Neither fact nor fiction

The godfather of creative nonfiction talks about making the truth as compelling as a good novel.

By SARAH SHAPIRO
September 11, 2008 09:34
Studying.

studying 88. (photo credit: Courtesy)

 
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American author and editor Lee Gutkind, here recently to give a three-day seminar for Bar-Ilan University, is known in the world of letters as the godfather of creative nonfiction, a category of literature that was not formally recognized until he gave it a name. By gathering different types of nonfiction under one umbrella term in the early 1980s, Gutkind not only identified a previously amorphous literary genre, he also created a new conceptual framework. He expanded the boundaries of traditional nonfiction, thereby encouraging the growth of a distinct art form, then founded the literary journal, called simply Creative Nonfiction. Author most recently of Forever Fat, a memoir, and Almost Human: Making Robots Think, Gutkind is professor of English at the University of Pittsburgh, and has served for the past two years as Virginia Piper Distinguished Writer in Residence at Arizona State University. His magazine - from which a selection of pieces was recently published as the anthology In Fact - is the first journal of its kind to focus solely on contemporary writing that is neither plain fact nor plain fiction, nor "faction," Gutkind's nickname for any sort of ill-defined blending of the two. "Creative nonfiction writers," he said at the seminar, "are dedicated to the truth, and to telling the truth as accurately and informatively as traditional reportage. But this form provides the flexibility and freedom to manipulate reality using the tools and craft of fiction - shifting voices and viewpoints, the wordplay of poetry, the analytical skills of the essayist. We're trying to get the reader to listen to us, to make our writing as compelling as a good novel. "The challenge is to find the real story we want to tell. You have to ask yourself, 'Why am I taking the reader's time to tell him this?' We often start something and don't exactly know where we're going, but sooner or later, as we write, the reason we're telling the story - this story - becomes apparent, and that's when the real story begins. All that precedes this realization is usually preamble, and can be eliminated or embedded elsewhere in the essay. This is all part of the writer's discovery process. Few of us sit right down and get to the point because we don't know what the point is. Writing is discovery. That's the fun of it, the reward. Writing is a psychological journey. It reveals what you yourself didn't know you know." The assignment given the 25 participants in the seminar - one in a series of outreach programs run by the university's Shaindy Rudoff Graduate Program in Creative Writing to enrich the writing lives of both alumni and the wider public - was to write a 500-word piece recreating any scene they had personally experienced during the previous three days. Gutkind defined "scene" as "a story with a beginning and an end, in which something must happen, big or small." After each piece was read aloud, his first question before responding was to ask, "Is it a scene?" "Look at every piece of writing from the point of view of physical structure, as an architect looks at a building. What is the main drama? Every piece, whether an essay or a chapter in a book, is structured within an overall frame - or story structure - which limits you. Why one that limits you? Because you have to give enough information to go forward with the narrative, yet without swamping the reader with information he doesn't need. Narrow your focus. Narrow your frame. It's a camera's eye. Ask yourself: How do I create from a large event a very small incident that will communicate what I want to communicate? "The most obvious structure is chronological, but within your overall frame, you can defy chronology. You can start out near the peak of the story, plunging your reader into a glass house in such a way that he is immediately involved and compelled, or start in the middle or the end, moving back and forth in time." When asked the obvious question, Gutkind replied: "Why do I write? Because I want to change the world. Or change a small part of the world. I can't imagine any other reason. Why would anyone want to invest the time and effort in writing, if not to have an impact? I want people to benefit from the fact that I've learned something. I've suffered. I've survived. I'm sharing my trauma and my strength with others. I want to discover the real story, the one that's true to the facts and larger than the facts. The truth that's larger than truth. "Forget about writing for money. Yes, it happens to a lucky few, but the likelihood of getting rich from this profession is not enough to justify devoting your life to it." This is not Gutkind's first time in the country. Twenty-something years ago, he got a grant to write a book about Lebanon and decided to stop here first for a bus tour and to look around. "I spent one day in Jerusalem and a few in Haifa and Tel Aviv, hanging around with a bunch of Americans. In many ways I was very moved by that visit, but at the time I don't think I had a particularly good perspective on who I was as a Jew and as a writer. Now I see that I made a big mistake - I should have spent more time in Jerusalem. "On this trip, something has happened to me - a feeling of warmth and connection that for me is very rare. A bit of belonging. This may well have to do with the fact that before coming here, I roamed the old Jewish sections of both Prague and Krakow, where some of my relatives once lived, and toured two concentration camps, Terezin and Auschwitz. And I read the writers [Elie] Wiesel, [Amos] Oz, [Aharon] Appelfeld, among others, before launching my travels. Here in Israel, I visited the West Bank, Hebron, and followed the separation fence, learning about it from multiple perspectives. I shared the Sabbath with residents and had good conversations, sharing various political points of view. I went to Sabbath services for the first time in 20 years. All of this together was a life-changing experience." If he could put an overall frame around the story of his trip this time around, what message would Gutkind want to convey to writers of English in Israel? He smiles. "I'd say that the genres I'm aware of that are coming out of this country are fiction, poetry and traditional journalism. But this is an ideal environment, with all its colorful characters and their diversified backgrounds, for creative nonfiction. Writers living here have access to a virtually inexhaustible supply of important, dramatic, moving and communicable stories, stories that can enlighten the world."

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