Feb 24, 2011

NO Me Versus No, ME: Journalism and Creative Nonfiction

This past November I was invited to speak at the NonfictionNow Conference at the University of Iowa. The topic was journalism versus creative nonfiction and whether or not to include the self. My background is in traditional daily journalism (NO Me), but my best piece of writing is probably my story about egg donation which was written in first-person (No, ME).

Here are the thoughts I shared that day:

How many of you self-identify as journalists?
How many of you identify as creative nonfiction writers?
How many of you aren’t sure where you fall?

Some definitions might help --- sometimes I feel like we can’t talk to each other because we don’t know what the other means when they say creative nonfiction vs. literary journalism.

"'Creative nonfiction' precisely describes what the form is all about. The word 'creative' refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting… using literary techniques like scene, dialogue, and description, while allowing the personal point of view and voice rather than maintaining the sham of objectivity." -Lee Gutkind, the godfather of creative nonfiction.

“a form of storytelling as old as the telling of stories. The genre recognizes both the inherent power of the real and the deep resonance of the literary. It is a form that allows a writer both to narrate facts and to search for truth, blending the empirical eye of the reporter with the moral vision -- the I -- of the novelist.” -Lauren Kessler, narrative nonfiction author and director of the graduate program in literary nonfiction journalism at the University of Oregon.

To me, these definitions sound more similar than distinct. To be honest, I think what we do as literary nonfiction journalists and creative nonfiction writers is essentially the same.

I don’t think one is more powerful, or more valid, or more worthy.

A thoroughly researched, thoughtfully written memoir has the potential to be better work of a journalism than a third-person nonfiction book that is sloppily written and poorly researched … And vice versa.

It doesn’t have to be one or the other. The categorization, in my opinion, has more to do with how the writer prefers to be identified or what shelf her work going to sit on in Barnes & Noble or how it’s being sold to a general audience --- and that general audience really doesn’t care about the nit-picky details of whether it’s called literary nonfiction. Creative nonfiction. Factual fiction.

What people care about is whether it’s TRUE. As a reader, I just don’t want to be lied to. I don’t want to be told that I’m reading a factual story and find out later that the author has intentionally twisted the truth or omitted relevant details. As long as you’re honest with what you are doing ---- if it’s written from memory that can’t be substantiated, fine. If you’re approximating the dialogue/scenes, OK. Just say so. I just want things to be true to the best of the writer's knowledge, that the writer hasn’t made things up purposefully.

But people do make things up in both creative nonfiction and journalism. There are lots of notorious cases. When it’s intentionally fictionalized and you’re trying to pass it off as nonfiction, it’s just wrong.

What bothers me about journalists is that we stand with our chests puffed out and say we just deal in cold hard facts and telling the truth. We dismiss any further discussion on how much actual truth comes out of what we do.

I didn’t contemplate this in any significant way until I liberated myself from the old school rules of journalism and wrote my first, first-person piece. As I was writing, I came to a point where I had to explain my motivations – and I thought to myself, why did I do that?

I wrote the first idea that came to my head. But it felt off. I tried on another explanation but that didn’t ring true either. I realized I couldn’t explain my actions. It took weeks of contemplation until I’d written myself into a place where I finally understood my true motivation.

And then it dawned on me how ridiculous is it that I’ve been conducting interviews for years asking questions like, “What motivated you to do X?” And I’d give the subject all of 30 seconds to respond.

As writers, we spend a lot of time in our heads. We reflect. We mull. We question ourselves (incessantly at times).

The average person doesn’t dig that deeply into the psyche.

So when we as journalists ask a person “Why did you do that?” We may be asking her to think in a way that she rarely thinks. And while the answer may not be intentionally false, it may not be entirely true either.


Because I find writing about other people more interesting than writing about myself, I returned to the No Me camp. It wasn’t easy though. I had the nagging feeling that what I was doing as a journalist was fraught because it seemed impossible to gather much less tell the complete truth.

But that doesn’t mean that I’m going to stop trying to tell true stories.

Because we live in a culture where we are inundated with facts and soundbytes that are often devoid of insight, we need creative nonfiction / literary journalism whatever the heck you want to call it, to give context to information and human experience.

We need this type of storytelling (Me, or No Me) because it helps us all make sense of the world.

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