Wednesday, November 4, 2009

On the Definition of Creative Non-Fiction

It’s weird how annoying and self-satisfied writers become when they’re asked to define creative non-fiction. They don’t like labels, they say. Or: “It crosses-genres. You can’t pin it down.” I remember when an esteemed creative non-fiction writer was interviewed at my graduate school. He looked appalled by the question and then said, “It can be whatever you want it to be.” He turned out to be a favorite mentor and I'm always amazed by his writing.

As a gay writer, I can’t help but see it as our ethical responsibility to name and define things. If we don’t, the world defines it for us, and may use it as a tool for oppression. Take Proposition 8. People can congratulate themselves as much as they want on their refusal to define their sexuality, that their “sexuality is fluid.” But California voters named a group of people as homosexual. Which essentially meant to them you do not deserve equal rights therefore you are nothing more than dead to us. For any queer person to believe they can transcend a label is at once foolhardy, and cruel to those who suffer psychic and physical harm from such mandates.

“I don’t know what creative non-fiction is,” my students ask on the first day of class. I will not have them jot down on a piece of paper what they think it may be. And then share their ideas. I always hated as a student being asked to offer something that the teacher already thought she knew. It felt weirdly condescending—just tell me, jerk, I always want to say. This isn’t to say I don’t allow for classroom discussion, but that I offer them something first. It's the generous thing to do.

And then I encourage them to challenge me and my definition. This is scary for them, but benign threats always work—tell them that their grade depends partly on being contentious with tact—they’ll do it.

Here’s my definition:

I tell them they need to break up the word. Creative. Non-Fiction.

Non-Fiction=The Real=Autobiographical Experience and/or Texts and/or History=”The Content” of the Piece

For the “Creative” aspect of the definition, they need to ask the question, “Where would the author locate his artistry in the piece?”, “What special formal strategies does she employ?” (ie point-of-view, diction, organization, etc.”)

“That’s why,” I say, “Journalism and diary writing cannot be creative non-fiction. There’s nothing inherently special about its formal strategies. It’s simply meant to convey. To an audience. Or to oneself. It’s not meant to convey in a way that is special or artistic.”

Of course, there are an infinite number of ways to deconstruct this definition. (Even though I think it's pretty good.)

The endless battles about this definition as a result of that can go on and on.

But it offers a starting point rather than simply raising your hands in the air, and offering nothing except to claim no one can pin it down, that it transgresses boundaries and refuses to be defined. Of course, it refuses to be defined; that’s why we’ve become writers, to fumble our way towards a useless, necessary naming.

If your class should look at Jamaica Kincaid’s “My Brother,” your can collectively name her autobiographical experiences dealing with HIV-impacted, drug-addicted brother as the Non-Fiction. And then collectively discover the creative aspects, “Where would Jamaica Kincaid locate her artistry?” (ie the consistently elongated sentences which echo offer one another, the identification of repeated words that accumulate in number and meanings, the successful overdetermination to use flattened syntax.)

[Whatever you do, don’t assign Kincaid’s “Girl.” It’s an insult to Literature to read the most trite and unchallenging piece by one of our greatest living authors.]

If your class should look at say David Shields’ “Fear of a Black Planet,” your class can name his racial analysis of the Seattle Supersonics’ 1994-1995 Season. And then collectively discover the creative aspects, “Where would Shields locate his artistry?” (ie the artificial organization of the diary over time, the deft obsessive delineation of time to provide a sense of increased self-awareness.)


  1. I disagree! About "Girl." It's an instruction manual. I always find it resonates with females. And I've had some unusual "creative nonfiction" pieces written in response, in terms of how they were instructed to be feminine.
    But I like your definition of creative non-fiction.

  2. For college students--many of whom, unfortunately and sadly, can't write their fuckin' way out of a wet paper bag and, moreover,don't give a shit about such an endeavor anyway--your definition may work well: creative. nonfiction. That works as a fundamental defintion, I suppose, although one could spend a couple two-three hours beating that dichotomous explanation to death.

