CNF at 20: Find Your Question

May 29, 2014 § 5 Comments

old friends

Trivia Contest: Who was Brevity Editor Dinty W. Moore’s first college writing teacher? Be the first to name him or her, and name how many years ago it was, in the comments section of the blog, and win a free copy of The Mindful Writer.

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, 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:


Dancing with Elemental Forces: Richard Gilbert’s Shepherd

May 12, 2014 § 7 Comments

downloadAn interview with Richard Gilbert, author of Shepherd: A Memoir, discussing the hard work of finding a book’s center, being a first-time author, and the beauty of farming.

Dinty W. Moore: I know that Shepherd took many years to write, and that you worked your way through numerous revisions. How did the core of the book change over time? Are the questions at the heart of this book the same questions you had in mind the day you started?

Richard Gilbert: At first, the book amounted to linked essays straining to become a narrative. It was partly a critique of academe and Appalachia, partly family history, partly how-to, partly farming memoir. I had much to say, and was in good voice, but created a herky-jerky experience for the reader.

Buried in this welter was my intuitive sense, from the start, that the core of this story was my relationship with my charismatic, distant father—especially the twin legacies of his farming adventures and his father’s suicide. As those aspects slowly came into focus and prominence during the writing, I saw that my own temperament and portraying it were related puzzles that needed more conscious attention. I struggled to weave these elements into the foreground narrative about my own farming in a lovely, challenging region

After I’d written three versions, I hired Bill Roorbach as a book doctor. He taught me how to use my retrospective self a bit more, resulting in a wiser and more sympathetic persona; how to drive more narrative threads through more chapters; and how to more fully dramatize my experience. Later, structure played a huge role, specifically in where and how my father was deployed. I learned a lot in that regard from studying Cheryl Strayed’s memoir Wild.

By the end, I was repeating the mantra, “This book is about dreams, loss, farming, and fatherhood.” I had to get a lot down on the page to see those focal points. Leslie Rubinkowski, one of my MFA mentors, once told me, “I keep working to make it simple.” I learned what she meant.

DWM: You had worked in publishing for many years prior to starting Shepherd, and so you already knew plenty about how books come to be written, placed with publishers, edited, and sent off to bookstores.  What did being on the author end of the transaction teach you that you didn’t know before?

Richard-GilbertRG: How in the dark you feel after handing your book off, how the process is mysterious and moves on mysteriously and with minimal input from you. This is partly incidental on the part of publishers and partly intentional.

When I was a publicist at Indiana University Press and later marketing manager of Ohio University Press/Swallow Press, I was far too busy to educate authors. Looking back, maybe I was impatient sometimes because I was overly wary of stirring up “difficult” authors. In that case, I’d let them know that we wanted the best for our book. I didn’t realize how thoroughly serious writers know their books and also welcome fresh ideas, though I did try to tap their knowledge with an extensive questionnaire.

As an author, it felt odd when my input, if it was sought or offered, wasn’t in any way binding—and might not even be responded to. It was their book, and thanks very much.

Overall, however, Michigan State University Press was incredibly receptive to my ideas. I got to choose between two covers, which is unusual, got the back cover I wanted, heavily influenced the book’s interior layout, and enjoyed working with editors to revise my sentences. At the same time, I now wish press staff had protected me from myself in some instances. I supplied the catalog copy, but probably revealed too much plot, my pitch having been based on my book proposal for editors. And my one-line bio that appeared in the catalog was too minimal—that’s what and others will use. Duh! A crisp three-line bio is a strategic promotional asset. So a dialectic between author and publisher is ideal.

Although I’d had a lot of publishing experience, I was rusty. And I’d never been a book author. Everything looked and felt different from that side of the fence. The learning curve principle applied: in a new situation, your usual competence is at first diminished.

DWM: What do you miss about farming?



RG: In the spring, when the trees bud and there’s that gold-green haze on the domes of the woods, the landscape grown soft again, I get the fever. Which is somewhat weird to me, because spring stressed me out terribly. So much to do. In the book I write about deciding that, for farmers, there really are only two seasons—winter and summer, with spring and fall as mere transitions. And transitions are killers. You have to quit what had been working. Reposition. Start over.

But I miss lambs and baby chickens! How I miss the lambs, their soft warm bodies in my lap as I tagged them, their frisking about, their baaing at their mothers to come to them. And there was always such a potent secret drama going on that nobody else knew about. You got caught up in it—miracles happening everywhere you looked. And problems to attend. By the end of lambing you were exhausted, and the lambing pasture was trashed with drying and rotting afterbirth attracting flies.

Yet there were fresh fields coming on, full of tender grass soaking up solar energy, and the cycle felt so forgiving. You danced with such elemental forces.

The 20th Anniversary Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

May 5, 2014 § 3 Comments


Lee Gutkind

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?

Amy Wright

Amy Wright

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.

**Visit the Conference Page for More Information.**

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