Monday, May 05, 2008
Defining Creative Non-fiction
In an interview Renee Hansen, Editor, South Loop Review, America’s leading creative non-fiction magazine talks about her life and works
What are the ideas behind your magazine?
South Loop Review publishes primarily creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is exactly that—it’s writing about the nonfiction world in a creative way. Creative Nonfiction offers a document of the world from a personal perspective. It engages the audience in personal, political and artistic truths all at once. A good creative nonfiction writer will be able to engage his/her audience in the story behind the event. That is to say, a newspaper might report on a fire, but a creative nonfiction writer will tell about the experience—what was it like to go through that fire, what does the writer know about life before and after the fire?
The South Loop Review, the journal which I edit, looks for writing where you can feel the voice and life of the author behind it. The writers of creative nonfiction are journalists in one way—they bring an event to the attention of the world—but more than that they are poets. In this sense, the creative nonfiction writer knows about language, word choice, metaphors, and theme. In a way, the “real” story is difficult to tell and grasp. The real effects and resonances of a story are deeply hidden, and The South Loop Review looks for the writer who is on that journey of discovery-- the writer who is trying to seize the real meaning of our lives. To that degree, writing is more about the journey. Some writers are able present that journey in the most artful way-- through extraordinary cadence, and word choice. I am a fan of James Agee because of his cadence, his writing is almost like a meditation, you need to follow it for a long time, and suddenly it comes over you, everything he was trying to get to. I am also a fan of Bharati Mukherjee, her word choices are always juxtapositions, a light image against dark. She is extremely poetic, she’s always leading you towards a blending of the familiar with the strange.
As editor of the South Loop Review I think that the language and art and sound of a story is more important than the fact that the story happened. The fact that it happened will be reported and catalogued. What is more important than the event, is the way the event resonated, the effect upon the individual, and the way it is being told. For this reason The South Loop Review looks for writers who have a strong voice. The voice is both the texture and the container. There can be a static nature to the voice, or it can feel powerful and pulsing; there can be ornateness or sparseness; the voice can sound colloquial or practiced. It’s important that the writer knows her voice, and uses it, experiments with it, allows it to move freely, and in the end brings us to whatever point or pointlessness she wanted us to see.
While making editorial decisions, what do you look for in a write-up?
I think it’s unusual that more writers don’t think of their voice as product. That’s what it is, it is what they produce, what emerges, what in the end, they are left with. It is an organic product. Good storytellers know how to captivate an audience and they know the techniques of their craft. Creative nonfiction writers employ literary elements such as the use of description, setting, characters, language, and repetition of certain themes. My brother is a good storyteller and he tells me he practices the story in his head, as he’s driving in the car. By the time he gets to the family gathering, he’s set up his story-- he has his beginning and his points of repetition. This is only my brother—a very good amateur story teller. Every good, professional storyteller and writers has this awareness. They are masters at what they do. I think Jamaica Kincaid is a master at what she does. Thomas Mann is a master at what he does. Naomi Shihab Nye is master at what she does. I think good writers know their effect. For instance, Jamaica Kincaid has a distinctive cadence. Her sentences, and therefore the meaning of the piece, is always flipping back on itself. This is seen in “Biography of a Dress” when she writes, “…that my mother saw, a picture on an almanac advertising a particular fine and scented soap (a soap she could not afford to buy then, but I can now), and this picture of this girl wearing this yellow dress and smocking on the front of the bodice created in my mother a desire to have a daughter who looked like that or perhaps created the desire in my mother to try and make the daughter she already had look like that. I do not know now, and did not know then, And who was that girl really?”
When looking at a submission I look to see if the writing has held up from beginning to end. Oftentimes writers know what they want to say in the beginning, then lose their way. This is not to say that one needs a pointed ending. In fact, some endings are too much to the point, too contrived and obvious. But the reader needs to know the path, and the sight they are being led to. If I had advice for authors first sending out their material, it would be to send out a shorter piece, as short as five pages, but a piece that holds up from beginning to end. Another thing I would advise writers to do is to experiment with language and form until they feel an authentic sense of self on the page.
How Important do you think it is for a writer to know her audience/reader?
Toni Morrison said that when she sat down to write The Bluest Eye, she wrote the book that didn’t exist for herself-- the book she had always wanted to read. I think most writers write for themselves. They are trying to get to a sense of discover, or a beauty, or a point of meditation, they are trying to unwrap the rubric, and to find something in the writing; I think for each writer the reason is slightly different, but when they sit down they are on the path, trying to get to that essence of self that is both kernel and galaxy, both small, and glacial.
