Creative nonfiction, also known as the 4th Genre, is, in the words of its foremost purveyor Lee Gutkind, dramatic, true stories using scenes, dialogue, close/detailed descriptions and other techniques usually employed by poets and fiction writers about important subjects — from politics, economics, sports, and the arts and sciences, to international, race and family relations.
Creative nonfiction heightens the whole concept and idea of essay writing. It allows a writer to employ the diligence of a reporter, the shifting voices and viewpoints of a novelist, the refined wordplay of a poet and the analytical modes of the essayist. In answering IN's questions, Gutkind exhibits them all.
IN: Why are you known as a literary pioneer and the godfather of creative nonfiction writing?
LG: I am the founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, the first and largest literary journal to publish nonfiction, exclusively. I also founded the creative nonfiction program at the University of Pittsburgh and the creative nonfiction MFA program there, the first and largest in the world I conduct creative nonfiction workshops and present readings throughout the United States, Europe, and Australia.
The epitaph "godfather" comes from a 1997 Vanity Fair Article by James Wolcott. It was a four-page roast of the creative nonfiction genre, titled Me, Myself, And I. Wolcott reserved an especially interesting title and role for me as "the godfather behind creative nonfiction." He abhorred the fact that I traveled and talked about the genre all over the world, wrote books about creative nonfiction, published a journal, directed a creative nonfiction writers' conference, and taught creative nonfiction in a creative writing program, which, he maintained, collectively ruined the audience for fiction.
In the few days following my roasting, I stuck close to home, licking my wounds and wondering how my colleagues, friends, and family would respond to my public scorching. But soon, I had to teach class. At the elevators near the English department, the first colleague I ran into, novelist and non-fiction writer Bruce Dobler, dropped to his knees and announced, "I kiss your hand, Godfather."
I realized that Wolcott's disparaging remarks might actually fortify the creative nonfiction movement. When I completed my first memoir, I titled it Forever Fat: Essays By The Godfather, and dedicated it to Wolcott, among others.
IN: Among other things, you have performed as a clown for Ringling Brothers, scrubbed with heart and liver transplant surgeons and wandered the country on a motorcycle, how did you become interested in creative nonfiction writing?
LG: Deciding to dedicate myself to writing creative nonfiction and delaying a dream of writing fiction was a conscious and carefully considered decision. At the time I was in my middle 20s, and I realized that I didn't know enough about the world to write anything with the insight and experience necessary to make my novels and short stories culturally and morally significant.
To be a better writer, you have to be a better and more well-rounded person. I realized the importance of learning to relate to others and understanding the struggles and challenges of people from different walks of life. I did not want to become a writer who wrote about the same family, the same high school, the same moral dilemma, nor a writer who wrote about other writers or for that matter, other departments of English and universities. So, I decided to write creative nonfiction and in that way become more mature by broadening my scope of experiences.
IN: As founder of Creative Nonfiction at http://www.creativenonfiction.org what do you tell new writers that might help them establish a writing career in the 4th Genre?
LG: All sorts of things can, and do, get in the way of the creative process. But what I find to be the real wrench in the works is the reluctance to work hard. By this I mean: Plenty of research, plenty of thought and analysis, and an ongoing onslaught of revision. There is tremendous pain and essential honesty involved in recognizing that the first 26 drafts aren't quite there and to keep improving the content. Writers have to be willing to take on that pain. Most want to share their essay or book much too quickly. Those who accept the pain of hard work and revising are those who get published.
It's the same as becoming skilled and finally the master of any art form. Study the greats. Analyze what they do and don't do. And, one of the best and most cost-effective ways to do that is to subscribe to Creative Nonfiction Journal.
IN: Who have been the most influential people during your writing career?
LG: The author who has had a strong influence on me and my writing is Hemingway (most especially through his short stories). Gay Talese and John McPhee were also inspirational, especially The Bridge and Fame And Obscurity by Talese and The Pine Barrens and Coming Into The Country by McPhee. I would also have to mention Janet Malcolm (The Journalist And The Murderer), as well as Susan Sheehan and Marc Singer. Frederick Exley (A Fan's Note) is brilliant, as is John Wideman (Brothers And Keepers) and James Baldwin. Poetry by Robert Frost and William Merredith was very influential in my 20s.
IN: Publisher's Weekly praised your memoir, Forever Fat: Essays By The Godfather, yet Wolcott lambastes you. Why does your writing receive such a degree of apogee to perigee reviews?
LG: The Publisher's Weekly review praised my memoir for its "piercing honesty." I am honest about my personal experiences. That this kind of honesty is possible is one of the great things about creative nonfiction: it enhances a writer's potential to connect with readers on an intimate, personal level.
Critics like Wolcott take to task as navel-gazers writers who are the least bit self-revelatory in their work. Wolcott boils down all creative nonfiction to what he calls "confessional writing" and condemns it as giving voice to a "weakling", "me-first sensibility." I don't dispute the overabundance of inward and self-obsessed writers. They do not, however, detract from the accomplishments of great writers like John McPhee, Annie Dillard, and Diane Ackerman. The most effective creative nonfiction writers are aware of what I like to call "the universal chord", and are able to capture the widest audience possible by extending the scope of their narratives beyond their own experience. In doing so, they write with integrity.
