Creative Nonfiction 6 Comments

Recently I read this 20,000 word essay by the late David Foster Wallace. It’s called “Shipping Out: On the (nearly lethal) comforts of a luxury cruise” and it was published in Harper’s Magazine in 1996. I’m thinking man this is some good writing and I’m also thinking it doesn’t look that hard to do but then a few jiffies after this thought I am reintroduced to that anchor-like part of my mind that is sensible and serious, and it says of course it’s hard to do, otherwise everyone would be doing it, maybe even you, although I doubt it because you never get around to doing anything except following link after link on that dang computer of yours printing off 20,000 word essays and then reading and re-reading them with a pen to underline your favourite sentences and obscure words you don’t know and won’t even be bothered looking up in the dictionary right next to you.

This kind of piece by Foster Wallace is creative nonfiction. It is factual, and it is told with artistic nous. Creative nonfiction is quite commonly attempted, and sometimes it is better than bad, although the gurus of this sort of writing are few and far between. There are melancholic masters like Sebald and trauma-inducing tellers like Augusten Burroughs and there are harebrained, drug-veined gonzo purveyors like Thompson and even local Australian writers like Giggs and Law have published creative nonfiction pieces that are as enjoyable a read as the best chapter in that novel you’re reading now. But it is still that magical land, that sort of limbo dimension between fact and fiction. A lot of writers are wary of it without being able to pinpoint why, which is silly and stupid, as readers love and cry out for this type of writing.

All you scribblers out there: why so scared, huh?

  • maddie

    Is it because you can hide yourself behind characters in fiction? And when writing something that is creative non-fiction it is harder to hide yourself?

  • Johannes Jakob

    I think there’s also huge potential for things that blur the line a whole lot more between fiction/non-fiction. Creative non-fiction has come to mean, almost exclusively, non-fiction written like fiction, or with fiction devices, or however you want to slice it. Historical fiction, and even alternate history stuff, all seems to be falling a step short in terms of really blurring the line between the two. I want more stories where some bits are elaborately researched and some bits are elaborately made up and I can’t really tell which is which, something to really throw me as a reader out of familiar perspectives, narratives etc etc.

  • SamC

    The question is Maddie Crofts, what are you trying to hide?

    You may have something there though – with fiction, the author can always fall back to the ‘I made the whole thing up from the magical imagination playland in my head and therefore you can’t get to me coz I’m a-hiding’.

    I reckon you’re right Jojo – there is a spectrum of possibility for writing that doesn’t stand firmly in either camp, but hops to and from fiction and non-fiction. Can you think of anybody off the top of your head that does it well? Italo Calvino’s Invisible Cities is sorta blurring the lines – wonderful word-paintings of cities that are dream-like in one perspective, but also based on real-world places at the same time. But still, I suppose at its heart is is basically following and maintaining what we know as fiction.

  • Johannes Jakob

    I haven’t read Calvino, but from what I know about him I think you’re right – it’s a step into that sort of direction, but it’s nowhere near as far as it could go. Dropping his name in two different comments, but thinking again of Daniel Kehlmann here. ‘Kaminksi’ is about a fictional artist as if he’s existing in the real art world.

    I’m currently reading his ‘Die Vermessung der Welt,’ which chronicles a made up mathematician and also the Humboldt brothers, the namesakes of the Berlin University. One of them travels the globe, doing 1800s science, some of which seems made up, some of which doesn’t. There is some faintly magic realist stuff as well? I don’t know if Humboldt really travelled, if the two of them were actually brothers or just one guy. Cousins? I don’t want to wikipedia it until I’ve finished the book, maybe not even then.

    This is the truth mongering I want, where some is clearly true, some clearly false, and a lot I’m not sure about. But I’d also like maybe a personal element? Fake memoirs excite me in all sorts of ways (thinking also a bit of Tom Cho’s ‘Look Who’s Morphing’), and I think if you get all those layers of truth and fiction mixed up, you can do something really great. If I am uncertain (but not frustrated) while reading, that is great for me.

  • George

    ‘Creative nonfiction’ sounds to me like ‘post-post-modernism’ – a term or classification that seems important but lacks any real potential. I have legitimate reasons for believing this. The main one is that the split between fiction and nonfiction does not make much sense outside an industry context. The difference between fiction and nonfiction is not the same as that between fable and fact, false and true – it is a sliding scale used by booksellers to market their products. Here ‘creative nonfiction’ is a new way of classifying things, not a new way of doing things. Writing that blurs the lines between reality and fantasy is good writing whichever way you classify it. Naming this kind of writing ‘creative nonfiction’ does not emancipate writers – it just creates a new genre waiting to be filled with trash and treasure; to roughly the same proportion as every other genre is filled with trash and treasure.

  • Adolfo Aranjuez

    I agree with George. When people ask me what I write, I’m always burdened by the need to select one or more of the labels used (by the industry?) to categorise writing. But I’m more inclined to believe that there can be more than one label applicable to a piece of writing (as with anything else). Though labels can be empowering (to organise one’s thoughts, clarify the audience, direct one’s creative flow, etc.), they can equally be imprisoning. And writers should take care not to let these guiding/assisting labels become the be-all and end-all (excuse the cliche) of writing. I guess what I’m trying to say is that people should just write. Then they can worry about how their writing might be classified later on — or not at all.

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