Uncategorized | November 03, 2011

Be Thou the Voice,” an essay from September 8 in the Los Angeles Review of Books was posted last Friday on Brevity’s blog. In the essay, memoirist Dinah Lenney articulates a thoughtful discussion on voice and the legitimacy of creative nonfiction as a genre. In Lenney’s article she manages to compare memoirists to actors, jazz musicians, cover artists, the kind of people who carve their initials in trees, and painters. The alleged haziness of CNF makes explaining it to outsiders difficult. This is when we revert to analogies: It’s like journalism, but not really. It’s like all writing, but different. It’s like painting a photograph with words! I’ve started to resent these analogies. Does Jonathan Franzen ever have to describe The Corrections as “Kind of a sad sitcom, but like, if you didn’t have a TV?” Comparisons are a perfectly reasonable way to explain a concept and I find Lenney’s article to be eloquent and interesting as a CNF writer still trying to develop a voice. I suppose it’s not that I’m irked by the explanations of CNF, but by the confusion. What is there to explain in the first place? And as long as we can make an analogy between CNF and every possible creative medium (including the art of tree carving), why is Lorrie Moore still calling it illegitimate?

The purpose, appeal, and literary place of creative nonfiction has always seemed obvious to me. I was naïve of any controversy surrounding the genre until I started identifying as a nonfiction writer in college. It had never occurred to be me that people would ask me whose biography I was working on or if CNF was one of those phrases, “You know, like ‘Jumbo Shrimp?’” I tried writing John Dillinger’s biography once after watching a History Channel special when I was nine, but it hasn’t been picked up and no, “Creative Nonfiction” is not an oxymoron. It just turns out that I sometimes (always) find David Sedaris’ human experience more relatable than Jane Austen’s imagined one. I want to hear the way my dad tells stories at the dinner table about the fraternity fire that occurred while he was a student at Baker University, not read a news report. The individual style, form, and content that art teachers ask me to draw in self-portraits, I can express better in writing. I have been caught unprepared to answer the question “What is creative nonfiction? Is that a thing?” I have relied on analogies too, but I’m tired of comparing my craft to other mediums and especially redhead stepchildren.

One of the main issues the general population has with CNF is the idea that it’s not imagined, but also not an objective truth. CNF allows for a range of narrative possibilities to be reflected by varying perspectives. It’s baffling to me that there’s any uncertainty over how that truth spectrum exists through an artistic medium. It’s hard for me to grasp because it seems like this spectrum of what we accept and won’t accept as truth in art already exits and is already understood. It seems universally acceptable to dress a suburban family in head to toe denim, arrange them into a strange dog-pile, force smiles, call that photo a family portrait and place it on a mantle as a sort of representation of the subjects. It’s universally agreed upon that it’s unacceptable to dress a man in a spacesuit, construct a studio set to look like Mars, ask him to take a step, plant a flag, then print this photo in a newspaper and call it a representation of truth or history. There’s middle ground between the falsity of what we present and the falsity of perception. This is where artists and redheads fall. This is where a jazz musician is allowed to take liberties in a performance, where a painter manipulates color, where a filmmaker manipulates time, and where a writer connects experiences through their own filter. A perceived truth is being presented, but not under any claims of objectivity.

Art is not real or truth. It can only act as a representative of subjective reality. In between manipulation and blatant falsities is interpretation and memory. To remember my grandfather’s funeral as grey is accurate to my experience whether the rest of Wintersville, Ohio could attest to the color outside of the Lutheran church that day or not. Creative nonfiction is kind of like painting, music, fashion, photography, cooking, film, etc. It’s about making distinctions, selections, filtering experiences, and individual expression. Creative nonfiction is also unlike any other medium. It is a scientific study of memory, sentimentality, sensation, interpretation, and narrative. For as long as it took photography to stop being compared to paintings and film to moving photographs, I’ll wait for CNF to stop being compared to jumbo shrimp.

In the meantime, I’ll try to think of some useful analogies for explaining the blurred genre lines that all writers face. Here’s a good one; It’s like if Lorrie Moore wrote a short story about a nearly autobiographical experience in the pediatric oncology ward with her baby boy, but not exactly. Oh, wait.