Lee Gutkind is the founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, the premiere journal of the eponymous genre of writing that combines the literary techniques of fiction with the reality of life itself. With its spring 2010 issue, it’s undergone a radical revision in look, feel and sensibility, shifting from academic journal to wider-interest magazine. He’s also the author of many books that fall under the creative nonfiction heading, exploring subjects like baseball, transplant surgeries and robotics. In Vanity Fair, James Wolcott dubbed Gutkind the “godfather” of creative nonfiction. His latest, the father-son memoir Truckin’ with Sam: A Father and Son, The Mick and The Dyl, Rockin’ and Rollin’, On the Road, comes out this summer. Colin Marshall originally conducted this conversation on the public radio program and podcast The Marketplace of Ideas. [MP3] [iTunes link]
I'm looking, right in front of me, at these two issues: one of the journal Creative Nonfiction and one of the new Creative Nonfiction magazine. These two could not look more different; for the same publication, the difference is striking in every dimension. What could've brought out such a radical change?
What brought about the change is the fact that the entire genre of creative nonfiction has changed over the past fifteen or sixteen years, and in fact the publishing industry and the writing community has changed as well. Everything is different. When I started Creative Nonfiction as a journal, the whole phrase “creative nonfiction,” hardly anybody'd ever heard of it, and when they heard of it, they made fun of it like James Wolcott did. It was something new.
It was especially of interest, but also of great resistance, in the academic world: writing programs, creative writing teachers or writers who worked in creative writing programs. People were interested, but they didn't quite know what it was, and didn't quite know if they wanted to buy into it. There were many literary journals that published scholarly essays, good fiction and terrific poetry. Some of our best fiction writers and poets started their careers by being published in literary journals. I thought, “Okay, why don't I start a literary journal featuring only narrative nonfiction — or 'creative nonfiction' — and that will give it some distinction and great deal of credibility.”
That's what I did fifteen or sixteen years ago: I started the journal, and in fact it helped a great deal, giving the genre credibility in the entire academic world. The thing about the academic world is, it is growing like crazy. The creative writing programs are, in many respects, the cash cows of English departments these days. As it turns out, the nonfiction programs are the leading producers in most writing programs and English departments. It was the right thing to do. The timing was right at that moment. Now, almost every literary journal publishes creative nonfiction. There are about 70 MFA programs giving degrees in creative nonfiction in the United States. Creative nonfiction is increasing in popularity throughout the world. I thought, “Now's the time to continue to publish really terrific essays, but also to start a magazine that can discuss the genre.”
Half of the new magazine is essays, and half is a collection of ideas and columns by terrific writers about what we're doing in this whole creative nonfiction world. Secondly, if I can go one step further, I wanted to take the journal idea and push it beyond just writers and editors and academic reading creative nonfiction. I want the world to read creative nonfiction. A magazine to readers who aren't necessarily writers is much more accessible. That was the the plan, and that's what we're trying to do.
It seems so natural that this would be a magazine, that a magazine about creative nonfiction would be directed toward the wider world. The whole genre is about engagement with the wider world on the part of the writer. But it's kind of strange to me to think that it ever was an academic journal. Do you know what I mean? It doesn't seem like a genre that is suitable to the kind of crowd that goes in for academic journals. Of course, it obviously was, because you said it was successful, but it doesn't feel like a genre that should be necessarily in an academic publication.
I think you're absolutely right, which is why there was such — and, in some respects continues to be — resistance to the whole idea of creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction, some people think, is just souped-up journalism. Journalism is something most people in the academic world don't want to deal with and don't want to bother with. Trying to get an MFA program accredited and approved in my English department where I used to work, the University of Pittsburgh, was a five-year battle. The academics refused to admit that their work wasn't creative; they hated the distinction between creative nonfiction and their academic essays. It's been a battle, and lots of people don't think it belongs. In fact, some writing programs, even now, have no interest in even starting creative nonfiction programs.
