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CREATIVE NONFICTION:
PERSONAL ESSAYS,
MEMOIR, AND
FIRST-PERSON
JOURNALISM
DANIEL NESTER,
INSTRUCTOR
WHAT IS
CREATIVE
NONFICTION?
WHAT IS
CREATIVE
NONFICTION?
WHAT IS
CREATIVE
NONFICTION?
SOME ATTEMPTS
AT DEFINITIONS.
One common question you
will encounter, or perhaps
have already encountered, as
a result of registering for our
class is:
...
One answer comes from Lee
Gutkind, a professor at the
University of Pittsburgh, editor of
the journal Creative Nonfiction ...
Gutkind defined
creative nonfiction as:
“Nonfiction that employs
techniques like scene, dialogue,
description, while allowing
personal point of view and
voice (re...
Where did the term come
from?
Where did the term come
from?
No one really knows.
It’s safe to say that creative
nonfiction was written
before the name was
termed — in other words,
it’s a largely academic...
I don’t mind the academic
term personally; it’s my
hiring slot here at the
College, after all.
But I think it’s important
...
First there’s nonfiction. On
the surface, that term
seems fairly self-
explanatory: that which is
not, or the opposite of
...
But, seriously, what is true,
what is truth?
One person’s truth is
another person’s myth.
One person’s bad
childhood is a mother’s
joyful time with a son or
daughter.
There are some things we
can see as facts — dates,
times, names — but
there are others that are
more prone to taste and
ju...
The invasion of Iraq, for
example. Some don’t even call
it an invasion. Some call it a
liberation, others an awful
quagmir...
Debates like this continue and
will always be that way. But the
point is when people write
about real-life subjects,
which...
Then there’s creative. This,
again, is an academic
buzzword. We’ve all
probably heard of “creative
writing.”
Many people aren’t happy
with the term creative
nonfiction, and it begins
with this word, creative.
Phillip Lopate calls the term
as “slightly bogus.” “It’s
like patting yourself on the
back and saying, ‘My
nonfiction is c...
Fair enough. But we should
keep in mind that the naming
and classification impulse, the
necessity to graft the word
creati...
It may not help in describing the
aesthetic and artistic impulses
that go into writing creative
nonfiction, but it does ha...
Other descriptors that have
been used and are still used in
place of creative nonfiction:
new journalism
literary nonficti...
Creative, however, has some
meanings that are directly
antithetical to nonfiction —
that is, the truth.
To create means not only to
portray — that is, to re-create
— but to make something up,
to make something out of
nothing.
Creative nonfiction could be
interpreted as one of those great
oxymorons, the stuff of a cheesy
Jay Leno monologue punchli...
“jumbo shrimp,” “diet ice cream,”
“business ethics,” or “military
intelligence.”
The idea of “creative” does
draw attention to the idea of
creation and also what
Gutkind refers to, rather
datedly, as the...
Can any story be told, or
object or person portrayed,
completely truthfully and
objectively?
Does it matter who
tells us the story?
Does it matter
when a story is
told?
Or who is reading
the story?
Does it matter from which
vantage point at story is
told?
Of course it does.
Should a story keep in mind
its audience, the
background of the subjects
as well as the teller?
If there is drama involved, or if
the story or person portrayed
has some kind of inner life that
the writer can only guess...
No. We
don’t.
Joe “Just the
Facts, Ma’am”
Friday
We humans, in our real
lives, are capable of
guessing, empathy,
intuition, dreaming, poetry,
and drama.
We research. We ask
questions. We create.
We speak our truth.
Though only recently
identified and taught as a
distinct and separate
literary genre, the roots of
creative nonfiction run...
“Cogito ergo sum,” “I think,
therefore I am.”
— René Descartes
For centuries, writers have
asked questions and have
written stories drawn from
real life. Usually, writers start
with — w...
Saint
Augustine’s
Confessions,
for example.
“I give thanks to
thee, O Lord of
heaven and
earth, giving
praise to thee for
that first being
and my infancy
of which I h...
knowledge through the
knowledge of others, and that he
should believe many things
about himself on the authority of
the wo...
