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:


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.**

AWP 2012 – “All Nonfiction Employs Art in Service to Facts”

March 7, 2012 § 2 Comments

By Julie Farrar

R236 What’s Wrong With the Whole Truth / Thursday, Mar. 1, 4:30-5:45 p.m.
S198 Critical Divide: The Personal Essay and the Critical Essay / Saturday, Mar. 3, 3:00-4:15 p.m.
S219 The Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms or a Form of Collapse? / Saturday, Mar. 3, 4:30-5:45 p.m.

This was my first AWP conference.  I was adrift trying to identify the structure of the at-large writing community, trying to distinguish the term-du-jour, the ongoing issues, and whose voice holds prominence in the critical discourse of the field vs. the literary.  I fretted that I didn’t know that black nails was the new black among writers and that I had not a molecule of purple or orange dye highlighting my own hair.

These first date jitters proved unfounded, however, when I realized that many share my same unease over the unwieldy term “creative nonfiction” and all it infers.  What no one mentioned was that the essential questions they were asking had been grappled with for centuries.

Let me say up front that I fell in love with Sven Birkerts when he used the terms “belletristic mode” and “polemic” in the same sentence in the session “Critical Divide: The Personal Essay and the Critical Essay.”  The question he was addressing when these gems popped out is why such a tension exists between “creative” and “nonfiction.”  Why does nonfiction need the reinforcer in front of it?  Is the category so vast (on a suggested spectrum of documentary writing at one end, academic writing taking up the middle, and CNF at the other end) that most of it doesn’t even earn the label “creative”?

Fiction and poetry invent; therefore, to the world at large they’re obviously creative.  Birkerts argued, however, that creativity in non-fiction has less to do with the “what” and more to do with the “how.”  Discovery is creative.  Searching out patterns within information and the form writers make out of those facts require imagination or creativity as much as the other genres.  Or, as Fiona McRae put it in the same session, CNF is more than just filling in the chronology.  And just because a writer uses the “I,” that doesn’t make it creative.

Rebecca Skloot,  as part of the panel “What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth?”, asked the same question.  The confusion for people about “creative nonfiction,” she said, lay in the implications of “creative,” as in creative-with-the-facts (the John D’Agata controversy was never far from the surface in many panels).  If we think about the term only as applying to content, then it’s easy to see how anyone within or without the genre can doubt that any identifiable boundaries exist. It can give those within the genre license to play with “truth” in pursuit of “Truth.”  For those outside the genre, well, it makes them wonder what we’re up to over here.

Although no one used the term “rhetoric,” they were more or less positing support for Cicero’s ancient canons – invention, arrangement, style, delivery – as the defining features of nonfiction.  Philip Gerard and Peter Trachtenberg channeled Aristotle in the “Whole Truth” session, hammering home the ethical obligations of the writer (his or her ethos) to get the facts right, especially when telling stories about other people.  Aristotle schooled us in ethos (the character of the speaker), pathos (the emotional presence of the issue language creates), and logos (the discovery and arrangement of the material).  Rhetoric itself covers Birkert’s spectrum with deliberative, forensic, and epideictic speech.  Modern rhetorical theory has even broken out of this arrow-straight spectrum, while still maintaining the essential ethos/pathos/logos triangle.

I have more discovery of my own to accomplish by next year’s conference regarding the tension between “creative” and “nonfiction.”  However, Ned Stuckey French in discussing “The Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms or a Form of Collapse?” came closest to articulating a vision of CNF-as-rhetoric.  The qualifier “creative” implies fiction as the norm, he said, like if instead of calling an apple a fruit we called it a “non-meat.”  Since all rhetoric engages the imagination in invention, arrangement, et al., perhaps at some future AWP conference we’ll shift from trying to make our nonfiction apple into a palatable non-meat dish fancied up with a bit of “creative” sauce.  We’ll claim a straightforward label, saying that all nonfiction employs art in service to facts.  Not the other way around.

Julie Farrar earned her PhD in Rhetoric from Purdue University a lifetime ago, taught more freshmen than she can count how to reseach and write essays, and now sits at her computer in St. Louis working on a memoir about raising her adopted children, travel essays, and personal essays.  She has much to learn about writing, but recently earned first place in the Travel and Shopping category of Travelers’ Tales 6th Annual Solas Awards.

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