What is CNF and how do I know if I have it?

[Bonnie Lee Black (Gabon 1996-98) has been kind enough to send me a short history of the hows-and-whys of Creative Non- Fiction (CNF). That is: how did it come to be; where did it come from, and why? 

The reason is that some of us have been discussing the topic, off this site, for a few days. What Bonnie Lee has to say is useful and informative and for those of you who are writing your Peace Corps stories, and not quite sure what to call what you are writing, you might want to read this.

Bonnie Lee has a MFA and teaches Creative Nonfiction Writing
as well as Healthy Cooking at UNM-Taos. She is the author of Somewhere Child (Viking Press) and How to Cook a Crocodile: A Memoir with Recipes (Peace Corps Writers). See her blog, “Cooking Crocodiles and Other Food Musings” on this site.

Meanwhile, here’s Bonnie Lee’s take on CNF.]

A Short History of CNF in the USA

Creative nonfiction (CNF) writing is neither new nor American in origin.  Gifted writers have been telling their truths colorfully, dramatically, and enduringly for centuries.   Egyptian funerary texts have been cited as one example.  Or, closer to home, take the writer Seneca (the Younger), born in Cordoba, Spain, about the same time as Christ:  four of Seneca’s essays – which certainly qualify as creative nonfiction — introduce the “Forerunners” section of  Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay:  An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present (Anchor Books, NY, 1995).

And then there is Michel de Montaigne of France (1533-1592), who many, including Lopate, claim may have been the greatest essayist who ever lived.  After the successful publication of his first book, Essais (French for “attempts” or “trials”), Montaigne’s writing “grew longer and more confiding,” Lopate says, until he announced that his mission was to “put before the public a full verbal portrait” of himself.  He said he was the first to do this.

Published about the same period as Shakespeare’s sonnets and plays and roughly a decade before Cervantes’ Don Quixote, Montaigne’s essays were not the narcissistic products one might suspect.  He believed “Each man bears the entire form of man’s estate” and that the personal essay could, in Lopate’s words, “strike a chord of grateful recognition in readers everywhere.”

So why the relatively recent talk of “literary revolution” among the leading lights of creative nonfiction in this country?  And, conversely, why all the controversy regarding CNF’s meaning and purpose?  In a genre that claims to be made of both substance and style, is there any substance to the suggestion that it’s just “a huge fad” – destined soon to go out of style?

The discussion can get heated.  Frank Tempone, then Literary Nonfiction Editor of Del Sol Review, called it “a huge fad” in an editorial in his journal. He didn’t pull punches:

“While [Lee] Gutkind claims his magazine [Creative Nonfiction] is defining the ethics and parameters of the field, I wonder if he has examined the ethics of staking claim to a genre that has been written for hundreds if not thousands of years.  Sure he’s got the domain name, the nice conference in Maryland, the t-shirts on his website, and his mediocre disciples, but he’s also got Maintaigne, Proust, Whitman, and Kerouac turning in their graves.”

In a widely discussed 1997 essay in Vanity Fairmagazine entitled “Me, Myself, and I,” critic James Wolcott called creative nonfiction “a sickly transfusion, whereby the weakling personal voice of sensitive fiction is inserted into the beery carcass of nonfiction.”  He condemned confessional memoirs as tending toward self-indulgence and slammed Lee Gutkind, whom he dubbed “godfather” of the genre, for driving the confessional bandwagon.

Other publications in the late 1990’s, including The New York Times and the New Yorker, expressed opinions that the popular form (especially memoir) would be little more than a passing fancy.

Although the origin of the name “creative nonfiction” is debated, when the National Endowment for the Arts adopted this label in the 1970’s, it achieved some legitimacy.  The agency needed a word to categorize grant submissions of nonfiction that appropriated fictional elements, such a dramatic tension, dialogue, shift in points of view, and attention to detail. The NEA felt that “creative nonfiction” accurately described “factual prose that is also literary.”

“But,” said Caroline Abels in a December 16, 1999, article in The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, “the NEA was simply referring to a type of nonfiction that writers had been penning for years.

