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.

Erika Dreifus
Untitled “Response Paper”
Creative Nonfiction
January 2002

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:

  • Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir
  • Stop-Time: A Memoir
  • I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory
  • A Postcard Memoir
  • Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life
  • The Business of Memory: The Art of Remembering in an Age of Forgetting
  • 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.

    12 thoughts on “Wednesday’s Work-in-Progress: On the Teaching of Creative Nonfiction, Or “Only a Few Have a Natural Talent for Nudity”

    1. It’s not an online syllabus, but CREATIVE NONFICTION: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style, with Readings, by Eileen Pollack, is a rigorous and careful look at different genres of CNF, meant for classroom use (I was introduced to it in her graduate level CNF workshop, which, when I was still at University of Michigan, at least, was the only graduate level writing workshop open to those not in the MFA program).

      1. Erika Dreifus says:

        That sounds wonderful, Jennifer! Thank you!

    2. Cyndi says:

      Yes, yes, and yes, Erika! I tend to avoid memoir because so many which I’ve seen are “self-indulgent and self-serving.” And CNF is/can be so much more.

      Thank you.

    3. Lisa Romeo says:

      I seem to recall that Susan Orlean once posted on her website the syllabus to one of the nonfiction writing classes she was teaching, and that it (perhaps naturally for her) included a wide range of CNF *genres* including several kinds of journalistic writing. I don’t see it on her website anymore (if that’s where I even found it), but I remember it was expansive and inclusive and I remember thinking her students would be getting such a great rounded view/practice of CNF.

    4. Erika Dreifus says:

      Thanks, Cyndi and Lisa. (Lisa, I’m going to try to find that syllabus, too.)

    5. An interesting read. If I ever teach an advanced composition class again, I think I’d refer to this essay. It’s important for writers to engage the genres in and flexibility of creative non-fiction. Craft permeates all, doesn’t it?

      Which dominates (a chicken and egg question) what we do or how we do it? Genre (or sub-genre) determines to some extent what aspects of craft to privilege; but perhaps the craft aspect one has a preference (or talent) also affects the genre. This applies to CNF as well as literary forms of narrative (drama, novel, poetry, screenplay).


    6. As a non-fiction fan (both as reader and writer), I think a problem with ‘creative non-fiction’ here is what the definition of ‘creative’ is. That implicitly raises the question of what ‘non-creative non-fiction’ would be, which nobody ever seems to answer.

      I met one writer at the University of East Anglia (UK) who taught travel writing and who, to earn a living, wrote guide books. She didn’t – and I think wouldn’t have been allowed – to teach how to write guide books. ‘Travel writing’ on the syllabus meant personal essays/narratives, not guides.

      Why? Because apparently whoever determines the creative writing canon of genres apparently believes that writing guide books is ‘not creative’.

      In other words,writing guide books not something they know very much about.

    7. One of the biggest genres in the Chareidi magazine world right now is CNF — and it’s often non-autobiographic. There are a lot of “true short stories” based on events a third party reported to an author, as well as reported essays, where vignettes from the lives of historical figures or contemporary people are told as an entre into the subject of the non-fiction piece (often about health issues and other challenges in life).

      It’s very funny, because people who specialize in this genre sometimes get quite famous within the Chareidi world. People with “a story to tell” will sometimes seek out people like Nachman Seltzer or (until she went on hiatus) Leah Kotkes.

    8. Erika Dreifus says:

      David, Anthony, Rebecca–thank you all!

      Anthony, I can’t resist again quoting Richard Marius, this time from the first edition of A WRITER’S COMPANION (yes, all these years later, I still own multiple copies). This edition dates from 1985–well before the super-popularization of memoir.

      “All writers create. I am always annoyed to hear fiction and poetry called called ‘creative’ writing as if writing that explains, describes, and narrates – nonfiction – should somehow be relegated to the basement of the writing enterprise to dwell with the pails and the pipes. To assume that only fiction and poetry are ‘creative’ is to imagine that fiction writers and poets are somehow superior to scholars, journalists, and others who report, explain, and describe. A good case may be made for the proposition that the most truly original and creative writers in our society today work in nonfiction – Tom Wolfe, Gloria Emerson, Roger Rosenblatt, Carl Schorske, Joan Didion, Joe McGinniss, John McPhee, Garry Wills, Robert Caro, David McCullough, Roger Angell, Barbara Tuchman, and a host of others.”

      1. Thanks, Erika. I’m very sympathetic to that quotation! But I think here it doesn’t quiet nail it. What the quotation argues is that there’s no good case for excluding non-fiction from ‘creative writing’ but it doesn’t get into the question of what the distinction between creative and non-creative writing (and creative and non-creative non-fiction) might be. I find the entire discipline strangely reticent on this point.

    9. Interesting and apt, this post. I think what’s happened is that just as only fiction used to be taught, with memoir a lesser by-the-way form, so memoir is now taught—it has come to be seen as an artistic genre—and other nonfiction falls in behind. It was thought if you can write fiction you can write memoir, and now that if you can write memoir you can practice other forms, including journalism. Not true, not without a learning curve. But any MFA program can do only so much.

      1. Erika Dreifus says:

        Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Richard, and congratulations on your forthcoming book.

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