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
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.