You're right. We don't belong everywhere, necessarily, and perhaps never will. But what's happening in creative nonfiction is that people used to say, “This is something that's going to pass.” I started talking about this creative nonfiction moment, and I think the creative nonfiction moment is now the creative nonfiction movement. What is really happening in the world of creative nonficiton is, we are busting the seams out of writing programs and English departments. Creative nonfiction, or narrative nonfiction, is becoming a way in which people from all over the academic community, and all over the professional community, are now trying to communicate.
There are big movements in narrative law: lawyers and law students who are trying to learn how to present evidence and write briefs in a narrative or creative nonfiction form. Narrative medicine is a very big deal: some medical schools have two or three full-time faculty members just teaching narrative writing to doctors and nurses. Narrative science is becoming very popular. What's happening is, people are beginning to see that is doesn't just belong in the English department writing program world. Telling a story, which is what creative nonfiction is all about, but at the same time teaching readers or communicating to readers, providing readers information inside the story. That seems to be the big movement sweeping the world right now in the literary community, and in other professions.
It seems like, even if they don't know what a rigorous definition of creative nonfiction would be, a reader — not an academic, not a journalist, just a reader — will know what creative nonfiction is, intuitively, just by hearing the name of it. I think they like creative nonfiction a lot; you can see it by all the success the genre has had. You've done so much advocacy for creative nonfiction — how much of this has just been trying to swing the academics and the journalists? It seems like the readers didn't have to be convinced; they got on board.
Aren't you right. That's so true. The readers had been reading and loving creative nonfiction long before “creative nonfiction” was a phrase anyone ever acknowledged. But the battle has been to get other people aside from readers to acknowledge it. It's been a fight. One thing I think happened that's kind of changed the perspective of people inside the writing and publishing community is that certain writers who were really respected in the literary world began to cross genres: people like John Updike or Philip Roth or W.S. Merwin or Diane Ackerman or Terry Tempest Williams, all terrific fiction writers or poets, decided that they wanted to try something new, that they wanted to use these techniques they were using as fiction writers and poets and communicate real-life information. They gave a great deal of cachet and legitimacy to the genre as it was growing.
How much of your mission has been to not convince but make writers aware that, “No, this is something you can write, too. It's okay to go between genres and to write in this one that may be more appealing to you and to your readers.” How much convincing does that take for a writer?
My mission has been — I don't even know how I came to get this mission. This was something I very much enjoyed doing, a way in which I could make a very, very big impact on my readers. Part of being a writer, one would hope, is to try to make a difference. Writers need to try to change the minds of readers, or make readers start to think about a subject in a much more intense way than they perhaps did before. That was part of this mission of mine, on a personal basis. But I began to run into so many writers all across the world — and I travel a lot — who wanted to say things about their lives or wanted to say things about what they've learned to do, and there was really no place for them in the poetry/fiction communities.
What they were doing, they called “something else.” What they were doing didn't have a name. I can't tell you how many letters and e-mails I got, and even now continue to get, from people saying, “I never knew what I was doing before had any legitimacy whatsoever, but now I know it has a name. Now I know it has an audience. It's creative nonfiction.” So many writers were stumbling their way, trying to find a place, and they had no place to publish, no name to put on what they were doing. It's a funny thing, you know: we writers are such individuals in so many ways, and we like to go forth in our lives to what people call a different drummer. But the publishing world and the academic world end up to be so traditional that they need to have a slot for you, a position for you. If you don't have a position or a slot, if you're doing something that can't be cataloged in the library or sectioned off in a bookstore, you're in big trouble.
It makes sense that academia would have trouble accepting a new genre, or a genre that's always been around but only recently defined. But publishing surprises me, because the amount of enjoyment readers get from creative nonfiction you'd think would translate to demand for those books, for those magazines, which would translate to publishers getting a better bottom line. And yet they've still resisted?
I can say that if there's one bright light in the publishing world, in the dismal, terrible, depressing publishing world today, it is creative nonfiction, or narrative nonfiction. Those books are, in fact, selling much better than literary fiction or poetry. By the same token, most of the trade presses today are still operating on a 1960s, 1970s, 1980s basis: they're very far behind what's happening in the publishing world, and the writing world, today. They're having trouble keeping up. But the bright light is that there are popular books being written this way, and they are being supported.