    But, as a writer of creative non-fiction myself, I pose this question to you: what happens when the "creative" finger-humps the "nonfiction?" Surely the manifestation of "creative" isn't just limited to form and structure. Any ry conversation about what creative nonfiction is--and can I just say that on some really important level, I find it ridiculous (for reasons I've yet to define) that such a conversation needs to be had--should speak very directly to the ways in which the "creative" gets down and dirty and nasty--and often elegantly--with the so-called "real."

    Any other conversations about the genre that don't honor the topic this way are a waste of motherfuckin' time.

    Professor Afro

  3. It seems to me the point of nonfiction isn't to tie it down to a definition. What's great is the rift between the two terms. I never get tired of considering what creative nonfiction is or could be. As Prof Afro says, the finger-humping of the two terms is where the excitement is. I can talk about what makes fiction, what makes poetry, what makes craft and what makes truth.Can you make truth? Plato says no. I say you can make meaning.

  4. Nicole,

    If the point of CNF is not to tie it down (even just a little bit even if to release again), then why even give it a name? Because you're a best friend, I can say this: your treatment of the term seems to be nothing more than a desire on your part to glibly (or happily in an eerie way) elasticize the word to mean nothing.

    And particularly in the classroom: do you not think there might be some danger in making it seem as if anything goes. I love your microlecture. Might even claim it's my own in the classroom. But I feel that when students begin with such an all-expansive definition, (or if you openly told them this at the start) trouble arises/will arise.

    Professor Afro,

    I realize the dichotomy is a false one. But I feel as teachers, we often feel the need to exhibit our own sophistication, skipping over the obvious: the fact that there is a dichotomy in the term. Our students need to realize where all the silliness is coming from.

    Maybe I'm just a curmudgeon. I still believe that composition students should be taught the five paragraph essay. And I mean that in all seriousness.

  5. Dear "friend,"
    I didn't say anything goes. I said the discussion is the point. I AGREE that craft is the thing but the idea of "the real" as nonfiction and "creative" as somehow self-explanatory is boring.

  6. Nicole,

    No wonder you're my friend: you appropriately shame me when I write something pretty dumb. I love you. Good night.

  7. I think we can have the discussion Nicole talks about and still put up a preliminary definition, as Steve has done. Steve's definition leaves a lot of room for experimentation and creative exploration, to my mind. Oh, and Steve, consider yourself blogged:

  8. As a writer of creative nonfiction, the only time I even care at all about the definition is when someone else doesn't know what it is. At which point Steve's definition is a far more understandable and useful definition than anything involving finger-humping. If other writers of the genre want to expound on the finger-humping between creative and nonfiction, that's fine, but I am bored of that discussion, having been to the AWP conference too many times. -M.M.

  9. "I pose this question to you: what happens when the 'creative' finger humps the 'nonfiction?'"

    I say such finger humping is problematic if performed only in service of some kind of self-aggrandized pleasure.

    But the image is, rightly, neccessarily, a more reflexive, more self-referential one.

    If the finger humping brings two opposing images, ideas or moral ambiguities (truth and invention alongside one another: manipulated truth) into artistically generative self-communion, then YES. YES all the way.

    How to define this in classroom terms that push developing writers to use the form to realize themselves better on the page is a separate question. ~Lindsey

  10. What exactly is your definition of "journalism", then, if it is something automatically excluded from the realm of creative non-fiction? Or, more to the point, what is it about journalism's formal strategies that makes you think it "doesn't convey in a way that is special or artistic"?

  11. I agree that we need to admit the wide spectrum of possiblity to our categories, or definitions. And yet. One of my biggest fears is that I will, as a modern academic, be consigned to that most abhorrent realm of Dante's Inferno: the ambivalent non-commiters who are forever doomed to march in an eternal circle around the ante-inferno carrying blank banners. I'd rather suffer a purgatorial punishment for being committed to a mistaken self-definition. Naturally, there is the third option, but given door #1 or door #2, I'd rather err on the side of the courage to commit (even though in practice I seldom do).