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Lee Gutkind hails the artistry of creative nonfiction, but others approach it with distrust

Sunday, December 26, 1999

By Caroline Abels, Post-Gazette Cultural Arts Writer

This reporter is sitting at her computer, coffee cup at her side, wondering how to explain to you, the reader, what creative nonfiction is and why you should care.

She's about to proceed the way some journalists in the Post-Gazette newsroom would: provide a definition of the controversial literary genre, in which true stories are written with the flair of fiction, relate some outside opinions of the style, then give a chronological account of how the Shadyside literary journal Creative Nonfiction was born six years ago and brought widespread attention to what is also known as literary journalism.

Or, she thinks -- as she chews thoughtfully on a pen and leans forward in her chair -- she could write the article in the style of creative nonfiction itself. In fact, she's doing that right now. Notice how she's brought herself into the story (creative nonfiction is often subjective), how she's employed the fictional techniques of scene-setting, character and storytelling (creative nonfiction should read like a novel) and how she reveals the story behind the story (creative nonfiction is interested in larger truths).

But would you trust her account if it continued this way? Would you wonder if she were twisting the facts to make a more "creative" narrative? You might prefer "just the facts, ma'am," told in a straightforward way. Or would you want her to employ the engaging techniques of fiction to keep you from losing interest?

Lee Gutkind, who founded Creative Nonfiction, would encourage you to trust such an article. The University of Pittsburgh writing professor was defending creative nonfiction years before Frank McCourt wrote the memoir "Angela's Ashes," an oft-cited example of the style. He's used to hearing the style described as "inaccurate," "dishonest" and "self-centered."

But he remains willing to convert skeptics. He spoke energetically about creative nonfiction with this reporter, who will now, by the way, return to the traditional method of writing a news article.

"Whether it's a genre or not is debatable, but it's a significant part of the literary world now," Gutkind said. But, he added, "people are always ready to take pot shots at you the moment you begin to define it."

The umbrella of creative nonfiction covers writing that can't easily be defined as fiction or nonfiction. It's writing that is true (therefore, not fiction) but captivatingly written (unlike some nonfiction, such as the dry prose of a high school history textbook).

Biographies, autobiographies, memoirs, topical books and magazine and newspaper articles can all be written as creative nonfiction. A recent example would

be "Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan," by Edmund Morris, in which fictional characters formed part of an otherwise traditional biography. (Critics said the characters rendered the work untrustworthy and might confuse readers as to what was fictional in the book and what was real.)

Other examples include "Into Thin Air" by Jon Krakauer, which documents a hike up Mount Everest; "The Kiss," Kathryn Harrison's account of her affair with her father; "Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil," John Berendt's retelling of a Southern murder; and celebrity profiles in Sports Illustrated and Vanity Fair.

"Novelists are respected," Gutkind said, "but the literary heroes of today write creative nonfiction."

The origin of the term is debated, but in the 1970s, the National Endowment for the Arts helped bring it into academic parlance. The agency needed a word to categorize grant submissions of nonfiction that appropriated fictional elements such as dramatic tension, dialogue, shifting points of view and attention to detail and rhythm.

But the NEA was simply referring to a type of nonfiction that writers had been penning for years.

Nellie Bly wrote newspaper articles about her experience in a mental asylum and her trip around the world earlier this century. 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.

So did the trendy "New Journalism" writers of the 1960s and '70s. Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese and Norman Mailer were some of the reporters who pushed their craft to new limits by getting inside the inner world of their subjects and writing in a voice that reflected those subjects' thoughts and feelings.

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-1990s. Sales figures for such books proved that the reading public had an appetite for "true stories" -- particularly if they documented a gripping personal history. Writers readily fed the hunger, and still do. According to the service organization Associated Writing Programs, the number of colleges and universities offering creative nonfiction programs has shot up.

But use of the term "creative nonfiction" is still largely limited to universities and writing communities. A spokesperson in the corporate headquarters of Borders Books and Music said the bookstore chain does not have a section marked "creative nonfiction." Instead, it spreads its nonfiction offerings among more specific categories, like American history or newly released nonfiction. ("Angela's Ashes" is shelved under Irish history.)

