Creative nonfiction: the craft of writing

If you think ‘creative nonfiction’ is an oxymoron, then can I suggest that you read John McPhee’s wonderful essay in the New Yorker on the craft of writing? Here’s a snippet:

Creative nonfiction is a term that is currently having its day. When I was in college, anyone who put those two words together would have been looked on as a comedian or a fool. Today, Creative Nonfiction is the name of the college course I teach. Same college. Required to give the course a title, I named it for a quarterly edited and published by Lee Gutkind, then at the University of Pittsburgh. The title asks an obvious question: What is creative about nonfiction? It takes a whole semester to try to answer that, but here are a few points: The creativity lies in what you choose to write about, how you go about doing it, the arrangement through which you present things, the skill and the touch with which you describe people and succeed in developing them as characters, the rhythms of your prose, the integrity of the composition, the anatomy of the piece (does it get up and walk around on its own?), the extent to which you see and tell the story that exists in your material, and so forth. Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.

It’s a lovely, thought-provoking piece. Musing on the craft of writing, two ideas come to mind.

The first is something I got from reading E.M. Forster who says in one of his essays (I forget which one) that there are two kinds of writer: those who know what they think and then set it down in writing; and those who find out what they think by trying to write it. I’m the latter, and so, I suspect, was Forster (whose 90th birthday party I attended, by the way, when I was a student). But I’ve worked with people who could — and sometimes did — write an entire book in a single continuous draft. (I hate these people, but they exist.)

The second is the distinction I’ve often experienced — between short pieces (like newspaper columns or blog posts: 1,000 words or less), and longer pieces (5,000-10,000 words). Writing a column is like sculpting: you have a lump of clay and you gradually and tentatively lick in into some kind of shape — adding a bit here, taking something away there until you have something that looks about right.

Writing long pieces is a very different business — more akin to construction: you have these various components and then the task (and the art) is in finding an intelligent or satisfactory way to get them into a sequence and then (the really hard part) writing the ‘bridges’ that link the components in such a way that the reader feels that the path from one component to the next is natural and easy.