In her recent post on what she wishes she’d known upon leaving The Writers’ Workshop, Geri alluded to a genre she’s come to admire and respect tremendously. This is an elaboration.
CNF, the affectionate term for Creative Nonfiction, which Robin Bourjaily—the first person I knew to have gotten an MFA from the University of Iowa in it—says is “defined by what it’s not.” It’s not fiction: it must be true. It’s not poetry: it looks like prose. It’s not journalism: it needn’t tell a story. Yet it utilizes the stuff of all those forms, as well as the form of an essay, but it’s a personal essay. Well, we could go on. Memoir, autobiography—yes, it can be those. Joan Connor, a writing professor at Ohio University, upon being asked to define CNF writes, “There is no definition,” and then quotes Catherine Taylor, a former OU professor, now at Ithaca: “This baggy elephant we call Creative Nonfiction.”
The following are books or essays that I’ve either recently used in the Introduction to Creative Writing class I teach at Hunter College, or that I’ve recently read, or that simply come to mind as exemplary works of creative nonfiction. There are ever so many more.
Consider the Lobster—book-length collection of essays by David Foster Wallace wherein you see the workings of a capacious mind whose facility with information is profound, both meat-grinder like and sublime; even in its articulate crevices, nothing is left without a road to lead off from. Footnotes are located on the page, in boxes, a maze, the essays, ranging from Dostoyevsky to the production and vivisection of lobsters, and everywhere you feel the pulse and heartbreak of a brilliance that is with us no more. In the short section devoted to CNF in my class at Hunter, we read a long piece about a cruise (titled “Shipping Out” in its published form in Harper’s) that DFW had gone on, which is the title piece from his collection A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again.
Chronology of Water, by Lidia Yuknavitch (who has a new book out) leads us into the fire of childhood abuse she has worked through and emerged from, offers hope, unthinkably, spares us nothing, despite the beauty and fluidity of the prose. We read an excerpt in my class, and I’d like to think that the material was received as a kind of liberation for my students who wrote about their own trials—and I will say that after thirty years of teaching, there is no way to exaggerate the extent of the suffering of American youth.
Dinty W. Moore, prolific writer, and someone who, like me, studied with Vance Bourjaily—but was with him at LSU, not Iowa—was the one who opened my eyes to the form in his class, using what I think of as the bible of Creative Nonfiction, the near 800-page book edited by Phillip Lopate: The Art of the Personal Essay. In my classes, I have used Dinty’s story “Son of Mr. Green Jeans.” His cleverness is surpassed only by the poignancy of the material, where he constructs a father and the story of his father and himself as a potential father, using taxonomy.
Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth” is also on my list, as is Scott Russell Sanders’ story about his father, “Under the Influence.” I have used essays by Mary Ruefle, Joan Didion, Stuart Dybeck, and Patricia Hampl, whose work is collected in the text I have used for this class, Imaginative Writing, by Janet Burroway.
Although I have not yet used this in my class, I also want to mention Ander Monson, who writes fiction, poetry, and CNF. I recently read with much admiration, a winning story of his in Defunct, “Long Live the Jart,” in which he intermingles rumination with history, and his own dramatic story of an interaction with a toy that had made a lasting impression upon him, although it is now properly defunct. His essay offers up a reminiscence of a time that is as long gone as the toy.
Two books by fellow graduate students at Ohio University also beg to be referenced. I have read and enjoyed Kelly Kathleen Ferguson’s My Life as Laura, in which she braids her own story with her journey to investigate the history and culture of her beloved childhood obsession, Laura Ingalls Wilder. I’ve reviewed Liz Stephens’ beautifully titled memoir The Days Are Gods, about finding herself living in the West. Other writers whose work I admire include Eula Biss (The Balloonists and Notes from No Man’s Land: American Essays ), Terry Tempest Williams (Refuge), Sandra Steingraber (Raising Elijah), Rachel Carson (Silent Spring), and a whole host of other environmental writers.
I should also mention that Dinty W. Moore, who is head of the Creative Writing Program at Ohio University, directs Brevity, an online magazine and website for relatively brief selections of CNF, wherein one can find an assortment of lovely work, and his latest book, published by Rose Metal Press, a Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction, offers both examples of such fiction, for which he enlists Thackeray’s term “essaykins,” and writing prompts. Other CNF coming out of the program at Ohio University includes Joan Connor’s The World before Mirrors, Kevin Haworth’s Famous Drownings in Literary History, and Kristin LeMay’s, I Told My Soul To Sing: Finding God with Emily Dickinson.
These are all writers whose prose is masterful, often luminous, and handily carries its weight. Really it’s for the sheer delight of the prose rhythms and choices and the landscape it evokes just by its dance that keeps me reading books or essays such as these; that is, for the language and the musings and the odd turns taken by the writer due, more than not, to something structural or formal or mechanical. After all, what renders it creative nonfiction is something in the method or the form, not in the pretense, not in masking or distortion, as any kind of falsification, deliberate or not, is frowned upon. Yes, we must remember—or shall I say that we must never forget—that CNF does not tell a lie.
What’s on your CNF TBR list?