“Truman Capote wrote In Cold Blood, and John Steinbeck wrote Travels With Charley.  Ernest Hemingway, Mark Twain, Daniel Defoe all wrote creative nonfiction at some point in their careers,” Abels said.  “Creative nonfiction, then, is nothing new, but it got more attention from the literati after a slew of memoirs came on the market in the mid-1990’s.”

Lee Gutkind, who started teaching creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh in 1973, says he was the first – or one of the first – to teach CNF at the university level anywhere.  “My colleagues snickered when I proposed teaching a ‘creative’ nonfiction course,” says Gutkind in his CNF anthology, In Fact (p.xxvii), “while the dean of the College of Arts and Sciences proclaimed that nonfiction in general – forget the use of the word ‘creative’ – was at its best a craft, not too different from plumbing.”

Twenty years later, in 1993, Gutkind launched the groundbreaking journal Creative Nonfiction, as “a literary outlet for those journalists who aspired to experiment with fact and narrative.”  Today, Gutkind’s journal has a circulation well over 10,000.

When Gutkind began, creative nonfiction was just starting to establish a foothold in academia.  Since then, creative nonfiction courses in college creative writing programs have grown steadily.  Today, dozens of colleges and universities offer graduate degrees in creative nonfiction and hundreds offer undergraduate courses.

Creative nonfiction, then – this hybrid genre that employs fictive techniques to create scenes and character and dialogue to tell true stories — despite its long history, continues to grow and evolve.

4 Comments

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  • There is one danger to creative non-ficiton for the novice- lying. Using fictional devices can improve a memoir so long as it is all true. Unfortunately, many web sites and even books confuse fiction and non-fiction.

    In my new book “Peace Corps Experience: Write and Publish Your Memoir,” I explain the use of ficitonal devices but emphasize that a memoir is based upon a true experience. Usually, the difficult part is culling minutia.

  • John, Bonnie, Lorenzo: Hope it’s not irrelevant here to cite Paul Theroux – our most well-known Peace Corps Writer. Anyway, in “The Trouble with Autobiography” (Smithsonian Magazine, Jan. 2011), Theroux mentions Montaigne’s essays (as Bonnie does). He writes, “Montaigne’s ‘Essays’ are discreetly autobiographical, revealing an immense amount about the man and his time: his food, his clothes, his habits, his travel . . . .”

    RPCVs composing memoirs may similarly focus on their brief Peace Corps years, describing the different foods, clothes, and cultures they encounter at their PC posts and during their travels. What an RPCV thereby produces may be one chapter (or two) of his/her partial autobiography.

    But while analyzing the essays, memoirs, and autobiographies of numerous great writers, Theroux notes with disdain: calculated distortions, purposeful omissions, self-serving inclusions. He grows suspicious of the genre and ultimately decides against producing an autobiography, concluding that, “The more I reflect on my life, the greater the appeal of the autobiographical novel.”

    Of course, I do foresee most RPCVs usefully composing the “Creative Non-Fiction” that John and Bonnie discuss, but I also hope that an RPCV writer would consider possibly taking the leap – would risk it, would allow himself/herself to create an “Autobiographical Novel.”

    Yesterday was Charles Dickens 200th birthday. So I’ll close by again quoting Theroux who notes in his article that, “Dickens began his autobiography in 1847, when he was only 35, but abandoned it and, overcome with memories of his deprivations, a few years later was inspired to write the autobiographical David Copperfield, fictionalizing his early miseries . . . .”

  • Paul Theroux is a very good writer. Both fiction and non-fiction have attractions. It really depends upon the writer’s temperment and his or her audience. A Peace Corps memoir describes an unusual experience in an unusual setting and has historical value which is why the Library of Congress set up a special Peace Corps Experience Collection and the Kennedy Library also accepts memoirs for their collection.

    An autobiography describes one’s entire life while a memoir focuses upon one important period. We certainly all live in a home but all the interesting stuff happens in the kitchen. If you describe the kitchen that’s a memoir.

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