Lee Gutkind calls himself creative nonfiction’s most active advocate and practitioner. He founded the Creative Nonfiction magazine in 1991. He was instrumental in establishing the first creative nonfiction MFA programs. Think memoir, lyric essay, and all points between.
Today, creative nonfiction (or CNF) is hot. The seed Gutkind planted in the 1990’s has grown. Creative Nonfiction is a vast colony of print and online journals, a learning platform, and a book publishing arm.
I received my copy of Creating Nonfiction: Lessons from the Voice of the Genre as a goodie when I signed up for a Creative Nonfiction class. Gutkind and his co-editor Robyn Jodlowski assembled the best craft essays from the first 20 issues of Creative Nonfiction.
Here is one contributor who, at the age of five, decided to become a writer.
I remember thinking, as I watched my parents’ marriage dissolve, and I stayed up late staring out the window at the acorn tree in the yard and listening to the cranes at the city dump two blocks away scoop up crushed aluminum, that if I could record “this”—parents fighting, squirrels crunching acorns, garbage sorted like bad memories—that if I could find words to make sense of my own life, I could write anything.Natalia Rachel Singer, “Nonfiction in First Person, Without Apology” in Creating Nonfiction: Lessons from the voice of the genre, edited by Lee Gutkind & Robyn Jodlowski (Creative Nonfiction Foundation 2013)
Fathers and Sons
Vanity Fair calls Gutkind the godfather of creative nonfiction. So Creating Nonfiction must have to say something about fathers and sons. One such pair is Edgar Lee Masters, a lawyer turned poet, and his son, Hilary, a memoirist. Edgar is famous for a poetry collection called Spoon River Anthology. Hilary writes a memoir, Last Stands: Notes from Memory, in which his father only dimly appears.
Newsweek comes to photograph Hilary as part of their review of Last Stands. Hilary learns that the press is calling him Son of Spoon River.
A farmer’s son inherits the farm and his husbandry will be evaluated by the jury down at the Grange, comparisons will be drawn between his and his father’s management. That he decided to take up agriculture is almost never held against the son. […] But in the arts, and especially literature, a peculiar filter puts a harsh vignette around the child who dares to follow a parent into the business of putting ideas and emotions into words on paper.Hilary Masters, “Son of Spoon River”
Another father-son pair is Seymour Krim, “literary rabbi, nemesis and mentor” to Michael Stephens. Krim runs the Bowery Poetry Project at St Mark’s and for a while Stephens is his student. They shout and drink then apologize. This is Krim to Stephens.
I hope I’m right in thinking that I’ve earned the privilege of speaking utterly straight to you about writing, since I copped your cherry as it were; you were a prose virgin until our old Workshop, and accident led to my intriguing you with the possibilities of prose, which made for a conjunction that can never actually die. I’ll always be a shadow conscience for your workMichael Stephens, “A Different Kind of Two-fisted, Two-breasted Terror: Seymour Krim and Creative Nonfiction”
How to teach
Like everyone else, I read books like Creating Nonfiction for the pleasure. But Gutkind probably intended for this read to be educational as both a writer and a fellow teacher. You would not think that the following words are good for teaching but here they are: I know nothing.
The majority of my students come into class with a sense of wanting to set the world straight—the world being, generally speaking, a euphemism for Mom and/or Dad. Consequently I get tons of message-laden essays and stories about how awful and bourgeois and fake everything is, the kind of stories Chekhov raged on about as being the realm of the propagandist and preacher.Bret Lott, “Against Technique”
But once one gives up these notions of knowing a thing or two—all one’s prejudices about the world—one is left with a new world, which is, of course, and paradoxically, the same old one.
Yet now it’s new terrain, undiscovered, left to this new explorer, the one who knows nothing
Megan Foss thinks she knows nothing. She’s a hooker who works the streets to feed her heroin addiction. While she waits for her old man to come home from prison, she writes him letters.
Sometimes people would watch me while I was writing with their eyes kinda narrowed studying me like I mighta been half-crazy and ask me why I was doing it. And I really didn’t have an answer because although I wrote Darryl all them letters, I never mailed a single one.Megan Foss, “Love Letters”
She can afford the stamps. But no store will let her in to buy one because she’s homeless and barefoot, too.
I went to jail and I wrote because the writing had value. It was a commodity and I could trade it for freedom. It had a purpose I could identify. In the process I discovered the myriad other purposes and value inherent in the act and I ended up writing in jail for the same reasons I wrote them letters I never mailed. I wrote to discover and I wrote to heal and I wrote to decide. I wrote to make meaning in a world that held none.
Do you notice how Foss writes? She uses words like “commodity” and “inherent” and “them letters.” Most of her teachers tell her to stop that. Thankfully, one teacher, Suzanne Paola, thinks differently. She tells Foss to write the way she talks, to let her voice be heard.
every quarter when I look out at the 24 new faces in the freshman composition class I teach […] I remember standing on my corner negotiating to do blowjobs for men who coulda been their fathers and I ponder on the magic that could have delivered me from the one place to the other.
1 May 2022 | Karen Kao