or more, but eventually, people open up.
How do you interview people?
There was lots of advice here, most of which focused on remembering that the people you are talking to are not a story. They are people with lives. Sometimes the information isn’t something they will want to share with just anyone. Gail said that if she was going to get anywhere, she would have to know a lot about the situation first. Do your homework before the interview. Be sure to know what questions to ask, but also be willing to follow tangents, as there are often good stories there. Jill echoed that idea, noting that her clients will often tell the same stories repeatedly, stories she called the “myths of the self.” Pay close attention to these repeated stories and what topics got you to them. On the other hand, Lee recommended not worrying too much about questions, but instead just focusing on being a good listener, one who is encouraging, even with silences. The subject will often be more comfortable if they tell you what they want to say first, then you can follow up on interesting stories from there. He also recommended interviewing other people first: interview the family, coworkers, secretaries, etc, of the subject first. This, he said, gets them nervous and more keen to make sure their side of the story gets heard, but the other interviews also allow you to ask more significant questions. In a similar vein, Curt recommended “playing dumb,” asking the same question in different ways so that they have to explain the situation several times. Often, new approaches will reveal new material.
Perhaps the most important question of the panel was about ethics of writing other people’s stories.
Toni reminded us that we need to be humane in our approach. Be against an issue, she said, never against a person. Often, it is just their job. Gail told us to balance inclusion and exclusion, writing with the truth in mind, but still respecting relationships. Lee pointed out that the a large portion of the Creative Nonfiction budget goes to fact checking, because writers owe it to their readers and subjects to be accurate.
Scott Russell Morris has an MFA from Brigham Young University and is pursuing a PhD in English Literature from Texas Tech University. His nonfiction has previously appeared in Brevity, SLAB, Blue Lyra Review, Stone Voices, end elsewhere. He is putting the final touches on an essay collection called Everything I Know About Squirrels.
January 17, 2013 § 4 Comments
An exceptionally odd story, but also a reminder of the power of narrative. We just had a brief discussion with Lee Gutkind on one of the other social media platforms, where he aptly pointed out: “All this while traditional journalists criticize creative nonfiction writers for alleged liberties.”
Lee also promised free copies of his new book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between to “all sports reporters who promise to read the chapters about fact checking.”
Here’s the latest from Slate, on why the story spread:
As Deadspin laid out in brutal detail on Wednesday, Notre Dame linebacker Manti Te’o’s dead girlfriend is neither dead nor Manti Te’o’s girlfriend nor a corporeal being. Te’o and Lennay Kekua never met on the field at Stanford, never hung out together in Hawaii, and didn’t talk on the phone each night as she lay dying of leukemia. As we wait to learn more details of this amazing hoax, it’s worth examining the second-biggest mystery of the Manti Te’o fake girlfriend saga: How did the sports media come to spread this phony story?
The writer who did the most to popularize Te’o’s tale of triumph over tragedy was Sports Illustrated’s Pete Thamel. In late September, Thamel wrote that the Notre Dame star “played remarkably well under the most depressing of circumstances—the death of his girlfriend and grandmother within [a] 24-hour span before the Irish’s game against Michigan State.” (The part about his grandmother’s death is true.) In the Oct. 1 edition of the magazine, which placed Te’o on the cover and noted that the linebacker “has restored the shine to the Golden Dome,” Thamel reported the precise date of Lennay Kekua’s supposedly almost-deadly car accident (April 28) and stated that her “relatives told [Te’o] that at her lowest points, as she fought to emerge from a coma, her breathing rate would increase at the sound of his voice.” And in a Dec. 20 piece, Thamel explained that Kekua wrote Te’o a series of inspirational notes before her passing, and that her brother Kainoa and sister U’ilani “would read the letters to Manti” to help soothe his pain. “It’s given me a sense of strength and perseverance,” the Heisman Trophy finalist told the Sports Illustrated writer.
If Thamel or anyone else at SI had used Nexis or Google, they would’ve discovered that Lennay Kekua (not to mention her brother and sister) didn’t exist. A reporter doesn’t expect to learn that his subject’s dead girlfriend is nothing but a fake Twitter avatar. But a reporter, especially at a fact-checked magazine like SI, also doesn’t generally put someone’s name into print and say that she smashed up her car on April 28 without confirming the spelling and the wreckage. That assumption of basic competence filters down to everyone else in the sports media ecosystem: If Manti Te’o’s story of woe is inSports Illustrated, then it must be true.
