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.

AWP 2012: What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth?

March 3, 2012 § 16 Comments

By Sara Marie Hoover

R236. What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth? / Thursday, March 1, 2012 – 4:30-5:45 p.m.

(UPDATE:  Be sure to read the comments below the post, where the conversation continues and a few of the panelists themselves weigh in.)

In the midst of the brouhaha about John D’Agata, four creative nonfiction writers made a case for the strictest adherence to facts–even going so far as to call compression and composite characters a violation of principles of creative nonfiction.

Brown University’s Susan Kushner Resnick who spent 25 years as a journalist, where truth is truth is truth, argued that, life is messy and it’s the author’s job to work around the messiness. While I agree with this statement, I was surprised techniques like composite characters and compression were considered to be betrayals rather than tools. They became examples of imposing order on messy life, but isn’t that what this craft is about, to some extent? Isn’t that part of the art?

Philip Gerard, UNC-Wilmington’s writing program director, proposed that facts are constantly manipulated to create a specific narrative. He used his latest project, serialized narratives of the Civil War in North Carolina to showcase the difference between “documented creative nonfiction” and a fact-bending narrative a la Gone With the Wind. There’s a difference though between propaganda pieces and artful storytelling, and between making up facts and shaping them to create a story.

Pitt’s Peter Trachtenberg, who has “never openly invented anything,” said his book, The Book of Calamities, is straight journalism because “they were their facts, not my facts and I can’t dick around with them constantly.” And we’re back to square one. Whose story can we tell as CNFers? Are we only memoirists and not literary journalists? For Trachtenberg, the most odious violation is twisting someone else’s life. A valid point, and  yet adhering to a journalistic can’t be the answer. Writers like McPhee, Capote and Susan Orlean have shown us that.

Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, argued the confusion lies with the “creative” part of CNF and addressed the verification of facts. Every statement of fact in her book was verified because her book, she said, was about what happens when the misinformation of fact continues.

So what did the panelists have to say about memoir, that form which relies on memory and reconstructed scenes and dialogue. The tall order of if it can’t be documented, they prefer it not be put into print. “Why make a specific scene? You get into trouble where scenes don’t naturally exist,” said Skloot. Resnick used her current memoir project as an example. When talking to someone who will be in it, she dashes off to the bathroom to take notes. While a good practice, I’m not sure how it applies to past events.

Resnick believes it would be good if there were some standards for CNF, but who would set them and what would they be? The panel seems to assert themselves as purists of CNF, who feel any modification in their eyes is a disservice to the genre. Who will be the arbitrators of these standards? Wouldn’t any type of construction, using this logic, not be the whole truth? Why not just show transcripts and raw data? Otherwise they’re not telling the whole truth either, according to these standards.

Apples to Apples, Please: Narrative Nonfiction and Empathy

October 25, 2011 § 19 Comments

A guest post from essayist Susan Cushman:

In AARP the Magazine‘s September/October issue, Tina Adler wrote, “Reading fiction can make you more compassionate. In a study at York University in Toronto, fiction readers not only scored higher on an empathy test than nonfiction readers–but the more fiction they had read, the higher their scores….”

The only problem is, the researchers didn’t compare apples with apples—they compared narrative fiction with expository nonfiction. That would be like doing a study to prove that reading memoir improves social skills better than reading journalistic or scientific nonfiction. Too much ado about semantics here? I don’t think so. Let’s look at a few definitions.

Expository nonfiction basically gives facts about what something is or means, who someone is, or how something works. Its goal is to explain, not to inspire or to elicit an emotional response.

In narrative fiction the author uses a narrative voice to tell a story. Done well, it engages the reader on many levels—emotional, psychological, social—and yes, as the York University study showed, a regular diet of such literature could certainly create empathy in its readers.

But so can narrative nonfiction, the genre the study chose to leave out. A narrative, after all, is a story, a series of events told through the narrator or through a character, depending upon the narrative mode and voice chosen to impart the story. Sometimes this is called literary nonfiction, and of course, creative nonfiction, which uses all the tools of the fiction writer to tell a true story.

