Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: On the Teaching of Creative Nonfiction, Or “Only a Few Have a Natural Talent for Nudity”
A few days ago, Twitter (more precisely: my Twitter pal @MikeScalise) led me to an exchange on memoir and essay, which developed into a conversation about the ways in which creative nonfiction (cnf) tends to be taught (in MFA programs and presumably elsewhere). One of the points that seemed to attract agreement concerned a troubling trend to equate cnf with memoir (particularly, if not exclusively, confessional memoir) instead of inculcating a more expansive understanding of the types of writing that can fall beneath the cnf umbrella.
The discussion reminded me of similar ideas I’d had back when I was an MFA student myself. Remember that I attended a low-residency MFA program, and I was a fiction specialist. I was therefore provided cnf instruction only within the framework of the “gateway” seminars all of us attended, regardless of selected genre.
We were assigned to write brief “response papers” in preparation for each of these seminars. Here’s what I wrote for a creative nonfiction seminar held in January 2002. (I can’t tell you what the faculty/program response was, because I never received back any of my response papers or comments on them. But that’s a topic for another post. Also, in the original, I provided footnotes to document the Jane Kramer and Adam Gopnik pieces that I discuss in the text; in this post, I’ve linked to them on The New Yorker‘s site.)
I realize that in a way, this is an odd moment for me to be reiterating a call for attention to creative nonfiction beyond the memoir. I seem to be publishing a short streak of memoiristic essays these days myself. But it has taken me a long time to arrive at this point, and I’m still not entirely comfortable with it. Plus, I’ve written plenty of non-memoiristic nonfiction along the way: review-essays, opinion pieces, history, etc.
In any case, please keep reading if you are so inclined. And please check out the discussion question at the bottom of the post.
Untitled “Response Paper”
In this workshop, we will read a range of nonfiction genres–memoir, personal essay, old and new journalism, various hybrids–and examine how we can integrate some of these ambitions and techniques into our own writing.
–from the course description to CREA E-22, Creative Nonfiction, Harvard University Extension School, spring semester 2002 (instructor: Elizabeth Benedict)
Defining creative nonfiction–using “literary techniques” to write high-quality nonfiction. Related to “immersion journalism.”
–from my notes taken at “Creative Nonfiction” workshop at the Geneva Writers’ Conference, February 1998 (speaker: Lee Gutkind)
But this is the age of therapy, and too many autobiographical writers use the story of their lives to vent their feelings and to heal themselves rather than to tell a story of interest to others. I recall a few years ago canoeing with a friend down the Ardeche River in France….To our astonishment, after emerging upright out of the foam and roar of our last and most difficult burst of white water, we heard from above a great clamor of cheering and applause….When we looked up, we discovered that we were in a nudist colony….We felt honored by their attention and good will, but I could not help remarking to my friend that most people in this world look better clothed than naked. Only a few have a natural talent for nudity. I feel that way about the kind of autobiography that tries to reveal all, for it usually aims at making the writer either the hero or the victim of his or her story, and it becomes self-indulgent and self-serving.
–from the preface to A Writer’s Companion, 4th edition (author: Richard Marius)
A range of nonfiction genres. Including journalism. People appearing clothed–at least, sometimes.
“All we have are our memories,” said one of my MFA classmates, a tad too comfortably, at the previous semester’s Creative Nonfiction Gateway Seminar. The reading for that session, as for this semester’s, was virtually all memoir/memory-related. Not that it, too, didn’t make for good, engaging reading. Not that I didn’t enjoy it, or learn from it. But in part because my mind has received an historian’s training; in part because my eyes are accustomed to a variety of nonfiction texts, both my readerly and writerly selves found–and continue to find–my classmate’s statement utterly unsatisfactory.
Yet one might understand his myopia. To this point, our reading lists reinforce an impression that creative nonfiction writers are inspired only by private memory. That as far as creative nonfiction goes, “all we have” is memoir. Just glance at the assigned titles:
Six books, or excerpts from them. Four memoirs. Two books about memory or memoirs. What about “the essay”? Journalism? What about hybrids? What about writing outside ourselves?
For instance: I’ll take Jane Kramer’s 1972 essay on the pieds-noirs any day–she makes the Martin family come alive better than any historian–and at least as well as any fiction writer, perhaps even including Camus. Take the opening lines:
Mme. Martin’s suitcase has been in her family for a hundred years. It is more of a satchel than a suitcase, really–a plump, black gros-point bag with faded yellow flowers and leather fittings, the kind of bag that women used to take traveling. Mme. Martin’s great-grandmother bought it in Béziers just before she married, and in 1873, when a cruel phylloxera epidemic ruined the local vineyards, she packed her best trousseau linens in it and left for Algeria with her husband to start a new life.
Jane Kramer is there, present in the piece, for the story is filtered through her. But she is not the main character. She tells us the story, but it isn’t about her. Literary journalism? Creative nonfiction? Yes, I think, to both. Kramer has evidently immersed herself in the Martins’ world. Her attention to character, setting, detail, and dialogue (often indirect, here) brings to mind the most expert fiction writer’s technique. Her references to dates, historical figures, and events bespeak the journalist’s background and research. All this–fully clothed. Even under the Mediterranean sun.
Kramer’s New Yorker successor on matters French, Adam Gopnik, shares her ability to draw the reader in, as this example, the first paragraph from his piece on the trial of Maurice Papon in Bordeaux, attests:
Bordeaux is the town where France goes to give up. It was where the French government retreated from Paris under fire from the Prussians in 1870, and again from the kaiser’s armies in 1914, and where, in June 1940, the French government fled in the face of the German advance and soon afterward met not just the fact of defeat but the utter depth of France’s demoralization. A.J. Liebling wrote of those days that “there was a climate of death in Bordeaux, heavy and unhealthy like the smell of tuberoses.” He recalled the wealthy men in the famous restaurants like the Chapon Fin, “heavy-jowled, waxy-faced, wearing an odd expression of relief from fear.” Though the bad peace was ruled from the spa town of Vichy, Bordeaux is the place that gave the surrender its strange, bitter, bourgeois character: a nation retreating from cosmopolitan Paris back to la France profonde.”
Again, one senses that the author is in control of the material, and of his craft. As the piece continues, one sees Gopnik’s presence both on the page and at the actual trial. A witness, so to speak, for the reader. Yes, one finds a sprinkling of “I’s”; near the conclusion, Gopnik reveals:
I had explained to [Gopnik’s young son] Luke, over the course of the trial, what was going on and why I was away: A bad man had long ago done wicked things to little children, and now he would be put in jail for it. When I came home, he asked if they had put the bad man in jail, and I said, well, yes, they had. “And when the bad man got put in jail, did all the children come out?” he asked.
A reliable narrator. Telling a tale about Papon, and Bordeaux, and the other people present. But neither the hero, nor the victim, of the story. His is a story, actually, with few heroes. And too many victims.
“We,” as thinking, observing, researching individuals, possess far more than our own memories. And creative nonfiction, while including–importantly–the memoir under its umbrella, encompasses so much more as well.
What do you think about the teaching of creative nonfiction? Can you point us to any online syllabi for courses that take a broad view, one that may include but extends beyond memoir? Please share below.