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.)