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What Does the Future Hold for Creative Nonfiction Writers?

In 2008, David Foster Wallace taught a craft class in creative nonfiction. The class syllabus gave the following examples of the kind of work that this term encompasses “… prose works such as personal essays and memoirs, profiles, nature and travel writing, narrative essays, observational or descriptive essays, general-interest technical writing, argumentative or idea-based essays, general-interest criticism, literary journalism, and so on” salon.com (2014). In this syllabus, Wallace also made clear that creative nonfiction is not a platform in which to regurgitate our personal feelings and ideas, “this does not, however, mean that an essayist’s main goal is simply to ‘share’ or ‘express herself’ or whatever feel-good term you might have got taught in high school”. In November 2014, Salon published Wallace’s syllabus that was an excerpt from the book The David Foster Wallace Reader published by Little, Brown and Company. Wallace, a master essayist, is one of the many writers whom we look to when trying to understand the nature of creative nonfiction, how it’s changed the way writers write and readers read, and even how it got its name.

There are many MFA programs that offer creative nonfiction as a concentration: the infamous Iowa Writer’s Program has been offering it for forty years, along with other institutions such as The New School in New York City, American University, Florida State, University of California, Old Dominion University – to name a very short few. The fine line that these programs walk is between the English department and the Journalism department. To a seasoned writer in the genre of creative nonfiction, this distinction is obvious, but it wasn’t always so easy to convince heads of departments that creative nonfiction firmly belongs in the English department and that it in no way steps on the toes of journalism. Drawing this distinction caused the naming of this genre to take on a term that is altogether limiting; a label that does not fully recognize the breadth of topics and creative styles that one encounters in a piece of creative nonfiction. In the late 1970s at Columbia University, J. R. Humphreys, founder of the school’s writing program, was thought to have coined the term when describing the new course he was teaching. He explained to his colleagues that the curriculum was not based around “expository writing”and thus belonged in the English department, writes Dinty W. Moore in his article A Genre by Any Other Name? (2015). Humphreys defaulted on the term creative nonfiction to show the inventive nature of this genre which is completely separate from journalism, but he was not the first to use it. In Moore’s piece for Creative Nonfiction Magazine this year, he delivers what he believes is the first occurrence of the term around 1969. David Madden who taught at Ohio University, also the alma mater of Moore and Moore’s former professor, wrote a review of Frank Conroy’s Stop-Time, where it appears that he used the term for the first time. Though much of his review calls for a redefinition of nonfiction writing to include the type of prose that writers like Truman Capote, Norman Mailer, and Jean Stafford were engaging in, he digresses at one point to discuss the work of Norman Podhoretz stating, “In Making It, Norman Podhoretz, youthful editor of Commentary, who declares that creative nonfiction is pre-empting the functions of fiction, offers his own life as evidence”. Moore leaves it there, confident that, for now at least, Madden is the source for the misleading term creative nonfiction.

Writers have had to make their peace over the years with that term. Incredibly innovative and gripping pieces like Joan Didion’s “The White Album”, Norman Mailer’s “The White Negro”, and David Foster Wallace’s “Consider the lobster” have had to settle for creative nonfiction as their lifeless descriptors. Getting even more contemporary, writers like Zadie Smith, Etgar Keret, and Junot Diaz continue to produce explorative and honest portrayals of their personal experiences and/or observations that get filed away under a name that is not specific to what their writing denotes. If we deconstruct the term the term, we have creative, which also describe fiction and poetry, and we have the word nonfiction – a word that describes only what this genre is not. Creative nonfiction does little to portray the kind of work that is being done by writers in this genre.

Can we change the term this late in the game? Is it, retrospectively speaking, even that late in the game? We should consider the books in the last couple of decades that have been successful on a wider, New York Times Best Seller – like platform. Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey, Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, Not That Kind of Girl: A Young Woman Tells What She’s Learned by Lena Dunham. Our tastes have changed to include this influx of writers who are using both imagination and facts to craft material that will inform us as well as sweep us up into a narrative. Memoir writing has gotten its reputation dragged through the mud a bit with the widely popular celebrity memoir trend that most often enlists the help of ghostwriters. But this category includes a vast amount of sophisticated writing from authors who are contributing significant ideas to cultures and literature, still, memoir writing receives far less recognition for its contributions compared to fiction or poetry. Poetry, even given its decline with mainstream audiences for decades, is still a highly regarded art form and efforts are made in the art and literary world to sustain its legacy. To some, creative nonfiction may seem obscure, until they’re reminded of the popular memoirs and personal narratives that get the most attention. But the genre is even easier to spot than that. Picture yourself describing an event to a group of friends; an event that has to do with some unbelievable outcome. Think about how you would describe that situation to friends, adding in little anecdotes about what was happening around you building up to the event and what others were saying. You use inflection, you choose your words wisely in order to evoke the same kind of emotions that you were experiencing at that moment. All these creative components are used to describe something real that happened to you, and you do this all the time.

Why, then, is it so hard to give this practice a name? Perhaps because it encompasses so many kinds of truth. Or  is it because journalism is so old an institution that all other genres, like creative nonfiction, don’t dare tread in its waters? Whatever the reason, the value we put on finding creative ways to portray individual truths has been misplaced. The reputation of creative nonfiction has come a long way since being described as a batch of “navel gazers” by critic James Walcott in 1997 in a Vanity Fair article. Even though Didion’s “White Album had been published in the late 1970s and Mailer’s “The White Negro” published in 1957, critics like Walcott ignored these earlier proofs of the power of creative nonfiction to converse with readers in a way completely absent of ego. Rather it is the intention of these literary nonfiction pieces to communicate universal truths that are told with the intention of giving voice to histories gone unnoticed and common experiences previously unacknowledged.

Though the creative nonfiction genre is rapidly expanding, our institutions lack the means to recognize its importance, and our existing language to discuss how the genre has and is changing the way we relate to literature is limited. The overhaul should start now. We should begin thinking of the future of this genre immediately to save it from becoming the default identifier for royal family memoirs and the personal narratives of boy band members. For creative nonfiction writers now, they are living in the right literary climate to enact this change. Much of the work that is being done by writers in this genre plays with the idea of “genre”, often times implementing poetry, prose, and essay form to portray both personal and universal truths. So why are we timid to give this type a writing an appropriate name? Maybe the name creative nonfiction came about merely as a default term. Or perhaps the all encompassing nature of creative nonfiction makes it hard to pin down, in that case, don’t name it. Rather, think of this tendency towards truth telling in infinitely creative ways as the new umbrella for writing. Maybe it’s not a genre but a direction.