Creative nonfiction writers
say yes, it does matter who
is telling the story, it does
matter who is experiencing
what is h...
Take, for example, the
branch of creative nonfiction
called “literary journalism” or
the “literature of fact.”
These works employ literary
techniques and artistic vision
usually associated with fiction or
poetry to report on actual
p...
The term has since evolved,
and includes everything from
nature and travel writing, the
personal memoir and essay,
as well...
Gonzo Journalism
New Journalism
New New Journalism,
Nonfiction Novel
All of these terms refer to
reporting in which the reader
senses a specific person
narrating and guiding the
story.
An authorial-
writerly
presence that
can be very
subtle, as in the
New Yorker
pieces of the
last century.
You might see
an old black
and white
movie in
which you will
see a
newspaperman dictate a story
and refer to him or hersel...
Later, starting in, say, the mid-
1950s, journalism started to
involve the reporter; he or she
became part of the story, o...
One way I can think of
teaching this would be those
moments when you are
watching a TV report of
starving kids in Africa, ...
“Why doesn’t the
reporter hand
those kids a bowl
of food?”
Other times you may read a
profile of a movie star in a
magazine — Esquire or Vogue,
ones that are a step above the
trashy...
A writer will admit to being
flustered by really being in
front of Brad Pitt.
That’s Brad Pitt up there.
There are so many
branches of the creative
nonfiction tree.
Coming-of-age memoirs of
Frank Conroy, Mary Karr
and Frank McCourt.
Part-of-my-life memoirs.
This could be considered
an off-shoot of first-person
journalism.
These include illness
memoirs, road trip emoirs,
and immersion memoirs.
Tell-all memoirs
These include from everyone
from the recent Karrine
Steffans’ Confessions of a Video
Vixen
back to Harriette Wilson, a
courtesan who became famous
for her Memoirs, which is still in
print and which make for
fascin...
First sentence:
“I shall not say why and
how I became, at the age of
fifteen, the mistress of the
Earl of Craven.”
Wilson also had her revenge on her
former noblemen lovers who refused
to pay her an adequate
annuity for not including
the...
In her lifetime she became,
perhaps, the single most
famous courtesan in London,
dressed in her white muslin
and courted b...
Another branch of creative
nonfiction is the personal
essay.
Examples of personal
essayists: Jamaica Kincaid,
Joan Didion, David Sedaris,
Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sloane
Crosley, Meghan Daum...
Immersion and undercover
journalism of A.J. Jacobs,
George Plimpton, David
Rakoff, Beth Lisick, Barbara
Ehrenreich.
Documentaries
and film works
such as Morgan
Spurlock’s Super-
Size Me or even
the Jackass
movies might
count as a variety
...
“Oops” (2000) by Laurel Nakadate
Short, topical essays, which
include op-ed newspaper
pieces, especially the ones that
have a particular point of view
of a...
First-person
pieces that
address a
newsworthy
topic, one with
a news peg
(magazines).
Art criticism and aesthetic
writing: From the Victorian
age (Hazlitt, Arnold, Ruskin)
to Susan Sontag, Cynthia
Ozick, Will...
Personal, first person-aware, often
zany, music criticism of such writers
as Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Ellen
Willis, and...
The prose poetry of Charles
Baudelaire, up to the dense
meditations of Albert Goldbarth,
Anne Carson, and Maggie Nelson.
The so-called lyrical essay,
experimental prose forms that draw
from fact or autobiography.
Genre-defying prose: experimental
essays and nonfiction that uses
techniques more akin to post-modern
poetry or experiment...
Some other terms that are used
that would fall under the
umbrella term of creative
nonfiction:
just plain “nonfiction,” belles-
lettres, the fourth genre, first-
person journalism, lyrical
essay, pillowbook writing,
e...
This list could go on for
pages.
