W3 Wise Words on Writing

W3 is a monthly newsletter for writers on a variety of topics from technique to the psychology of writing. It appears by the 15th of each month. More information is available from www.wisewordsonwriting.com

Monday, May 16, 2005

No 24. The Godfather of Creative Non Fiction

Lee Gutkind (Goodkind) ambled into the Geneva mansion, the current home of the local press club, with a beige paper cup of coffee in his hand. In Switzerland coffee is normally drunk in cafés but seldom carried around. However, Gutkind was there to lead a one-day workshop in Creative Nonfiction (CNF) not to follow local coffee-drinking customs.

Some call CNF a genre, but Gutkind considers it a movement. When he started CNF at the University of Pittsburgh in 1973 where he teaches, the powers-that-be did not consider it worthy of much more than a course. Now some thirty years later not only does Gutkind publish a CNF magazine with a circulation of 25,000, universities as far away as Australia are offering degrees in CNF. Gutkind has authored several CNF books.

As a CNF writer he spent four years with an organ transplant team, lived and worked with baseball umpires and been a circus clown. It is a life that writers stuck in routine jobs can only dream of.

Gutkind and CNF are not without critics. James Wolcott in VANITY FAIR damned the format as "confessional writing" and its proponents as "navel gazers." It was Wolcott who first called Gutkind the Godfather of CNF, meant derogatorily, but Gutkind adapted the title as a badge. It did not hurt the development of the format to have the term Creative Nonfiction adopted by the US National Endowment of the Arts.

Gutkind divides CNF into two types: Personal experience and emersion journalism. Gutkind defines CNF emersion journalism, where the writer "captures other people's lives or places" by spending large blocks of time with the subject. It is extremely marketable.

CNF does not create untruths. CNF involves imaginative ways to present the truth. There is no CNF police to stomp out untruths, but unlike journalists who must be objective, the CNF writer can be subjective. "The concept of trust and direction of accuracy doesn't stop us from interjecting ourselves into the story," Gutkind says.

CNF writers use the same techniques as fiction writers do. Scenes are the building blocks throughout the entire work. Gutkind was quick to remind the writers that "a scene is where something happens."

Scenes use dialogue that move the story forward. Gutkind does not work with a tape recorder because he feels it hampers spontaneity, but uses his memory. The second he leaves his subject he writes down as much as he can remember. He often shows his last draft to his subjects to make sure he was accurate. Almost always they accept what he has written with the exception of one person who asked that the swear words be removed so he could show the piece to his mother who didn't know he swore. Gutkind did.

Scenes use description. Gutkind uses the word "specificity" and just like fiction writing is stronger when someone says "yellow roses" versus "flowers". CNF benefits from this type of detail.

Scenes must have action or tension. Gutkind considers that CNF writers cannot be boring. He tells CNF writers that they must, "manipulate, seduce, twist readers around your finger to make them listen."

Gutkind draws a difference between CNF and straight journalism which often by necessity of space need to be brief. CNF allows a writer to be more expansive and he cited that a number of his CNF students who have worked as journalists who in the beginning had trouble producing 12+ page assignments.

Gutkind summarizes that "Creative nonfiction writers visualize a world in three multi-colored, multi-conflicting dimensions." In that aspect they are like fiction writers, but instead of plumbing the depths of their own minds, they base their work on what they have witnessed.


Here are two samples from his FOREVER FAT.

Example 1
I was in the office of a dermatologist who, while tearing into the plantar's wart on my right foot, glanced curiously up at my chest. "Wait," she murmured, "Melanoma."

At the time, I did not know precisely what melanoma was, but I knew the word to which it was most associated: cancer. She tenderly touched the mole she had spotted as the likely suspect and commented: "I don't think this is malignant, but you need to have it removed immediately." She paused and continued in a hushed voice. "Not that I want to worry you." I braced myself for what was coming next. "But three weeks from now, in a worst-case scenario, you could be dead."

I smiled bravely. "I thought you didn't want to worry me. "

Notice the dialogue. It is short and realistic. The details are tight. The dermatologist wasn't simply removing the wart she was "tearing" into it. The circumstances certainly create tension.

Example 2
"My father, an egg-shaped, balding man of eighty-three, was struggling with a corrugated cardboard boy he had been lugging from the car into the terminal. Without asking, Richard decided to help. He snatched the box from my father's hand and flung it up over his shoulder-and then he almost toppled over backwards. 'What's in this?' he asked. My father didn't answer."

Notice the father's description. He is easy to visualize. We know we are in a terminal so in one word we can see the scene. We know exactly what the box looks like. It is neither a Bonwit Teller box nor a jewelry box, but a corrugated cardboard box. Gutkind doesn't need to tell us that it is heavy. He shows us because his father is lugging it, not swinging it. He reinforces the heaviness when Richard almost topples over from the weight. The father not answering builds tension. If we wrote a fiction scene, we could have built it exactly that way, except for on thing. This happened.

EXERCISEThink of an incident that you witnessed, a mother hitting a child in a supermarket, a group of kids on a plane ride, whatever struck you strongly and write up the scene as accurately as possible using dialogue, description and tension. You can be subjective, but keep your involvement more as an observer.
Write a personal experience that touched you using CNF techniques.

NOTESTo order Gutkind's Creative Non Fiction magazine: www.creativenonfiction.org. His books are available on www.amazon.com.


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