When I talk about, when other people talk about, what's going on in the publishing world, how terrible it is, it's absolutely true. It's really terrible. But the bright light is, it's so terrible that small presses and university presses, presses that were only publishing poetry and fiction or academic books before, are now moving into this creative nonfiction realm, and doing very well starting creative nonfiction book series and publishing memoir. It's a new world for a writer who wants to be published by a really good press. The difference, of course, is that there isn't any money anymore for a writer. It's very difficult for a writer to support herself or himself working for smaller presses. But we can get published, and we can get read, and this has happened almost exclusively because of the acknowledgment that creative nonfiction is something that there are readers out there looking for.
With this new issue, this radical redesign of Creative Nonfiction the magazine, what sort of reactions have you gotten from subscribers who got this thing that's so different in their mailbox?
So far, it's been very, very rewarding. We held off sending these out to our subscribers until we notified people like you that we were doing this. Just now, the magazines are hitting the mailboxes of our subscribers. The news has been pretty good; people have liked this new look and consider it to be much more readable and accessible. They seem to like these articles we're running, essays we're running, by really terrific writers about the genre. Our columnists are Phillip Lopate, Richard Rodriguez — we'll introduce a new column next time by Heidi Julavits. We have a very large feature on Dave Eggers, talking about the writing of Zeitoun. All of this is brand new.
We have a feature on stunt writing, which is almost an exclusively nonfiction thing to do: people like Gay Talese and George Plimpton who go out and experience things in the world that we all want to experience but never do and write about it. We have a long, four, five page history of the genre, beginning at the most important point of the genre, which is when Creative Nonfiction, the journal, started publishing. We're getting very, very strong responses to this new look and new wrinkle. We're making a statement. We're coming out. If you look at the cover, it says really big and bold, “Creative Nonfiction“. I think it helps the kinds of writers who write creative nonfiction feel that they have a place in the world.
It's a funny thing about being a writer: as I said before, we like to think we're very independent and we go our own way, but it's real hard to be a writer, especially hard to be a writer who doesn't publish very much, in this world. It's hard to show what you've done if people haven't read your books or if you haven't yet published a book. You're an invisible presence. If you say, “I write creative nonfiction,” and someone else says, “What's that?”, then you're really in trouble. It's bad for your self esteem. We've always had this genre, or we have over the past 20 years, but now we have a magazine that is dedicated to the idea that creative nonfiction is not only something significant to publish, but is significant and important to discuss as well. I think this makes people feel really good and really part of the literary community in a way they've never felt before.
As you said, there's a substantial interview with Dave Eggers in this issue. You mention Heidi Julavits is going to have a column in a forthcoming issue. Since they both have ties to the McSweeney's empire, what do you think that organization has done for the profile of creative nonfiction? It seems like they've been a force.
Oh my god, yes. Zeitoun is one of the best books I have read in the past ten years. It's a wonderful book of creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is two words: it's “creative” “nonfiction,” and I like to say that what it means is style and substance. Lots of folks do one quite well, and not the other one, usually. But in Dave Eggers' case, he employed all of the devices of the fiction writer to make this book and the people in the book incredibly dramatic, to make the story filled with suspense. It drives you crazy, there's so much suspense. You can hardly put the book down. Yet he is a solid, first-rate researcher and journalist. He has a great deal of integrity having to do with the information he includes in Zeitoun.
His writing makes a statement, and the fact that he takes the proceeds of his work, the money and the resources he has, and multiplies it, makes it work all through other publications and through writing centers across the United States, it really has helped the genre, given the genre more integrity. The other thing about Dave Eggers is, he may not be as young as he used to be when he started writing, but he gave creative nonfiction a nice youthful flair. Most people who wrote creative nonfiction when the genre finally started to make an impact were veteran writers. When you write a memoir, you're writing about what you've learned in life, and it takes you a while to live that life until you begin to understand it and can write about it. But Dave came out of the gate quickly and connected us to a younger writing community that we didn't necessarily have before. It's been wonderful working with that organization. We're not in any way financially affiliated, but they have been supportive of us, and we have certainly been supportive of them from the beginning.
