Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Creative Nonfiction is No Longer Creative

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?


mr_subjunctive said...

I would propose that it's not that tastes have changed, it's that Sturgeon's Law ("Ninety percent of everything is crud.") means you get a distorted view of what tastes used to be.

Though if you would like to believe that we're all on the big downhill slide to mediocrity, illiteracy and cheap emotion and civilization is doomed, I won't try to stop you. I'm having a little despair for humanity myself these days. Mine's just not as writing-focused.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Mr.S--98% is crud. Maybe me included. Please don't try to stop me... it's all I have today. What medium are you despairing through?

mr_subjunctive said...

E-mail and personal journal, mostly. A few blog comments (here and elsewhere).

Found out on Friday that my dad is one of the people showing up at the town hall meetings to protest the health care thing (not exactly out of character, but I'd hoped, particularly since I and probably one of his other children currently have no health insurance). He is also bitter about the Iowa Supreme Court decision legalizing gay marriage being forced upon him. (And yes, he knows I'm gay, and knows that I've been with the same husband for seven years. He's just being a dick. Which is kind of out of character.)

Found out on Saturday that someone I knew and liked (not liked liked) during my freshman year of college had a massive, probably injury-related, personality change around 2000-01 which led to him losing his job and subsequently getting arrested for threatening to blow up an entire university in 2007, and he went to prison for it and everything, which is so unfair as to defy description of the unfairness.

Woke up on Sunday with my neck so painful I more or less couldn't move it.

I don't remember anything new and traumatic happening on Monday.

Tuesday, I heard about (can't bring myself to watch it) a woman at a town hall meeting with Sen. McCain in Arizona getting a standing ovation for demanding that illegal immigrants not be permitted to receive health care. (Meanwhile, Sen. McCain himself was booed for saying that he believes Obama respects the Constitution. Booed! At his own town hall!)

So yeah. People are basically shit, and it's been a bad few days. Though my neck might be better by tomorrow.


I think the 90% thing is (potentially) recursive. So, like, 90% of writers produce crud, but 10% of anything produced by any particular writer is non-crud. You included. Probably. Or not. I don't know.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Holy cow Mr. S! Where do I start? Want a beer? People are crap. I just found a resonably priced 70 acres in Wisconsin near the Mississippi river that has a stream running through it, and the perfect little valley to grow a wet meadow. Far from people, but not too far from big cities, too.

I don't want to start anything, but I don't trust our government one inch to run a universal healthcare program. They can't manage much, and we can't keep doubling our deficit. We need mass healthcare / insurance, but we need to super careful about this because it is so important, I feel like I'm getting steamrolled by the government to say yes.

The IA supreme court decision was way cool. No one should be a dick about that. Didn't the Lutheran church just agree to some progressive stuff too?

Go lay down, rest you neck, stop looking down (or up) at plants so much. Yeah. Right.

mr_subjunctive said...

Well, you know, people seem to think that Medicare does a good job. When we fund government programs and require oversight, they tend to work reasonably well. When we don't fund them and don't require any accountability, they tend not to work so well. (A lot of the problem at the moment is that we don't really know what kind of funding this plan would involve or how much accountability there would be. I think.) In fact, people are so happy with Medicare, which already is a government-run, single-payer, health insurance program, that 39% of respondents in a recent poll said they thought the government should stay out of Medicare.

Another 15% said they were not sure whether the government should stay out of Medicare.

Take that for your despairing of the human condition.

Also 6% of respondents in the same poll did not believe Hawaii to be one of the 50 states.

Sending an e-mail about other stuff.

Frances said...

The rant was on target, Benjamin, but the back and forth with the charming and wordy Mr. Sub was mesmerizing! I am trying to stick my toe in the water to submit articles to magazines, gardening types to be published. I don't know how you can take the rejection and abuse. Apparently your blog is an outlet for expression of the unfairness of it all. Have you ever sent articles, or has it always been poetry and stories? As for the quality of creative non fiction, there always needs to be that sliver of truth and personal experience in all writing, doesn't there? It makes me think of oral storytellers, a big deal here in TN and how the story is wrapped around the minds of the listeners. I feel writing should be like that as well.
Now on the health care debate: I am for health care for all, no matter your income level or level of health. It should not just be for the rich, or those so poor that they can qualify for medicaid. I agree that medicare works well, what is lacking is the monumental cost control through diligent ACCOUNTING! You may be aware that my husband and I are accountants. That is how you keep track of costs and expenses, back to Accounting 101. The size of the program and the effort to cut costs, paid trained real accountants are the first to be cut, for it is common knowledge that anyone can enter numbers into a computer, means all control is out the window.

We all have our soapboxes. Your blog is my favorite sound off spot. As if that makes you feel any better. I know ranting and anger is your schtick, and you do excel. Mr. Sub, you too. :-)

Benjamin Vogt said...

Frances-- Oh, you're too generous as always. I just submit poems and essays to literary and academic journals. Fooled around with essays to mags, but, eh, not so hot. Good luck with articles--I'm guessing lots of places want queries or filler for small departments (a good way to start). I'm always afraid my ranting will hurt me, that some writer friend or editor will find me annoying and disregard me or my work. But, I ain't famous, so who cares.

Frances said...

Thanks for the response, Benjamin. I have only contacted two places, Horticulture and Fine Gardening, magazine I subscribe to. Hort responded with a *we are not accepting non staff articles at this time* generic message, then added that she would read my blog and keep me in mind. Also she asked for an outline, not the whole story. I have no idea how to outline my writing, it isn't that sort. Do you know what they are wanting, just a few sentences as examples? I have the story written and might just use it as a post, but it is rather gruesome and not the usual happy sappy stuff my posts are made of.

Benjamin Vogt said...

Frances--An outline could simply mean a very brief summary, like a small paragraph. I'm guessing they don't mean a bullet list of points, but hey, it might not hurt to send both if they are equally brief. Brevity is certainly the name of the game when submitting work! Good luck! I thought about sending them work once but didn't think I'd fit.

Frances said...

While trying to figure out how to summarize my story, I said screw it and sent the whole 1000+ words. I had just heard back from FG about how they want things submitted, and the rules for doing so. I believe if they read it they will want it. But a writer always has to believe that, don't they? We'll see what happens. If they don't want it, I will make a blog post of it. :-)