I've spent years sending my prose work to literary journals, almost two decades sending poetry. Here's what I've come to believe are the expectations of literary journals (and average readers) when it comes to creative nonfiction:
1) Creative nonfiction must read like fiction. This means it must have a clear beginning and end, a narrative arc, a denouement or peak moment of energy / tension, some reflection, and blatant emotion.
2) By emotion I mean that the market / expectations dictate sensationalism--to a degree. A degree which I, personally, can't and won't deliver in less than 5,000 words. Nonfiction seems to be a genre that is shrinking into quasi confessionalism, especially if it's from a unique or under-represented cultural / social / economic perspective. What's more, I think cnf also has to be super neat and super tidy because it is true--or this neatness will in the least validate any possible exaggeration or hazy memory.
3) I get the distinct sense that very few journals, and obviously fewer readers, want to see lyrical meditation or reflection, let alone any sense of the "poetic" moments in life. I've had journals tell me my writing tells too much, but that's the only stuff that gets accepted, too (seriously). I find MUCH more value in prose that involves the reader--maybe not through showing--but through a lyrical tightness and metaphorical leap more common to poetry. Through silence. Through pensive reflection. Even my better writing students have recognized this on their own.
4) If creative nonfiction is more than narrative--and most folks will say that's the case--where are the non-narrative journals? Where are the experiential pieces? Where is a literature that goes beyond "as told to" story? I'm thinking about the many lost oral traditions. I'm thinking about story as a rich weave of narrative, metaphor, imagery, silence, and negative space. Too much nonfiction leaves little to the imagination, and as a result too little to the meaningful experience of the reader. A good story is not enough, I believe, yet it appears to be plenty at the moment. Maybe this is why we feel disconnected.
5) So it would seem I'm saying, "Hey, I write in a hybrid style, mixing genres and approaches, publish me." Well, maybe. But what I really want to say is where is true creative nonfiction? Where are the subgenres flirting with each other within creative nonfiction? What happened to the creative? What happened to the excitement of learning / discovering in prose, seeing the world through multiple lenses at once--and as a result, seeing much fuller and farther? Maybe I'm simply asking this: what happened to our closeness with a diverse world, our wonder? Why has our writing become so formulaic, expected, one dimensional, and distilled? Has it?
Anyone out there?