In an interview with Smart Writers you noted that nonfiction writers use the same writing elements– scenes, descriptions, dialogue, even the 5R’s – as fiction writers, the only difference being that nonfiction is true and fiction just “rings true.” But there is something else that separates fiction from nonfiction besides the truth… isn’t it also about the attitude toward the piece?
Nonfiction writers have different approaches and voices, as do novelists and poets. And some nonfiction reads exactly like fiction, say, “This Boy’s Life” or “The Kiss.” The answer to your question is more complicated and subtle. In fact, you are right: It begins with attitude AND is nailed by intention. Writers need to decide what they want to accomplish in their work, the story they want to tell and the specific impact they want to make. The answer to these questions determine form, style, approach and even genre.
Can you tell me a bit about how you started the Creative Nonfiction Journal?
When I started the journal Creative Nonfiction in 1993 it was, specifically, to provide a forum and an outlet for journalists who aspired to be literary. Newspapers and magazines stifled creativity; reporters and public relations writers bitched and complained. Reporters were forced to dumb down all stories and, except for the occasional opportunity to showcase their ideas and vent their feelings on the op-ed page, they were not permitted to think for themselves and advance their own ideas, even though covering local, national, or international affairs provides untold insight, which they were advised (and edited), to keep to themselves. Even when reporters tried to liberate themselves through freelancing, the going was rough. Unless you were Gay Talese or Tom Wolfe, getting your work into Esquire or Harper’s was nearly impossible. And who, pray tell, could break into The New Yorker clique? And with the exception of The Georgia Review and later The Gettysburg Review, literary journal editors were not too keen on nonfiction either, unless it was criticism. Most literary journals were anchored at universities; the work they published and encouraged reflected the interests of faculty and graduate students. Creative nonfiction was just beginning to establish a foothold in academia. I wrote an editorial statement and drafted a call for manuscripts that reflected the ideas of reporters who tended to be literary (essays that contain rapportage information, scene elements, and narration). I put out a call for manuscripts and waited for the essays to pour in. Which they did. Many dozens of nonfiction pieces arrived at our mailbox over the first few weeks, more and more as word got around, and our first few issues were published.
What direction do you see the journal going in? What would you like to see happen?
Right now, Creative Nonfiction is published by the nonprofit Creative Nonfiction Foundation, which I started. We are totally independent, which was a real advantage during the years when the journal was taking shape and the genre was growing. But now I believe that it is time to affiliate with a larger institution, a university perhaps or a cultural
foundation. Right now I am talking with the powers-that-be at the University of Pittsburgh where I teach about receiving some support and making more of a permanent connection so that the Pittsburgh MFAs can experience the publishing process in action. But we are far away from any sort of arrangement and I am seeking other options.
I want to considerably increase the distribution of Creative Nonfiction from the 7,000 we have now to perhaps about 25,000. And I am thinking about changing the physical form using Zoetrope, which I admire, as a model. I also want to do more theme issues. Most recently we have confronted the difficult topics of diversity ("Diversity Dialogues") and the healthcare crisis ("Rage and Reconciliation") and in doing that have discovered a number of new, angry
and shockingly articulate voices. It is my feeling that creative nonfiction — the literature or reality — as opposed to poetry and fiction, can make an impact that will change the world in certain subtle but measurable ways. You may think that I am aiming high or speaking in hyperbole, but that's precisely what I intend to do.
You’ve said that creative nonfiction is not a genre like fiction or poetry but that it is a literary, cultural, and political movement. But because it is such a dominant force, doesn’t nonfiction also have the power to die out as easily as it reared up? Just like political, literary and culture ideas do? What keeps CNF going? Is it because more and more people are becoming nonfiction writers?
The concept of story, scene and narrative in nonfiction has caused an interdisciplinary explosion. My colleagues in history, anthropology, psychology, etc. are writing narrative books and essays. Creative nonfiction writing techniques are now being taught and required in law schools and medical schools. Journalism schools, including prestigious Columbia, are being retooled to catch up with the 21st century narrative movement. In fact, journalists in
general, the most backward, boring, lead-footed dinosaurs of all time, are recognizing that "story" is the real story these days and that the stuff they have been plastering the front pages with has been sleep inducing. The creative nonfiction movement may one day die, but believe me, at this point, it hasn’t yet begun to live.
Creative Nonfiction has hosted themes such as diversity and healthcare. What future topics do you see for the journal?
Upcoming issues will feature Mexican and Mexican-American writers, essays about baseball, architecture and design and technology. The architecture and design issue will focus on how design impacts on everything we do today, everywhere we go; it is no longer a province of art galleries and Architectural Digest. In technology, we are looking into the future and imagining the world a decade from now.
Was there a different writing process involved in the writing of “Forever Fat” than the writing of "Many Sleepless Nights" and “Stuck in Time"? What was your starting point?