Just before memoirs began taking over bookstore display windows, Gutkind launched his journal in 1993. He'd been teaching nonfiction writing at Pitt for about 20 years and had already written numerous creative nonfiction books, including one on childhood mental illness and one on life at Children's Hospital in Oakland, both of which were written while he was a paid writer-in-residence at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

Gutkind was concerned that serious nonfiction was being written almost exclusively by journalists for major magazines. There were no literary journals devoted to nonfiction and, hence, no place for the non-journalist writer to be creative with true stories.

So he took $3,000 he'd received from a social-service award and put out the first issue of his journal, with help from former students and contacts at The New Yorker.

Pitt, however, declined to be affiliated with Creative Nonfiction, and the journal -- which has a yearly operating budget of $125,000 -- remains unaffiliated today, even though noted writers such as John McPhee and Annie Dillard have appeared in it. It is unusual for a literary journal not to be linked to a university, which can provide resources and an association with a respected institution. (The University of Pittsburgh Press has agreed, however, to publish two double-issues.)

Gutkind says administrators were uninterested in lending support not so much because of concern over the journal's writing style -- a few years before Pitt began offering a master's degree in creative nonfiction -- but because of limited resources. That was the same reason given when Gutkind returned for university support a few years later, said Lynn Emanuel, current chair of Pitt's writing program

"It was an administrative thing and nothing else," Emanuel said, adding that the school was already supporting a handful of literary journals. "I think Lee felt bad about it, but there was nothing we could do."

Instead, Gutkind got support from outside Pittsburgh, notably at a 1993 Associated Writing Programs conference that presented a first-time panel discussion on creative nonfiction. It was heavily attended.

"I knew at that point that what I'd done was right, even if Pitt didn't support it," Gutkind said.

Goucher College in Baltimore lends support by co-sponsoring a summer writers' conference on creative nonfiction. But the relationship falls short of an official affiliation.

It wasn't just Pitt that held back support, though. At first, Gutkind had expected journalists to be major contributors to Creative Nonfiction, aching to escape standard journalistic style. But he received few submissions from the Fourth Estate, and to this day, he says, reporters remain the most vitriolic critics of creative nonfiction.

"I feel bad for newspaper reporters who aren't able to tell stories in the best way they can," Gutkind said. He added that objective journalism is "nonsense," with articles always shaped in some way by a reporter's values, so journalists should not cringe at the subjectivity of creative nonfiction.

But there are reporters who feel that creative nonfiction writers do not apply the rigorous standards of journalistic accuracy to their work, and sometimes exaggerate or play down the truth so that, in the end, it hardly resembles the truth at all. They point to examples of writers exaggerating, fabricating or changing the sequence of real events.

Berendt, for example, was criticized when it became known he embellished characters and changed the chronology of events in his best seller. Annie Dillard wrote of a tomcat in her memoir "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek" but later revealed that she never owned one. (Gutkind called her choice to write of the tomcat "unwise.")

Writers who tackle other people's stories creatively, rather than their own, at times go beyond what their subjects have verbalized and elaborate by using their own understanding of human nature. They move from the facts to "truth," truth being a deeper interpretation of facts.

Journalists, though, tend to stick to what is verifiable, and a subject's inner life is usually not. It may seem like semantic squabbling, but some reporters distance themselves from creative nonfiction by calling their more imaginative work "literary journalism." They believe that the word "journalism" lends an aura of believability, although Gutkind calls the term "snooty" due to the word "literary."

Jon Franklin, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter, briefly left newspapers to run the creative nonfiction program at the University of Oregon but quickly became disillusioned and returned to newspaper reporting.

"I consider what I do to be very creative, and I warrant it to be absolutely true," he wrote in an e-mail. "But so tarnished is the image of creative nonfiction I'd hate to be identified with it."

Roy Peter Clark, a reporter at the St. Petersburg Times who teaches writing at the Poynter Institute, a non-degree school for journalists in Florida, said there should be standards of accuracy applied to all nonfiction -- standards that center around the principle of not adding anything to a narrative that didn't happen.

Clark, who has written a number of serial narratives for newspapers, frowned upon the use of composite characters and the shifting of event sequences.

"There are ways to write around the failure of memory" and still remain truthful, he said.

