The New Creative Nonfiction

The current issue of Creative Nonfiction (a magazine out of Pittsburgh; I used to walk past its Walnut Street offices in the days I lived with girls in Shadyside) is in a new magazine format—laid out, graphically rich, pull-quote-heavy, 8ish” x 11ish”—that is welcome and good. I think the days of serial publications looking like novels are over, and it’s clear the folks of CNF have realized this, too. One of the issue’s early essays is from the by now former editor of TriQuarterly, on the move of his journal to an all-digital format, run by students. It’s a decision made perhaps stupidly by Northwestern’s administration, and while it’s a loss, clearly the idea with this magazine (inclusive also of an essay by R. Rodriguez on the death of the PBS Newshour’s five-minute essays) is that change is afoot. Although it’s unclear whether “afoot” means happening now to happening soon, and so let’s just say things change. Let’s make it present/infinite tense because this is a statement that’s always true.

At any rate, here’s how the interview with Dave Eggers (whose Zeitoun is on my list) begins:

I want to start by asking about one of my favorite old-fashioned devices, one that I think is sadly underused in contemporary literature: suspense. [In one chapter], Zeitoun himself has disappeared. [. . .] His wife, Kathy, doesn’t know what’s happened to him. Neither does the reader. We’re left hanging. It’s agonizing. What led to your decision to keep us in a state of anxiety.

Eggers’s answer has to do with understanding that that part of the story was Kathy’s, and needing to keep the reader in her point of view. He gives some details on all the ways he tried to recreate a scene he didn’t personally experience, and clearly it worked—for this interviewer at least.

Then near the end of the issue is an essay by the usually great Phillip Lopate, who writes that he “would caution [nonfiction writers] against borrowing one particular technique from our fiction-writing brethren: to imagine on the page a scene unfolding, moment by moment, that one did not witness firsthand.”

All Lopate’s examples come from the failed work of former students. (Can you imagine being such a student and running across this public airing of one man’s ideas on your failures?) That is: unpublished work. He provides no published examples, because of course how could he? Doesn’t a book’s publication show that such an approach to nonfictive scene is a success? Even worse, though, is that he provides no successful examples of writers refusing to imagine scenes they didn’t witness who nonetheless capture what happened in ways that are engaging and vivid.

CNF is a magazine that seems to openly understand its core audience to be other writers of nonfiction. We readers are invited to tweet micro-nf to see whether our 130 characters will be selected for print publication (and put on our CVs, no doubt). We’re given a whole page of first lines from NF books and told that “[e]very writer understands the importance of drawing readers in from the very first sentence—but how do you do that?” CNF is, thus, more trade journal than magazine, and so what a terrible idea to put forward in such a publication: You, NF writer! Don’t imagine scenes you never witnessed, unless you’re Dave Eggers. Leave that sort of thing to the professionals.

I write this as a young man who hasn’t (yet) published a book but who wrote in said book numerous scenes I never witnessed as though moments were unfolding. Isn’t this what we talk about when we talk about biography?

And a more pertinent question: for how long are we going to have to read these jeremiads from the writers we grew up worshipping? These slaps on the proverbial wrists that say, No! Don’t!

2 thoughts on “The New Creative Nonfiction

  1. For further adventures in professors calling out their students/crotchety warnings to younger generations, see Hoagland, Tony, “The Dean Young Effect.” He prints a former student’s poem, praises it mildly, then mocks him for trying to write funny, strange poems because only Dean Young can do that. You see, Dean Young is a genius and if you’re younger than Dean Young you are not a genius.

    Because perceived genius is how we should talk about writing as critics/scholars/old people.

  2. I’m also reminded of an article in AWP’s Writer’s Chronicle a couple years back (or was it P&W?) titled “How to Write a Story Like Alice Munro”.

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