A lot of what I see, say, under-30 readers reading happens to be stuff that falls under the “creative nonfiction” genre heading. Is creative nonfiction a genre you think especially appeals to younger readers, or is one that doesn't have the boundaries, so much, as far as the age of who should be reading it at what point in their lives — or writing it, for that matter?
It doesn't have the boundaries. Creative nonfiction is the literature of reality; it's the literature of real life. We all have experiences and ideas in different phases of our own evolution and existence. It's important that we become writers and make our statements when we feel we need to make our statements. I don't think there is a boundary or there is a point at which creative nonfiction is recognized or read. Creative nonfiction is now being taught — this is new — in middle schools and in high schools, because kids, today especially, are having a much more complicated and difficult world to adjust to in their homes and in their neighborhoods than ever before. What better opportunity to think about it than to first give them the opportunity to write about it?
More and more, I hear from elementary and high school teachers, community college teachers, who are introducing the form and giving their students the opportunity to talk about their own life, the kind of life we're often not really privy to. By the same token, creative nonfiction is also being embraced by an older population. There are many people who are retired, who have certain things they want to say about the lives they have lead and the things they want to do tomorrow. More and more of those folks are turning to this memoir world to make a connection with their families, their friends and the world at large.
You also have a column by Phillip Lopate, who's been a guest on this show, whose work I very much enjoy. He's one of those names who pops to mind in terms of working writers you associate with that genre. Is his going to be a column in every issue?
Yes. He will. He's writing about the use of imagination in creative nonfiction, but he's going to be a regular columnist for us. Someone like Phillip understands the incredible challenges that the creative nonfiction writer faces. In this particular column, he's talking about the line between what we can assume or imagine if we're going to maintain our integrity as writers, as researchers, which we certainly have to do as creative nonfiction writers. How much can we push this line between reality and imagination? Or do we have to push the line at all? This is something writers fight with constantly to figure out. Here we have veteran writer who has pushed this line and danced around the line for lots of years. He's telling us what he thinks is acceptable and what isn't. He also provides real-life examples from the students he's taught, and I think that's really important.
The third thing I want to touch on in the content of this new issue is another fellow who's been a guest on this program: David Shields, whose book Reality Hunger has been so, so talked about recently and seems to have really tapped into some part of the zeitgeist. Your opinion of what he's done must be at least reasonably positive but do you consider the kind of form, the kind of sensibility for which he advocates, to be another branch of creative nonfiction, another way to advance the genre?
Not necessarily; it's not as if I was crazy about what Dave did. I was pleased that he was pushing the boundaries beyond what we think we should be doing. He has created a great dialogue amongst writers and readers all across the United States, and it gives us the opportunity to showcase what he's done, but also continue the dialogue, continue to try to understand how revolutionary and how daring a writer can be, and when we go past the point where daring blends into nothingness.
Would this be an example of something that is controversial within the world of creative nonfiction?
I don't necessarily think that we can call what Shields has done only creative nonfiction. He hasn't written a word; he's taken words from lots of other people and put it all together. He's kind of created his own hybrid form of literature without, in fact, touching — to me — any specific or special genre. I'm not necessarily certain that this is something new that's going to take place. I'm not necessarily certain the he has established a foundation of something that will grow forward, that people will start doing this. I think he's just doing something that's really interesting, that people are beginning to discuss. The more people who discuss what he's doing and why he's doing it, the more people are going to start to think about their own work and the lines they can cross, the boundaries they can achieve.
We know about the advantages, but what are some of the unique pitfalls that creative nonfiction has to it?
There are so many pitfalls — or so many, let us say, challenges rather than pitfalls. Again, this idea we were talking about with Phillip Lopate comes back to haunt us and help us at the same time. The idea is to take real life and to take information and to dramatize it so that people are learning what you want to tell them, no matter what subject you're dealing with. They're learning it in a narrative form. If you close your eyes and think about how a writer wants to achieve the greatest kind of impact as a creative nonfiction writer, the writer wants to write a monumental story, a great novel, so to speak, that is absolutely, totally true, and that communicates information in such a positive and dramatic and cinemagraphic way that the reader is learning what the writer wants to tell her or tell him, and is in many respects not even aware of the knowledge they are gaining.