So why didn’t Thamel and his cohorts at ESPN and elsewhere figure out they were all on a Catfish-ing exhibition? Because they fell victim to confirmation bias. Even before his great 2012 season, Te’o’s golden-as-the-dome image had been cemented. He was a humble leader, a Boy Scout, a religious fellow who put family first, a player who returned to Notre Dame for his senior season because, in the words of his father, “he was led there to do something.”
Manti Te’o was a sports hero, and his standout play this year demanded the details to flesh out that storyline. There’s a journalistic cliché: If your mother says she loves you, check it out. For sports hagiographers, it’s more like: If he makes a lot of tackles, don’t you dare check anything. Stardom demands that feature writers color in the lines with off-field greatness. And Te’o’s character, it seemed, was unimpeachable. After all, there had been all these stories about how humble and religious he was, and how he’d been led to Notre Dame to do something.
Read More Here
August 30, 2012 § 2 Comments
Lee Gutkind has a new book, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, and an article post up on Huffington Post tied to a Hall of Fame of Literary Fabricators and Fakers. The folks you expect to be there in the Hall of Fake Shame show up, such as James Frey and Herman Rosenblat, but there are a few you might not expect, including Lillian Hellman and the New Yorker‘s Alistair Reid. Here is a brief excerpt followed by the link:
I love the first chapter of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. It’s mostly about Bob Dylan, how he got inspired to write some of his songs, including “Like a Rolling Stone.” There’s one scene where he rips his notes into pieces and scatters them around the room in frustration. Very authentic, terrific stuff, and, unfortunately, as Lehrer recently admitted–untrue.
Why lie–especially about an American icon–information that can be easily verified or questioned?
Lehrer had a thesis to support about the spontaneity of creativity, and he wanted to tell a good story at the same time–which is what the creative nonfiction genre is all about. But style and substance sometimes don’t come together so easily–and so Lehrer took the easy road, which was also the low road…
March 20, 2012 § 4 Comments
Creative Nonfiction magazine editor and longtime proponent of the form Lee Gutkind weighs in on John D’Agata over at the LA Review of Books, offering another example of why truth matters and the damage that can result from fact-shifting.
Here is an excerpt, but if you want a comprehensive account of both contested books and the resultant discussion, click through for the entire essay:
But there is a big difference between not trying strenuously to get facts right — that’s just shirking responsibility and hoping no one notices — and actively changing them, as D’Agata does, to suit his own needs. You don’t achieve a larger truth by changing statistics or the names of places or people. Doing so makes you dishonest and unethical. It might be easier and more poetic to write this review, for example, if I changed the name of the writer to Don’tgotta or D’Errata. But, alas, that’s just not the guy’s name.
When people read nonfiction they expect it to be as accurate and as true as possible. That’s the promise that nonfiction always makes: that the writing and reporting are as faithful as possible to fact, that truth and accuracy make a difference.
The writer, through history, has tried to make a difference, to touch readers, to make them aware of what’s going on around them. We have learned that information, enhanced by story, can be ammunition, our weapon for change. In 2009, President Obama made his entire staff read a New Yorker essay by Atul Gawande about ways to control the rising costs of health care. Gawande spotlighted the health-care system in McAllen, Texas, where patients suffer through twice as many cardiac surgeries than the national average, four times the ambulance spending, and eight times the end-of-life home health-care costs; Gawande compares health-care costs in similarly sized towns in order to spotlight unnecessary waste and mismanagement. Some of the ideas from Gawande’s piece ended up in the Obama health-care package, and so the consequences of misreporting — or inaccuracy for any reason — could have been profound.
October 27, 2010 § 7 Comments
It is “Mean Week” over at HTMLGiant, which means the blogger folks say mean and provocative things about other writers and other magazines and other blogs and everyone gets all snarky in the comments and insults the original blog author, and in this way, if we understand correctly, everyone gets a good chuckle and site stats go through the roof. Oh, the internet is such a wonderful place.
So, in order to increase our site stats, we here at the Brevity Blog are going to be way mean too, starting now:
1) Philip Lopate, you are too tall.
2) Lee Gutkind, lots of people don’t know how to pronounce your last name.
3) Robin Hemley, your first name is also the name of a bird.
4) Gay Talese … oh never mind.