That being said, I think the second audience, that of the reading public looms large in the back of each writer’s mind. Every published writer wishes for the same: to bring forth the private into the public. Though J.D. Salinger is famously reclusive as an author, he has said that he has never written a word that he could not imagine in print.
I think it’s very important for the writer to have an audience in mind. To this end I think writers are both cynical and hopeful. They write of loss, or death, the fallacies of institutions, the disintegration of culture… and yet they hope for that audience, the audience who might become more humane or at least knowledgeable for having read this work.
Robert Root and Michael Steinberg, in their introduction to creative nonfiction, call creative nonfiction a “transactional” form of writing, that is to say, the writer inhabits and experiences the work. I think somewhere in the writing process there is the transactional experience, mixed with the real life notion of making it all understandable.
The South Loop Review looks for for writers who are developing new voices. I like the genre crossing that is going on now in Creative Nonfiction. The illustrated memoir is an example of this—for instance Persepolis by Marjane Satrapi provides a glimpse into revolutionary Iran by combining image with writing.
Sir V.S. Naipaul has talked about the separation of the man (the person who writes) and the writer. How do you feel about this issue?
I think Sir Naipaul intimated, in his acceptance of the Nobel Prize in literature, that it is our innermost self that we secret away; we work in solitude, and in this solitude we experience the epiphany. If I may attempt to paraphrase Sir Naipaul—it is this moment of inspiration that in itself creates the mystery of creative writing. I think he would say that other forms of writing share an incompleteness, in that they have not been produced from the revelatory moment. Sir Naipaul believes that the creation of the piece is somewhat of a mystery to the writer herself, and I agree with him there. But he further concludes that we live the rest of our lives apart from this experience—this mystery. In this sense he thinks there is a separation of the man from “the man as writer.” If I interpret this correctly, then I would have to disagree. While I think the act of creation is a mystery, I don’t think it is sacred to only some, or sacred only some of the time—it is sacred to all, and for all time. I think everyone lives creative, and, at points, inspired lives-- everyone is a mystery to themselves. We pass by epiphanies every day of our lives. There are many people in our lives who bring these epiphanies forward every day, and they will tell you about it in everyday conversation. I think that mystery and wonder and inspiration are a part of everyday life. It is the writer’s job to recognize these moments of wonder and mystery, and to not live separately from them.
However, I do think some writers may think one way, and then write another, and it is this diaspora of the mind can lead to a tortured existence. I think it is very western to mythologize the mystical moment, and to back away from it. Some are willing to see a separation of the experience of humanity from the creative process, and I think it is this thinking that leads to the acceptance of anti-semitism, racism, sexism and homophobia in the canon of writing—as if thought and human kindness were somehow outside of the creative mystery. I think being an artist is the practice of opening up oneself to the world. It’s a belief in the connectedness of things. Being an artist should seep into everyday existence. All one has to do is walk through the stalls of any market in any country, or start talking to the next passerby who waves hello, to experience the artfulness of life.
Do you think the world has become a dangerous place in which to live?
Yes, it is dangerous, no doubt. So many people have separated themselves from art and from god-- and by this I mean the godliness that is already in us as individuals. I think fundamentalist belief is the antithesis of belief in the individual. I am not alluding here to what is happening in other countries but to what is happening in my own country, the United States. The danger to free thought is fundamentalism. Fundamental beliefs are prescribed codes of behavior which comes from ignorant and overzealous community and religious leaders. It is dangerous when that code is prescribed with zero tolerance. We see inane practice of zero tolerance everywhere in the United States—in our schools, in our criminal justice system, in our approach to diplomacy. Because of zero tolerance we have an overflow in our jails, a belief that security and police departments will solve the issue of why we murder each other, a paranoia and ignorance of those outside our borders, and the insanely overreaching Patriot Act . We have stopped thinking for ourselves. It is no mystery how George W. Bush became elected president-- he epitomizes this practice.
Our leaders in journalism and media, who used to be the sentries of thought, have sold themselves out to the cheapest among us—those whose veracity of life depends upon the sensationalized story of someone else’s downfall— that of Michael Jackson or Britney Spears, for example.
I think being an editor, and being a professor at Columbia College Chicago, an arts and communication school, is the best place for me to be right now. I know it is old fashioned and very pre-post-modern to say, but I think most people create art in hopes of making a difference. Many writers wish to engage in, and shape, culture. When I first started reading for the South Loop Review I thought it was an amazing experience. All these people writing because they have something wondrous to show us. Some of the pages of writing actually dazzled me; It was like discovering the ocean for the very first time.