Anyone wanting to know more about creative nonfiction, and how it works, can read the following.  As the critical introduction to my master's thesis, it is designed for academic readers and thus a bit formal, although I doggedly refused to adopt the stilted and jargon-filled, pseudo-intellectual style favored by much of academia.   (If you're impatient, go directly to the part about creative nonfiction, page 3, or for a brief answer, go to "What is Creative Nonfiction".) 
     In this intro you'll also find commentary on some of the pieces on my site, as well as a brief rant against the state of literary criticism in the academic world.

Introduction: Creative Nonfiction and Storytelling

     If I were to re-design heaven, I’d lose the streets-of-gold business and we would all sit around the fire telling stories.  (I realize this isn’t everyone’s heaven; Woody Allen says, I am at two with nature.)  The briefest comment on all the writers and works that echo in my head and my prose style would run to book length—Eudora Welty, Tobias Wolff, Mark Twain, Shakespeare, James Thurber, John McPhee, Molly Ivins, E. B. White, and Laurence Sterne are just a few—so I’ll mention several and then comment on just five significant or influential writers and their works.  These works cover a wide range of style and technique, of fiction and nonfiction—and one is creative nonfiction, although rarely recognized as such: Stephen Crane’s “The Open Boat”—yet each relates to my work.
     Why creative nonfiction?  Why storytelling?  I’m a journalist at heart.  Everywhere I turn are things worth seeing, stories worth passing on.  So I try to record them as the kinds of stories I like to read: accurate, economical, accessible, and enjoyable where the topic permits.  Reading often seems to be more of a chore than it needs to be.  I like to read a lively voice that reveals an active mind.  Profiles appeal to me in particular.  I like to capture character and get it on the page.
     On subject matter: it’s too bad sensationalism sells so well.  Other stories, often better ones, go untold in its shadow.  I like to fight against the cult of celebrity (although I don’t expect to win many battles).  We tend to glorify or idealize the “movers and shakers,” from Achilles to Frank Sinatra, implying that others are less worthy.  Those lesser stories attract me.
     As a developing writer, I find it important to keep my ear tuned to contemporary voices.  And at some point I also decided that inasmuch as everything we study in the English department was once written as contemporary literature for a contemporary audience, that therefore contemporary literature is my field.  It seems to me that studying literature can skew our conception of good writing, can turn it into something that used-to-be, something historical.1  However, my preference for the contemporary does not make me unappreciative or deaf to all other voices, so while I praise Tobias Wolff’s simple and direct style, I also appreciate Stephen Crane’s lyricism (and other qualities we’ll get to shortly), even if his style is verbose by today’s standards.  So some aspects of the works I discuss here may contradict ideals I cite in others, but better that than to discuss only a limited group of homogeneous writers.

     Probably it was the awards and critical praise for Melissa Fay Green’s 1991 work of nonfiction Praying for Sheetrock—which reads like a compelling novel—that first alerted me to the genre’s possibilities.  Then, everywhere I turned I found critically acclaimed nonfiction: Russell Baker’s Growing Up and then Good Times; Tobias Wolff’s This Boy’s Life;
E. B. White’s essays; Joseph Mitchell’s collected pieces in Up in the Old Hotel; Sebastian Junger’s The Perfect Storm; John McPhee’s shelfful of works; the works of Studs Terkel, Oliver Sacks, Calvin Trillin, Jonathan Raban, Ian Frazier.  (I never could see the great attraction in Hunter Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.)  Although I agree, in theory, that fiction is no less compelling than nonfiction, it seems that, in practice, true stories carry more weight.  More is at stake; no one ever says well, it’s only a story about nonfiction.
     1 And this seemed confirmed when my earliest creative writing instructor urged me repeatedly to lose the elevated, nineteenth-century diction that I associated with lit’ri-ture—words like alas and peril, and purplish, romantic description—an awful tendency I still have to fight against.  In the earliest version of “Monday, July 27th,” a late frost got the peach bloom, resulting in “nary a peach.”  I liked the sound of “nary,” and it is direct, keeping the phrase to three words; but my wife, a good reader, said “nary” had to go.  I revised it to “not a peach anywhere,” an extravagant four words, but I think she’s right.
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