Perhaps because it’s such a
catch-all term, so many
subdivisional terms, the
creative nonfiction genre
nomenclature is som...
gazing, confessional
memoirists, or the
Frankenstein construct of
academia,
creative nonfiction is often
cast as the Rodney
Dangerfield of genres that
gets “no respect.”
All this may be true, but
creative nonfiction is also a
genre that produces some
of the most exciting and
vital writing pu...
Works of creative nonfiction
grace the bestseller lists
and the front tables of chain
bookstores.
Creative nonfiction writers
win Pulitzer Prizes, National
Book Critics Circle Awards,
and National Endowment
for the Arts ...
One thing that is exciting
about creative nonfiction, at
least to this practicing
writer, is the freedom that
comes from t...
What is Creative Nonfiction?
What is Creative Nonfiction?
What is Creative Nonfiction?
What is Creative Nonfiction?
What is Creative Nonfiction?
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What is Creative Nonfiction?

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Slides for an introductory lecture I call "What is Creative Nonfiction?" Used for my classes at The College of Saint Rose, Albany, NY.

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What is Creative Nonfiction?

  1. 1. CREATIVE NONFICTION: PERSONAL ESSAYS, MEMOIR, AND FIRST-PERSON JOURNALISM DANIEL NESTER, INSTRUCTOR
  2. 2. WHAT IS CREATIVE NONFICTION?
  3. 3. WHAT IS CREATIVE NONFICTION?
  4. 4. WHAT IS CREATIVE NONFICTION? SOME ATTEMPTS AT DEFINITIONS.
  5. 5. One common question you will encounter, or perhaps have already encountered, as a result of registering for our class is: What is creative nonfiction?
  6. 6. One answer comes from Lee Gutkind, a professor at the University of Pittsburgh, editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction and the so-called “godfather” of the genre. He didn’t coin the term, but he did teach one of the first creative nonfiction classes around 1970.
  7. 7. Gutkind defined creative nonfiction as:
  8. 8. “Nonfiction that employs techniques like scene, dialogue, description, while allowing personal point of view and voice (reflection) rather than maintaining the sham of objectivity.”
  9. 9. Where did the term come from?
  10. 10. Where did the term come from? No one really knows.
  11. 11. It’s safe to say that creative nonfiction was written before the name was termed — in other words, it’s a largely academic term to rope off whole wings of prose writing, as opposed to fiction and poetry.
  12. 12. I don’t mind the academic term personally; it’s my hiring slot here at the College, after all. But I think it’s important you get some background on the name itself.
  13. 13. First there’s nonfiction. On the surface, that term seems fairly self- explanatory: that which is not, or the opposite of fiction. Something that’s true.
  14. 14. But, seriously, what is true, what is truth? One person’s truth is another person’s myth.
  15. 15. One person’s bad childhood is a mother’s joyful time with a son or daughter.
  16. 16. There are some things we can see as facts — dates, times, names — but there are others that are more prone to taste and judgment and that most subjective of terms, memory.
  17. 17. The invasion of Iraq, for example. Some don’t even call it an invasion. Some call it a liberation, others an awful quagmire.
  18. 18. Debates like this continue and will always be that way. But the point is when people write about real-life subjects, whichever the viewpoint, be it an article or book, it will be taken as “nonfiction,” not a story, poem or play.
  19. 19. Then there’s creative. This, again, is an academic buzzword. We’ve all probably heard of “creative writing.”
  20. 20. Many people aren’t happy with the term creative nonfiction, and it begins with this word, creative.
  21. 21. Phillip Lopate calls the term as “slightly bogus.” “It’s like patting yourself on the back and saying, ‘My nonfiction is creative.’ Let the reader be the judge of that.”
  22. 22. Fair enough. But we should keep in mind that the naming and classification impulse, the necessity to graft the word creative onto nonfiction, comes not only from academic and education circles, but also from human nature, an impulse to organize.
  23. 23. It may not help in describing the aesthetic and artistic impulses that go into writing creative nonfiction, but it does have a necessary function with everything from course and lesson plans to grants for writers.
