I finished a course on creative nonfiction at an American university a couple of months ago. The course required us to use a magnificent text the size of an airplane: a 777-page book called The Art of the Personal Essay by Phillip Lopate. The book encompasses a collection of essays from classical authors the standing of Seneca (‘Asthma’) or Plutarch (‘Consolation to His Wife’) to present writers such as Joan Didion (‘In Bed’) or Scott Russell Sanders (‘Under the Influence’). More than a text, the tome is a vibrant journey into the intimacies—so much joy and pain—of vulnerable human beings beyond culture and nationality. While Seneca reflects on dying of suffocation and Plutarch comforts his wife for the loss of their daughter, Joan Didion makes peace with her excruciating migraine attacks, and Sanders acknowledges the burden of being the son of an alcoholic.
In his introduction, Lopate expands into the traits of creative nonfiction, and particularly the personal essay, compared to other genres—the inclusion of literary techniques into factually accurate narratives. “The hallmark of the personal essay is its intimacy. The writer seems to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom… At the core of the personal essay is the supposition that there is a certain unity to human experience. As Michel de Montagne, the great innovator and patron saint of personal essayists put it, ‘Every man has within himself the entire human condition.’ This meant that when he was telling about himself, he was talking, to some degree, about all of us.”
Other forms of creative nonfiction such as autobiography, letters, memoirs, literary journals, diary, chronicle, reportage, articles or travel writing, have in common the same characteristic: that of conveying truthful information by means of technique and literary style. William Zinsser, in On Writing Well, discusses nonfiction as literature by saying: “Those of us who are trying to write well about the world we live in, or to teach students to write well about the world they live in, are caught in a time warp, where literature by definition still consists of forms that were certified as ‘literary’ in the 19thcentury: novels and short stories and poems. But the great preponderance of what writers now write and sell, what book and magazine publishers publish and what readers demand is nonfiction… I’m not saying that fiction is dead. Obviously, the novelist can take us to places where no other writer can go: into the deep emotions and the interior life… The only important distinction is between good writing and bad writing. Good writing is good writing, whatever form it takes and whatever we call it.”
I concur with Zinsser. There’s a quality to good writing that goes beyond genre. Warmth and truth and humanity emanate from a thoughtful, accurate text in the same way a sweet perfume leaves a lavender garden affecting the surroundings. The article I read last week, ‘Her Body, My Baby’ by Alex Kuczynski, about surrogate motherhood, is an accurate example of what Zinsser expresses. There is controversy, reflection, a good story in the article, but most of all humanity and truth. The author, at times doubtful and afraid, dares to expose the deep miseries of her infertility problems and her overwhelming desire to become a mother. It’s creative nonfiction at its best.
Lee Gutkind, founder, and editor of the online magazine Creative Nonfiction, defines the aim of the form in a simple, yet exact way: “True stories, well told.” According to him, “creative nonﬁction has become the most popular genre in the literary and publishing communities. These days the biggest publishers—HarperCollins, Random House, Norton, and others—are seeking creative nonﬁction titles more vigorously than literary ﬁction and poetry.” But not only nonfiction books have become increasingly popular. Articles and columns appear daily and abundantly in varied publications such as The New Yorker, Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New York Times—the case of Kuczynski’s article—and The Wall Street Journal.
The Guardian published in 2017 a list of the 100 best nonfiction books of all time. If you are curious, I anticipate for you here the first five titles from the list made by Robert McCrum—associate editor of the Observer: The Sixth Extinction by Elizabeth Kolbert (2014), The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion (2005), No Logo by Naomi Klein (1999), Birthday Letters by Ted Hughes (1998), and Dreams from My Father by Barack Obama (1995).
Tyler Coates, the senior culture editor at Esquire.com, says: “By looking at the real world around us, we’re better equipped to understand ourselves.” He published last April ‘The Best Nonfiction Books of 2018 (So Far)‘. His list includes A Kind of Mirraculas Paradise: A True Story About Schizophrenia by Sandra Allen, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border by Francisco Cantú, and When They Call You a Terrorist: A Black Lives Matter Memoir by Patrisse Khan-Cullors and Asha Bandele.
Creative nonfiction is popular and will continue to be because it conveys concrete life stories that can happen to any of us in a qualitative manner. It can be entertaining, but serious creative nonfiction is also educational and reflective, responsible, inspiring, committed to its subject matter, based on thorough research. It can take several shapes, but the essence of its appeal lies on the truthful voyage it offers, a promise of personal growth, a learning experience. It exposes our diverse human nature and spreads the discoveries in the open air.
Paula Arellano Geoffroy is a Chilean writer that lives with her family in the Netherlands. She is also an engineer in forestry, but her true passion resides in working with both creative and technical writing. Always curious, avid reader and a perennial student, she is actually writing articles for different organizations, revising the draft of her first novel, and studying creative non-fiction and professional writing at an American university.