That's the universal, the dream concept, the thing we want to do more than anything, but at the same time, how do you dramatize? How do you make your work cinemagraphic without making something up or overly exaggerating a person's look, a person's feel, the way the weather is, the heat of the day? How do you do that without crossing that gray line that goes from nonfiction to fiction? Once you do that, you are not a nonfiction writer, you're a fiction writer. Once you do that and the reader is in any way aware of it, you have lost your credibility as a writer to that reader. The challenge is with you constantly to blend style and substance, to do it all at one time, but to not go over the line of style to lose your reader, or even of substance, because if it's too much substance and not enough style, there is the difficulty of boring the reader, making the reader think you're trying to teach them something, and therefore losing some of those readers as well.
The other thing I think about a lot is what our responsibilities are to the people about whom we are writing. They're defenseless. They're innocent victims, or they could be, of the kinds of stories we're telling, whether we're writing this creative nonfiction about somebody else, or memoir-oriented creative nonfiction about our own lives. There are lots of things we can say about how we feel and how we respond to other people, but that other person in the room about whom you are talking is totally unaware of what you're doing and totally defenseless about what you're saying, unless he or she wants to write a book in defiance of your book. You're constantly trying to walk a line of fairness and say what you feel and think without hurting anyone else. Those are the two challenges that are constantly on my mind as I work on my own books.
These two challenges sound like ones you never fully find the answer to. They're ever-present no matter how much creative nonfiction you write. Are they also two of the appealing qualities of writing in this genre? Because you always have these challenges to face down? Because they never become boring — they never become solved?
That's why I didn't want to call it a pitfall; I wanted to call it a challenge. In fact, that's the great challenge of the genre: doing it. It makes it so darn exciting to be able to sit down and take reality, take what you know, take what you research and what you learn, and literally turn it into something that sounds like and is real life. There's a constant tinkering, a constant meditation in your own mind as writer about what you can do, what you cannot do, and it makes it an incredibly frustrating and long, very long, enduring experience. But in the end, when this proper mixture, the great mix, the great formula you can put together to capture real life in a way a movie can capture real life.
But even in real cinema, the thing a writer has that a director doesn't is that we also are allowed to reflect on our own work inside that work. You have a couple of things going for you: you are communicating information, you're doing it as vividly in a story as possible, and then you are able to reflect upon exactly what it is you have done and what it is you mean in order to guide that reader to an understanding of the focus and the purpose of your work. You're doing that. To me, it's what I call the three Rs of creative nonfiction: research and reporting, real life, and reflection. The mix is phenomenal, so exciting, so rewarding. It's so exciting to try to do that mix and so rewarding when you think you've gotten it right.
We mentioned David Shields. He talks about his favorite writing — he doesn't necessarily say the best, he does couch it in terms of what he likes — is that which has the thinnest membrane between the reader and the writer. Is that also a factor here, in this writing you're talking about — to close the gap, shall we say, between reader and writer?
You would hope. You would really hope that when the reader is inside the essay or the book, that they are aware of your presence as a writer, but in no way feel the interjection of that presence. You would hope that the reader is inside your character, just like you should be, and inside the place you put your character, just like you should be. That they are totally aware of the presence of the writer, or the force of the writer, without feeling that presence or force at all.
And as a reader, I enjoy more when I'm reading something and do have an actual writer there, present in the text. When I know who's writing, and when I feel like I am being communicated to directly by the person writing it. But given that, from what I can see, there are so many arguments in favor of a writer placing themselves in the text, how did it become so taboo to do that?
It's not taboo, especially in a book. A book is wonderful. I can't imagine anything better, as a writer, than having the freedom to write 75,000 words about one particular topic or another. There's so many different things you can do to be successful, and you can do the two things we're talking about here in different aspects and different parts of the book.
During a time when you feel that you do not belong and you do not want to belong, then the challenge and the skill is, to take David Shields' phrase, to create the thinnest membrane possible between what's being read and the reader. But then, in another part of the book, it takes a great deal of skill and thought, but it may well be possible for you, the writer, to, in one way or the other, make an appearance, to be involved. Be involved in the situation about which you're writing, or be involved as a philosopher or commentator when it is appropriate. It takes a lot of skill and experience to figure out, a good feel for things to figure out when you belong and when you don't belong.