  24. 24. Other descriptors that have been used and are still used in place of creative nonfiction: new journalism literary nonfiction first-person nonfiction personal narrative prose nonfiction
  25. 25. Creative, however, has some meanings that are directly antithetical to nonfiction — that is, the truth.
  26. 26. To create means not only to portray — that is, to re-create — but to make something up, to make something out of nothing.
  27. 27. Creative nonfiction could be interpreted as one of those great oxymorons, the stuff of a cheesy Jay Leno monologue punchlines:
  28. 28. “jumbo shrimp,” “diet ice cream,” “business ethics,” or “military intelligence.”
  29. 29. The idea of “creative” does draw attention to the idea of creation and also what Gutkind refers to, rather datedly, as the “sham of objectivity.”
  30. 30. Can any story be told, or object or person portrayed, completely truthfully and objectively?
  31. 31. Does it matter who tells us the story?
  32. 32. Does it matter when a story is told?
  33. 33. Or who is reading the story?
  34. 34. Does it matter from which vantage point at story is told?
  35. 35. Of course it does.
  36. 36. Should a story keep in mind its audience, the background of the subjects as well as the teller?
  37. 37. If there is drama involved, or if the story or person portrayed has some kind of inner life that the writer can only guess or speculate is happening, does the writer merely report the exteriors (“just the facts, ma’am”) and leave it at that?
  38. 38. No. We don’t. Joe “Just the Facts, Ma’am” Friday
  39. 39. We humans, in our real lives, are capable of guessing, empathy, intuition, dreaming, poetry, and drama.
  40. 40. We research. We ask questions. We create. We speak our truth.
  41. 41. Though only recently identified and taught as a distinct and separate literary genre, the roots of creative nonfiction run deeply into literary tradition and history.
  42. 42. “Cogito ergo sum,” “I think, therefore I am.” — René Descartes
  43. 43. For centuries, writers have asked questions and have written stories drawn from real life. Usually, writers start with — who else?— themselves.
  44. 44. Saint Augustine’s Confessions, for example.
  45. 45. “I give thanks to thee, O Lord of heaven and earth, giving praise to thee for that first being and my infancy of which I have no memory. For thou hast granted to man that he should come to self-
  46. 46. knowledge through the knowledge of others, and that he should believe many things about himself on the authority of the womenfolk. Now, clearly, I had life and being; and, as my infancy closed, I was already learning signs by which my feelings could be communicated to others.”
  47. 47. Creative nonfiction writers say yes, it does matter who is telling the story, it does matter who is experiencing what is happening.
  48. 48. Take, for example, the branch of creative nonfiction called “literary journalism” or the “literature of fact.”
  49. 49. These works employ literary techniques and artistic vision usually associated with fiction or poetry to report on actual persons and events.
  50. 50. The term has since evolved, and includes everything from nature and travel writing, the personal memoir and essay, as well as “new journalism,” “gonzo journalism,” and the “nonfiction novel.”
  51. 51. Gonzo Journalism
  52. 52. New Journalism
  53. 53. New New Journalism,
  54. 54. Nonfiction Novel
  55. 55. All of these terms refer to reporting in which the reader senses a specific person narrating and guiding the story.
  56. 56. An authorial- writerly presence that can be very subtle, as in the New Yorker pieces of the last century.
  57. 57. You might see an old black and white movie in which you will see a newspaperman dictate a story and refer to him or herself as “this reporter.”
  58. 58. Later, starting in, say, the mid- 1950s, journalism started to involve the reporter; he or she became part of the story, or is acknowledged as being present during the action described.
  59. 59. One way I can think of teaching this would be those moments when you are watching a TV report of starving kids in Africa, and you say to yourself or shout at the screen,
  60. 60. “Why doesn’t the reporter hand those kids a bowl of food?”
  61. 61. Other times you may read a profile of a movie star in a magazine — Esquire or Vogue, ones that are a step above the trashy gossip magazines — and you will get a sense of the reporter.
  62. 62. A writer will admit to being flustered by really being in front of Brad Pitt.
  63. 63. That’s Brad Pitt up there.