With so much concern over the accuracy of creative nonfiction, why not bill such writing as fiction? Fiction, after all, does not have to be accurate -- only believable. If a subject's real name is unnecessary to a story, why not sell the story as fiction? Wouldn't "Angela's Ashes" have worked as a novel?

Gutkind says good nonfiction should, indeed, be interchangeable with fiction. But he says readers find heightened enjoyment in stories that are true -- and writers feel a need to write them. Alluding to the popularity of television programs like "The Jenny Jones Show" and "The Jerry Springer Show," where ordinary people recount their outrageous personal experiences, Gutkind offered a theory as to why more and more writers are penning memoirs.

"We're much more willing to bare our souls and not worry about personal embarrassment," he said. "And we don't sit and talk with each other much anymore," which leads people to unburden themselves over a keyboard.

But Gutkind would rather today's creative nonfiction writer tackle subjects other than the self. In this, he agrees with critics who, in addition to being concerned about accuracy, fret that creative nonfiction is mired in memoir -- often dark memoir. (A Chicago reporter recently asked Gutkind if there was a "rape genre.")

Rare is the creative nonfiction writer who conducts interviews and researches unfamiliar topics, critics say. Writers seem obsessed with mining the minutiae of their own lives -- which often come across as uninteresting to outside parties.

"My objection to most of the academic creative nonfiction work is not so much that it's not true but that it's not usually very informative," Franklin wrote.

In a widely discussed 1997 essay in Vanity Fair, cultural 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 Gutkind for driving the confessional writing bandwagon.

In an essay published in Creative Nonfiction, Gutkind responded: "This couldn't be the Lee Gutkind my students complain about, who forces them into endless journalistic immersion situations and makes them write essays and articles without once using the word 'I' in reference to themselves."

Yet essays with the author at the center form the meat of Gutkind's journal. In the recent issue "Emerging Women Writers II," for example, every piece details an experience of its author -- author meeting up with an ex-husband, author playing with her son, author in a younger day working as a prostitute. Gutkind admitted his journal has published only a half-dozen essays that consist of "meaty" nonfiction, in which the writer-reporter explores territory beyond himself.

"I regret that," he said. But he insisted that author-centered essays form the bulk of the 300-or-so unsolicited manuscripts his office receives each month. He said he's trying to solicit more journalistic pieces.

"If I was God, I'd put my students in a circus, in a hospital intensive-care unit, in a women's shelter," Gutkind said. "There's only so far you can go with the death of your grandmother or the abuse of your father."

Similarly, the editors of River Teeth, a new journal of "narrative nonfiction" out of Ashland University in Ohio, stated in their first issue that a good portion of their journal will feature the writing of "journalists who have been pushing at the edges of newsrooms for years now." An essay by Franklin appears in that issue.

To be sure, Gutkind, 55, has benefited from all the controversy over creative nonfiction. The Wolcott essay, he said, was "a wonderful thing to happen to us." Phone calls flooded the journal's Walnut Street office after it was published, and a surge of subscriptions followed, mostly from people with a connection to a university or a writing organization.

The journal now has 2,200 subscribers and a total circulation of 4,000. Gutkind, as editor, oversees two "nearly" full-time staff members, plus a handful of part-timers and unpaid interns.

Fees that colleges pay to use Creative Nonfiction as a text in their writing classes, along with subscription and advertising revenue and financial support from Goucher College, help the journal earn 45 percent of its operating budget.

The rest of the budget is supported by grants, some of which have come from the NEA, the Heinz Endowments, the Lila Wallace-Readers' Digest Fund and the Juliet Lea Hillman Simonds Foundation. Lea Simonds is a member of the journal's editorial board.

The journal also has led Duquesne University Press to publish a book series called Emerging Writers in Creative Nonfiction, with Gutkind as editor.

The next issue of Creative Nonfiction, "All Men," will appear in late January and will feature works by male writers. A future issue will focus on writers with roots in, or connections to, Pittsburgh.

As for Gutkind, he is in the midst of writing a business plan for the journal while continuing to raise money for it. He also speaks internationally about creative nonfiction. His Pitt classes and journal-related activities don't leave much time for the Shadyside resident and single father to write, although he rises at 4:30 a.m. daily to do so.

He is working on a book about fatherhood at the moment. But he no longer strives to write the Great American Novel.

"When you can dramatize a real life," he said, "why not write about real people?"

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