A starting point for Forever Fat was my second divorce. In other words, a crisis occurs which causes a writer to revisit an aspect of his/her life and begin to think about it and subsequently recreate it. This happened to me six or seven years ago. It was not unexpected that my musings about both my marital break-ups hardly enters into the text of Forever Fat, but it did catapult me into a reconstruction of my life and an analysis of why things happened to me, the people involved, and how I feel about it all today. The other books you mention were not personal, and therefore I entered into them most because of emotional and intellectual curiosity. For Many Sleepless Nights, for example, I was interested in how common, ordinary, everyday people deal with the specter of death and the ultimate fear that comes with it. For Stuck in Time, I began thinking of children and fatherhood and accidentally stumbled into a world in which children (those with severe mental health problems) were vulnerable. Plunging myself into that world expanded my awareness of the public policy issues surrounding these children and my hunger for information and the personal experience that went with it exploded. And then you know the story when a writer is suddenly obsessed…
What’s your overall feeling about the Godfather tour so far? Is it what you expected?
It is really too early to tell. It is just starting. But I am incredibly surprised and appreciative of the responses I have received just to the idea of the tour. Take a look at my schedule: Seattle, Denver, Nashville, Dublin, London, Casper, Wyoming, etc. I am flattered, delighted and, most important, feeling like I am a part of something, feeling, in fact, that my work has made a difference. I was talking about change in the question above. Creative nonfiction — the genre and the journal — have changed the face of academia, especially in English departments and writing programs, but also in History, Anthropology and Psychology in a way heretofore unimagined. And what about the publishing world? Nothing in nonfiction is exactly the same as it was ten years ago when Creative Nonfiction published its first issue. This is a validation I appreciate.
What sorts of film have you done?
I wrote and produced a 30-minute-documentary film called A Place Just Right, based loosely on my book The People of Penns Woods West, which won a CINE Golden Eagle a number of years ago. I also served as a consulting editor for National Public Radio and am now a freelance reporter/producer, writing, recording, and producing my own stories. Creative Nonfiction has launched a series of four public readings by professional actors of work we have published in recent issues. These readings, followed by a discussion of the issues inherent in the essays that were read, were all audio and video taped. We are now looking for funding to produce both projects.
Let’s change gears… I’m personally interested in your thoughts about MFA programs. As creative
nonfiction continues to gain popularity, there are a growing number of MFA programs specializing in this field. Which do you think some of the best schools have to offer curriculum wise?
Few of the programs have enough full-time faculty — people who specialize in the genre — and I think that's important. You need to be able to work with three people at least who have an in-depth relationship to the field. I am happy that so many poets and fiction writers are crossing genres, but I am not sure that a few essays make them ready and qualified to teach MFA creative nonfiction students. So that's one thing to look for.
But frankly, I think too many people are going into MFA programs in creative nonfiction in the first place, and worse, they are getting out too quickly. Because creative nonfiction requires a good deal of research — from interviewing to independent reading — it is more challenging and requires more time before the writing can begin. I think all students, especially the youngest ones, should try to go part-time, work their way through gradually, and allow enough time so that the work they are creating can make the impact they are seeking. I also think that young people should be dissuaded from MFA programs until they have life experiences that would warrant the reflection necessary to write in a way that would make a significant impact.
Do you have any thoughts on low-residency versus full-time MFA programs? Do certain structures work better for certain nonfiction writers?
Let me emphasize one point: The problem with low-residency programs is that they don't have enough residency. It is naive to think that coming together with your professor and peers for two weeks or so (or less sometimes) every year is in any way comparable to seeing them every week from September through May. Because of economic factors, most low-residency programs either disallow or discourage a student from working through the program gradually over a four- or five-year period. This is the problem, the preeminent problem, I am hoping MFA directors will address.
In the time that you've taught at the University Pittsburgh, have you seen a transformation or a change in the goals and ambitions in the nonfiction students in your classes?
When I started teaching, most students who wanted to be writers were enlightened and motivated by literature. The creative writing major was originally justified by the demand of literature students for courses more oriented to writing. Now that there’s a writing major available, many students go in that direction because of a lack of direction; in other words, they don’t know where else to go. Writing will always be a valuable skill. Perhaps only one in ten of my undergrads really want to be serious writers. I wouldn’t call this a “transformation.” But it is
interesting. At Pitt, we have added more “readings for writers” courses as entry-level requirements for the advanced writing courses. We are hoping that they will help students become better writers and, at the same time, discourage students who opt for a writing major for lack of a better option.
Can you explain more what you mean by good creative nonfiction writing having more substance than style?
By “substance” I mean information (factual stuff) and reflection (an analysis of the information being presented). Creative nonfiction is more than just story (style). Writers must understand what the story they are telling means and make it relate to a larger, extended readership. Look at Cynthia Ozick, John Edgar Wideman, Annie Dillard, Terry Tempest Williams... These writers tell riveting stories with poetic articulation, but you learn something about the subject they are discussing and the meanings behind their observations with every turn of the page.
You stress the importance of reading The New York Times to understand what is happening in the world. Yet you also state how important it is to read the local news, the "think locally, act globally" philosophy. How many of your ideas actually come from local newspapers versus the New York Times? What do you look for when you read local and international newspapers?
My ideas for books, articles, essays and theme issues come from the news, an amalgam of local and national and international pipelines. But not always. My eyes are always open for institutions and individuals with special interests and the resources to help us fund them. Right at this moment, I am reaching out to automobile companies because I am very excited about the possibility of an issue about the American pick-up truck and what it means. I’d like to do a special issue about food, condiments especially. Ketchup, mustard, and relish are uniquely American. I like to take such objects and open-ended ideas, so that writers have a specific starting point, and then see what tangents they follow and the stories they tell.