Another thing you have to understand is that creative nonfiction is not a genre like fiction and poetry. It is a literary, cultural and political movement. The writer is poised to present reality in such a way that it cannot be avoided. It is provocative and it has teeth because it is true, and because it is true it can change lives and shape opinion in ways that fiction has hardly ever been able to do. I believe that this is one reason that a number of academics and critics have attempted to discredit it: because it has the potential to be such a dominant, mind-breaking force.
IN: What approach(es) or methods do you use when researching and writing?
LG: When explaining creative nonfiction, I often refer to the five R's: reading other people's work, 'riting on a regular schedule, reflection, research (information/reportage) and real life (experiencing what we are writing about, as do Susan Orlean, Annie Dillard and Frank McCourt in their books and essays.)
I also advise writers to test the effectiveness of their creative nonfiction work through a process I call the Yellow Test. Just for a second, think about an essay-a block of text-as a building, say, 10 stories tall. Each story contains a scene-a mini-story-that is part of the narrative and helps move it forward. If you look at articles or essays from a structural point of view-the way an architect might look at a building or bridge through blueprints-and take a yellow high-lighting marker and color in the scenes, you will find that the best work, the most effective creative nonfiction, contains a lot of yellow. The scene is the thing.
IN: You speak at and run workshops, readings and presentations concerning Creative Nonfiction. What advice do you offer for writers about the merits or pitfalls of taking writing classes, attending conferences, etc.?
LG: Creative writing programs and writers' conferences bring together people from throughout the United States and provide a sense of community to those people who feel a special kinship and dedication to the written word. Being a writer can be an extremely lonely occupation.
I especially like creative writing programs on a graduate level because of the final requirement: In most programs a student must complete a book-length manuscript. Consequently, you will have written your first book before you graduate - with the help of your teachers. It is the consummate experience for student writers, and the last time they will receive such guidance and support.
IN: When dealing with publishers, agents and publicists is there any advice you can pass along to "about-to-be-authors?"
LG: You need to network and meet people. Hold meetings. Go to conferences. In fact, Creative Nonfiction holds two conferences each year.
IN: What are the greatest challenges facing new writers on the path to becoming successful authors?
LG: The greatest challenge is overcoming the urge to publish before the work is ready. Lots of people try to publish too quickly. They don't revise enough to make their work competitive and important in the market place.
When you think that what you've written is the best that it can be, put it in a drawer for six months and then go back to it. Remember, it isn't just getting published that counts: the right people are publishing it and making sure that the book is something you can be proud of.
IN: With over 20 books under your belt, when one of your new books is launched how important is touring, readings and book signings to help ensure success and book sales?
LG: Keep in mind, nine of those books I wrote myself and the rest are anthologies that I edited. I've never been able to figure out what ensures success in book sales, and I long ago stopped worrying about it. I like readings not because they sell books, but because it gives me the opportunity to connect with readers and see an audience interact with the work.
IN: As well as the Creative Nonfiction Journal web site you have your own, personal site at http://www.leegutkind.com. How important is it for writers/authors to have a web site presence?
It's not important in relation to the work itself. But it does give you an opportunity to connect with your book-buying public in a direct way. It's not the information that the visitor receives, but the opportunity the visitor has to interact with you, the writer.
IN: What's next for you?
LG: My new book, Almost Human: W.W. Norton will publish Making Robots Think, in the Spring 2007. With Norton as Publisher, we at Creative Nonfiction are going to launch a Best Of series of anthologies, excerpting the best, new, creative nonfiction writing from various media: from literary journals to zines, alternative press, and radio.
Read Lee Gutkind's excerpt from In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction.
The Art Of Creative Nonfiction
Forever Fat: Essays By The Godfather
Stuck In Time - The Tragedy Of Childhood Mental Illness
Many Sleepless Nights
The Best Seat In Baseball, But You Have To Stand
The People Of Penn's Woods West
Creative Nonfiction - How To Live It & How To Write It
Edited by Lee Gutkind:
Rage And Reconciliation: Inspiring A Health Care Revolution
Connecting - 20 Prominent Authors Write About The Relationships That Shape Our Lives
The Veterinarian's Touch
One Children's Place
Our Roots Grow Deeper Than We Know
The Essayist At Work
View From The Divide
Creative Nonfiction Readers
In Fact: The Best Of Creative Nonfiction
Diego X. Jesus is a Dominican-born American freelance journalist and associate editor of IN who makes Toronto his home approximately half the time. Otherwise, we don't know where he might be. Email: Diego X
Mark London is a Toronto based freelance writer and associate editor of IN who has been with the FWO-Int'l from the early years volunteering much of his time in assisting young writers' careers. Email: Mark London