One of my favorite writers, John McPhee, has bragged — the book that he points to from time to time is The Curve of Binding Energy — that he doesn't use the word “I.” I'm trying to remember the figure he gave me and I could be wrong, but he doesn't use the word “I” in relation to himself in that book until around the 37,000th word. He's been able to communicate and vividly draw a picture of his world without involving himself, but when he does involve himself, his presence makes a statement.
“Taboo” was probably the wrong word to describe the way it gets thought about, how one should use or should not use oneself in one's writing. I'm sure it was the case when you were coming up in school, and it was the case when I did, that you'd hear English teachers say, “You can't use the word 'you,' and you can't use the word 'I.'” To a lot of people, that hard-and-fast rule has stuck in their minds as what proper writing does. But from what you've just said about John McPhee, and I think of a book like In Cold Blood, you can have yourself present in a book and never use the word “I.” You don't need that word to be in the book, correct?
Oh, totally. Capote is the perfect example, that you gave. In Cold Blood — Capote's presence is there every step of the way. You feel him from page one through the end. Certain places you really feel him, and certain places he makes himself felt — he goes out of the way to make himself felt — without referring to himself directly at all. It's quite skillful. That's a perfect example of style and substance, reporting and real like, and also influencing and guiding the reader without making yourself obviously known.
The interesting thing there is — you'll know about this better than I would, but — did Capote not pitch the book as his effort of having cut himself completely out of it?
Yes he did, but egomaniac that he was, he had his own way of putting himself in.
You've written about creative nonfiction elsewhere as being not just a genre, not just a movement, but a way of life. You've written about your own journey a writer, where you had ideas about wanting to write novels, but then discovered something you preferred in creative nonfiction. What was the impetus to put off the fiction-writing in favor of what has become your life?
I wanted to experience life in a way that being a fiction writer would not allow me to I wanted to — and I did, for my first creative nonfiction book — jump on my motorcycle and ride. I wanted to go all over the country, I wanted to meet as many new and interesting people as I could. I wanted to feel the wind in my face. I wanted to go fast. I wanted to just see everything. It seemed to me at the time, when I was experiencing that feeling of wanting to be a part of the world, that I wanted to write as accurately as possible about what I saw and what I felt. I didn't want to squeeze it or water it down by turning it into fiction. I wanted my real-life world to be a part of the world of my readers. And I wanted to feel like a fiction writer, in many respects, which is how this whole thing came about. I wanted to have these experiences, and then I wanted to write about them so that people would read them with the relish that they read fiction.
My next book, which will be out very soon, is called Truckin' with Sam. Sam is my now 19-year-old son. We had a number of conversations, beginning when he was twelve, about how to live life. We listened to a lot of music and got particularly interested into the Grateful Dead's “Truckin'”. There are all kinds of different ways to interpret what the Grateful Dead is talking about, but to us, we decided it was living life in a spontaneous manner, going with the flow, seeing the world, doing whatever we feel is best at a time when we have the ability to live life in this going-with-the-flow, free way. Every summer from the time he was twelve on, we went truckin' for a couple months. We tried to be as spontaneous as we could. We went all over the world. The truckin' came both from the song and from the fact that our first three summers were traveling around the country in a pickup truck, just being spontaneous about the kind of life we wanted to lead.
That was, to me, the most exciting thing I've ever done on my own when I started out in that world, and then with my son, who was trying to experience this feeling of living life in a free way, but also understanding that there's structure and formula in real life, because he wrote this book with me. Truckin' with Sam, which will be out really soon, is a book about being a father. I happen to be an older-than-most father, what people call an “old new dad,” and communicating with my son, but also talking to him about the way in which people life. I wrote part of it and he wrote part of it. To me, it's the combination of what I've always dreamed about in this world of creative nonfiction: living a life of spontaneity, living a life of responsibility — being a good dad — and also writing your heart out.