York University researcher Raymond Mar, Ph.D. claims that “Reading fiction helps you understand how people think and feel…. fiction readers have these added social skills because they can imagine themselves in stories (as opposed to nonfiction readers) then transfer that empathy to real life.”

And yet the subjects in the study weren’t given the opportunity to read literary or creative nonfiction. Imagine what would have happened if they had been given Rebecca Skloot’s narrative nonfiction book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks and learned about a poor black tobacco farmer whose cells were taken without her permission for medical research, when her family couldn’t afford the medical care they needed. Would that have evoked compassion in the readers?

Or what if they had been asked to read Neil White’s memoir, In the Sanctuary of Outcasts, where they would have learned about how the eighteen months White spent in a federal prison (for kiting checks) that also housed the last leprosy colony in the United States changed him forever.

Wouldn’t Mar’s subjects have scored as high on the empathy tests if they had been allowed to read Lit, Mary Karr’s gritty memoir of getting sober and finding God? How would reading Ron Hall and Denver Moore’s Same Kind of Different as Me have affected those readers?

Adler’s article, “Sharpen Your Social Skills: A love for literature has surprising benefits” ends with these words: “Researchers are now studying whether particular types of novels generate empathy more than others. Until they know, read the fiction you favor.”

And yet again, their study was limited to narrative fiction. (And who know what the quality of that fiction was, compared to the quality of the nonfiction books the subjects were given.) It will be interesting to see what happens if they decide to compare, say, commercial to literary fiction, or sci-fi to romance novels. Maybe I’ll write them a letter and ask if they’ve thought about including memoir or other forms of creative nonfiction in their study. A literary novel vs. a literary memoir—now that would be apples to apples.


Susan Cushman has nine published essays, including “Blocked,” which was a finalist in the Santa Fe Writers Project 2008 literary awards. Her essay, “Chiaroscuro: Shimmer and Shine,” will be included in Circling Faith: Southern Women on Spirituality (University of Alabama Press) to be released in spring, 2012. Susan was co-director of the 2010 Oxford Creative Nonfiction Conference and director of the 2011 Memphis Creative Nonfiction Workshop.  Her novel-in-progress, Cherry Bomb, made the short list in the 2011 Faulkner-Wisdom Creative Writing Competition. You can follow her on her personal blog, Pen and Palette.

Creative Nonfiction Relaunches as a Quarterly Magazine

March 16, 2010 § 1 Comment

If you haven’t seen the new format/new content Creative Nonfiction magazine, you should rush to a bookstore/ the subscription kiosk /or the AWP bookfair and score a copy.  Looks smart, reads smarter.

Here’s a brief review from the Pittsburgh City Paper:

For 37 issues, CNF was basically a paperback book. Now it’s got the newstand-friendly dimensions of Esquire — though with 90 two-color matte pages, not 140 glossy, full-color ones. And while only ads sport photos, CNF features more graphics and spot illustrations.

But the emphasis remains on the words, with author interviews and writing advice now joining the essays and narrative journalism. The spring issue includes Details editor-at-large Jeff Gordinier’s in-depth interview with Dave Eggers (spotlighting Zeitoun, Egger’s new nonfiction book about a Syrian immigrant’s Hurricane Katrina travails). Ian Morris, of venerable, soon-to-be-online-only TriQuarterly, ponders the future of the literary magazine. And a seven-writer themed package on immortality includes both philosopher Todd May (“Teaching Death”) and an excerpt from Rebecca Skloot’s best-selling book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks.

Skloot read at the relaunch. She noted that work on her critically acclaimed book began when she was Gutkind’s grad student at Pitt, 12 years ago.

… Last word goes to veteran essayist Phillip Lopate, whose piece on veracity in storytelling in the new CNF upbraids writers who “thinly imagine” real-life scenes they haven’t actually witnessed.

“The fact that we can see things in our minds’ eyes doesn’t necessarily make them literarily valid,” Lopate writes. “The harder imaginative act for nonfiction writers is seeing the pattern in actual experience and putting it into some sort of order so that what seemed random is given narrative significance and symbolic resonance. Understanding is thick imagining.

via Creative Nonfiction begins life anew as a quarterly magazine. – Books – Book Reviews & Features – Pittsburgh City Paper.

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