Like Donna, we're not very good at pinpointing what it is, exactly, we want. Something that moves beyond the immediate circumstances of the writer's life, something like shifting gears, or a key change in a song, or the turn of a sonnet. We are less interested in what happened and more interested in why it matters. River Teeth does not have any particular theme or agenda, just good writing, and what Donna's reader said rings true for us as well, after the draft comes the craft.
We recently started a weekly series called Beautiful Things, and that column is looking for very brief essays, words or less, that are able to achieve the same movement I mentioned above in a much tighter space.
I think of the reading experience as one of those Magic Eye tricks. We want to be surprised. We want to be moved. We want to learn something. We want to know why it mattered. Creative nonfiction is in the telling. You can go anywhere, really, as long as you cue the reader into where you are going. I've filled in other details in an attempt to make sense of my own past.
Just don't leave the reader in the dark. As for the notion that memoir is not meant to entertain the reader. That's just ignorant. The reader must be engaged in every sentence, or why keep reading? HATTIE: These are all excellent observations, and I am also all in favor of clear signposting as a way of handling those thorny issues of memory and "creativity.
And that kind of writing can have tremendous value—to families and sometimes also to historical societies and the like. It's just not really what we're looking for, as a literary magazine. But I think people struggle with that, a lot, and maybe it comes from this idea that creative nonfiction is often personal narrative; it is, but it's something more complicated than that, too. How much fiction can be in it? Creative nonfiction can flex its muscles and imagine plenty of things into being Perhapsing is great for this, or "I imagine," or "My father might have And the answer is plenty, until your muscles are noodles from all of that exercise, but don't tell me you bench pressed lbs when it was actually just the bar.
Unless you say, "I told her I bench pressed pounds, but really it was just the bar. I've practiced doing it but I just learned a new word for it! Thanks, Sarah! I agree on taking creative liberties when you can, but as long as the authenticity is preserved. The biggest misconception I see is that new writers will think that a deeply personal piece will matter to everyone as much as it does to the writer.
Essay: Nonfiction not literary? Here’s a dose of truth
Writing to get things off your chest is one thing, but if someone is looking for editors and an audience to care -- as in being published -- well, that's where the hard work comes in. I'll share an example. Once, I replied to someone that we needed more showing, more detail. I received a message back, and I'll share some of the writer's reply because I think this illustrates perfectly what I said before, about who creative nonfiction is for, in this case a personal memoir: "A memoir is very different from a novel, and from your comment, I do not feel that you understood that basic fact.
It is not written to entertain the reader. A good memoir, in fact, has a lot in common with a novel. But think about that last line.
It is not written to entertain the reader? That is a misconception. To be published is to entertain--or at least interest--a reader. Also, "I do not feel that you understand What a great writer I am. What a mistake you are making by not publishing me. What an opportunity you are passing up by not publishing me. Are all my favorite emails to get in response to rejection letters. How has creative non-fiction evolved in your time in the field?
See a Problem?
DONNA: My full-time job is in marketing and communications and, while storytelling has in some ways always been part of that world, we've seen a huge shift in using stories to build a brand, adding narrative instead of regurgitating facts. In the higher ed conferences I go to, I learn and later presented on using stories as an effective means of communicating with your audience.
This book focuses on telling the company's story, and using story telling in training and even in disciplinary settings. I think people--not just readers, but any consumers--are affected by stories. Information is more memorable when told as a story rather than a straight lecture. While my answer here seems a bit like a tangent, it comes back to the lig mag world. What this revived focus on story telling in many outlets -- not just in literature -- shows is that, at the end of the day, people love stories. And this means wonderful things for creative nonfiction. Our audiences can grow. And we can do new and different things, while remaining true to our missions, to appeal to this audience that loves stories.
And all of this story telling, no doubt, is inspiring more to tell their own. DINTY: I've noticed two significant changes, from the perspective of someone who regularly teaches creative nonfiction writing first in an undergraduate program and now in a PhD program. One change is that a body of craft instruction and scholarship has begun to form helping to define the often-invisible borderlines between literary journalism, memoir, the personal essay, the lyric essay, the humor essay, the hermit crab, and other forms.
That's a healthy genre. But now, although I suspect we'll never quite shake the "creative nonfiction--it's an oxymoron! I think that's a real sign of maturity for the genre, which is terrific. And the sort of experimentation and flexibility Dinty and Sarah describe is related to that maturity, too, I suspect. It's pretty clear at this point that "creative nonfiction" isn't just some crazy literary fad.
Where do you hope to see creative nonfiction evolving in the future? SARAH: I think one of the exciting new developments in nonfiction and publishing in general are these new content delivery options available in places like Shebooks and Pshares Solos and Amazon Singles, platforms that allow for publishing essays and nonfiction that are too long for most print journals to publish and too short to be full-length collections, but just right for reading in one sitting.
This and the increase in opportunities to publish nonfiction lately are both excellent for the genre. I hope that nonfiction maintains what seems to be a camaraderie among writers of nonfiction, a we're-all-in-this-together mentality that has so far resisted an edgy competitive conversation and instead encouraged and supported one another, celebrating our differences in style and form rather than wrinkling our noses at variety. DINTY: I agree with what Hattie said about creative nonfiction practitioners appreciating the opportunity to have conversations about subjects more interesting than, "What does that mean, actually?
Writing and reading are changing. Literature is changing. Book delivery is changing. The whole context for storytelling in written form is in rapid evolution. So the big changes in creative nonfiction will happen alongside major changes in technology and information consumption habits. I know that scares a lot of people -- "what will happen to the book as we know it? HATTIE: To circle back just a bit, I do think a bit more of a body of scholarship and a slightly more formal conversation around the genre will be helpful.
I sort of feel like if creative writing is going to have a home in the academy, let's embrace that and do it up right. Dinty's right, of course, to point out some pitfalls of literary scholarship … but I don't think I'd be the first person to point out that creative writing courses can sometimes lack academic rigor.
And while I don't at all want to suggest that we limit the possibilities of the genre or define things too stringently, maybe having a little more of a framework and a canon would be helpful in that regard. As to where the writing itself goes? I'd like the genre to be less confined to academia, and--as a general rule, though of course we could point to many counter-examples, and of course it's also possible to find the world in a grain of sand—less concerned with small things. I think all the publishing opportunities Sarah points to will help with that, no doubt.
I know there's a lot to worry about in the publishing industry at the moment, but for those of us a little outside the system, it's a really exciting and interesting time, and I see a lot of possibility. Things are changing more rapidly than ever in publishing. Paying attention to their trends--as Dinty said, how stories are consumed. I think there's just going to be a lot more demand for real stories by real people, no matter what the delivery method. Other areas of nonfiction--the more prescriptive kind--I think also are booming--Time Life just relaunched its book program.
That's exciting to me to see books come back into print--so while there's a strong move to digital delivery, I also think we'll see a resurgence of print. Donna lives in downtown Lancaster, Pa. She loves tasting microbrews, eating cheese, enjoying local arts and culture, traveling to national parks and playing Scrabble. Dinty W. A professor of nonfiction writing at Ohio University, Moore lives in Athens, Ohio, where he grows heirloom tomatoes, lemon cucumbers, and edible dandelions. Sarah M. Wells is the author of the poetry collection Pruning Burning Bushes and a chapbook of poems, Acquiesce.
She is in the process of finishing a memoir-in-essays about men, marriage, sex, God, parenting, temptation, love, attention, and everything else she's currently pondering. Hattie Fletcher has been the managing editor of Creative Nonfiction since She has been a coordinating editor for the Best Creative Nonfiction series, published by W.
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