How could it not be? I live the writing life. The creative nonfiction way of life is writing and experiencing, but the writing life it writing. I get up every day — and I have been getting up every day my entire life — at 5:00 in the morning. There's nothing else I can do. Lots of other writers feel the same way. Maybe not about 5:00 in the morning, but writing on a regular schedule every single day. No matter how much truckin' we did, I got up and I wrote about our experiences. That was what was most on my mind.
If you're a creative nonfiction writer, then everything you do, your whole world — literally your whole world and your whole being — has to do in one way or the other with what it is you're going to write, and with writing itself. Whether you're on assignment and writing a book about something specific or just living the life, you could be writing two or three things at the same time: a more public kind of creative nonfiction like writing about football or religion, and a personal kind of creative nonfiction, which is capturing your own life. It became a book immediately, the moment we started trucking. It could never not me a book. Maybe it would be a book that wouldn't be published, but it could never not be a book. Sam went along with me and decided he would try to write as well.
How true would it be to say that, in fact, the question I asked was in some sense wrong — that you can't ask someone living the creative nonfiction life, “When did you know x set of experiences could be a book?”, because the life and the writing become so intertwined? Perhaps this is just what you said, paraphrased, but really, they're so comingled that one never becomes material for the other, because they're just in this sort of loop?
I don't think it was a wrongheaded question. I think it was a right question, because we're working on two levels. There's the creative nonfiction world about which you're writing and for which you may not get rewarded. That is to say, you may not get paid. Then there's the creative nonfiction world, which is also often very exciting, that allows you to make a living. I think I referred to that as the difference between personal creative nonfiction and public creative nonfiction.
I've written lots of books. I've traveled around the country on a motorcycle. I've traveled with a crew of national league baseball umpires. I wrote about their lives. I spent four intense, very difficult years in the world or organ transplantation and tried to look at this transplant world through the eyes of all the actors. I've jetted through the night on organ donor runs. I've seen, without exaggeration, 250 or 300 liver or heart or kidney transplants from very close up. I've done all those things, and that is part of a creative nonfiction writer's world. It's a world that is assigned, and it's a world I chose to capture, because that is my business. It's part of what I do to make a living. But then there's this personal kind of creative nonfiction.
I don't think most writers sit down and think, “Okay, I'm going to write a memoir.” I think the memoir starts to write itself in their own minds, whether they're doing something else or not. It begins to appear not just in their minds, but on the page. As that memoir begins to build on a page, it becomes what they're doing. It becomes the book. This is what, to me, is so incredibly exciting and interesting about this creative nonfiction way of life. You can be doing this as a profession and interacting with incredible people and experiencing all kinds of things you wouldn't necessarily ever have the time to experience on the one hand, and making somewhat of a living from that, and on the other hand you're totally out of control in the sense that your life is also creative nonfiction. Sooner or later, it will appear in your mind and on the page in that way.
From reading your magaine, from reading your books and from talking to you, I get in the mindset. I start thinking to myself, “Of course. There's so many advantages, why would you want to write in another genre? Why would you want to read another genre?” The argument for creative nonfiction, from where I stand right now, seems so airtight. But then I realize, I read other genres as well. Given that you've been such an advocate for creative nonfiction, you live creative nonfiction, it seems like you would not want to write anything else — first of all, I should ask, do you ever have inclinations to write anything else?
Oh, someday I want to write a play.
Why a play?
Because I want to be in it.
You want to get on the stage?
I would love to. Talk about a new experience and an incredibly challenging experience: to be able to write something only with dialogue, only with words and not rely on the reflective aspect, not rely on the descriptive aspect, but to do something powerful and impactful and important just with words, just with dialogue, that seems to me to be a great, special challenge. To be part of that, that's the creative nonfiction way of life: not only do you write a play, you're in it!
That is so great, because you describe how you want to write in another form, but that, in its own sense, is an aspect of the creative nonfiction mindset, getting a new experience, putting yourself someplace outside “the comfort zone.” Even your desire to go to another form springs from your experiences in the form of creative nonfiction, right?
That's right. It's all part of the way I think we, as creative nonfiction writers, can live.
All feedback welcome at colinjmarshall at gmail.