  64. 64. There are so many branches of the creative nonfiction tree.
  65. 65. Coming-of-age memoirs of Frank Conroy, Mary Karr and Frank McCourt.
  66. 66. Part-of-my-life memoirs. This could be considered an off-shoot of first-person journalism.
  67. 67. These include illness memoirs, road trip emoirs, and immersion memoirs.
  68. 68. Tell-all memoirs
  69. 69. These include from everyone from the recent Karrine Steffans’ Confessions of a Video Vixen
  70. 70. back to Harriette Wilson, a courtesan who became famous for her Memoirs, which is still in print and which make for fascinating, if not historically accurate, reading.
  71. 71. First sentence: “I shall not say why and how I became, at the age of fifteen, the mistress of the Earl of Craven.”
  72. 72. Wilson also had her revenge on her former noblemen lovers who refused to pay her an adequate annuity for not including them in her tell-all. When she approached the Duke of Wellington To which he uttered the famous line, “Publish and be damned!”
  73. 73. In her lifetime she became, perhaps, the single most famous courtesan in London, dressed in her white muslin and courted by leading members of the nobility.
  74. 74. Another branch of creative nonfiction is the personal essay.
  75. 75. Examples of personal essayists: Jamaica Kincaid, Joan Didion, David Sedaris, Ta-Nehisi Coates, Sloane Crosley, Meghan Daum, Sarah Vowell, David Rakoff. To name just a few.
  76. 76. Immersion and undercover journalism of A.J. Jacobs, George Plimpton, David Rakoff, Beth Lisick, Barbara Ehrenreich.
  77. 77. Documentaries and film works such as Morgan Spurlock’s Super- Size Me or even the Jackass movies might count as a variety of creative nonfiction.
  78. 78. “Oops” (2000) by Laurel Nakadate
  79. 79. Short, topical essays, which include op-ed newspaper pieces, especially the ones that have a particular point of view of an author, a personality easily identified with that writer (George Will, Maureen Dowd).
  80. 80. First-person pieces that address a newsworthy topic, one with a news peg (magazines).
  81. 81. Art criticism and aesthetic writing: From the Victorian age (Hazlitt, Arnold, Ruskin) to Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, William Gass, David Hickey.
  82. 82. Personal, first person-aware, often zany, music criticism of such writers as Lester Bangs, Greil Marcus, Ellen Willis, and Jessica Hooper.
  83. 83. The prose poetry of Charles Baudelaire, up to the dense meditations of Albert Goldbarth, Anne Carson, and Maggie Nelson.
  84. 84. The so-called lyrical essay, experimental prose forms that draw from fact or autobiography.
  85. 85. Genre-defying prose: experimental essays and nonfiction that uses techniques more akin to post-modern poetry or experimental cinema: Lydia Davis, Wayne Koestenbaum.
  86. 86. Some other terms that are used that would fall under the umbrella term of creative nonfiction:
  87. 87. just plain “nonfiction,” belles- lettres, the fourth genre, first- person journalism, lyrical essay, pillowbook writing, epistolary essay, the diary or journal, and some of the more focused blogs.
  88. 88. This list could go on for pages.
  89. 89. Perhaps because it’s such a catch-all term, so many subdivisional terms, the creative nonfiction genre nomenclature is sometimes considered either the bastard child of the short story, the refuge of navel-
  90. 90. gazing, confessional memoirists, or the Frankenstein construct of academia,
  91. 91. creative nonfiction is often cast as the Rodney Dangerfield of genres that gets “no respect.”
  92. 92. All this may be true, but creative nonfiction is also a genre that produces some of the most exciting and vital writing published today.
  93. 93. Works of creative nonfiction grace the bestseller lists and the front tables of chain bookstores.
  94. 94. Creative nonfiction writers win Pulitzer Prizes, National Book Critics Circle Awards, and National Endowment for the Arts grants, among many other accolades.
  95. 95. One thing that is exciting about creative nonfiction, at least to this practicing writer, is the freedom that comes from this indefinability.

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