I read a piece in Poets & Writers ostensibly about the writer, a former journalist now teaching in an MFA program, standing for honesty over invention in creative nonfiction. But his outrage wandered into a querulous cul-de-sac over experiments with hybrids between poetry and prose. And his aggrieved tone indicated an upset about more than some nonfiction teachers’ perceived unconcern about inventing scenes, details, and dialog. There was a straw man feel to his named villains.
Once and future journalists who stumble into the creative nonfiction world are naturally hypersensitive. Much of this unease is the insecurity of outsiders trying to elbow into the fun being had in the ivory tower. But there’s a structural division, too: fiction writers and journalists tend to emphasize narrative in nonfiction. The avant-garde is apt to deemphasize narrative in favor of deep reflection upon experience (back to the future with Montaigne!), or with lyric or collage forms.
The imperatives of narrative keep fiction writers, from Stephen King to Philip Roth, more or less hewing together to Flannery O’Connor’s famous sentiment: “Fiction is about everything human and we are made out of dust, and if you scorn getting yourself dusty, then you shouldn’t write fiction. It isn’t grand enough for you.” People, bless our hearts and forgive us, want stories: conflict, rising action, crisis, resolution, denoument. This keeps fiction from veering into an exercise for other insiders. Nonfiction, sporting both an epic lineage and proletariat leanings, is everywhere and would seem immune from rarification—but, showing one of its affinities with poetry, isn’t. Who would have thought humble nonfiction is where exciting artistic experimentation would blossom?
As a former newspaperman who also wrote magazine articles and essays, then turned to memoir—and who almost wrote a lyric essay—I fall between. Or so I say. To some, my blog’s title, Narrative, and my preoccupations and background probably give the whiff of Grubb Street. And that gulag may mean to the literary artist the abdication of personal responsibility and serious purpose, ultimately moral and spiritual, without which writing is just shoveling manure: the journalist is useful to bark at politicians, no doubt, but his prose is congealed at the surface—journalistic—without art’s resonance and therefore without lasting interest. (Such is the scornful attitude I give my straw man, who conveniently forgets the value of being informed and is oblivious to the call of public service.)
For their part, most journalists, who probably still comprise the nation’s largest group of fulltime professional writers, seem unaware of the existence or relevance or accomplishments of their brethren in academe. Granted, narrative is what most readers crave, and it’s hard enough to tell a straightforward story that it keeps most writers busy for a lifetime. But Mencken be damned: if art is not fostered and the envelope not pushed in academe, then where? Why so much hostility to art or efforts to make it? What’s wrong with a little art for art’s sake? And yet: the journalistic understand nonfiction’s implicit promise to honor the material surface, which isn’t trivial, as truth arises from it and emotions attach there, to stuff and things—the Baptist preacher’s dark little mare, mom’s faded red blouse, grandpa’s long white fishing boat. And they honor narrative, events reconstructed from life’s dusty and grubby leavings.
Categories can drive a body crazy: when does journalism become literary journalism become creative nonfiction? Such divisions blur under the weight of practice, the lone worker bearing down. The different paths that successful practitioners take fade. Art is a handmade thing. Therefore imperfect: look closely and you can see the brushstrokes. But not their origin. Everything that rises must indeed converge in order for anyone to become that exalted, complex, simple thing: a Writer. A person, writing. A mere writer.