Tuesday, 11 January 2011

Creative Non-Fiction — First Fumblings


When we write stories we devise strategies to help us implant personal information. Perhaps the protagonist is a brilliant detective who happens to have acne and a limp. (Like you). Perhaps the story takes place near a gasworks and smells of sewage. (Like you). Perhaps the character speaks in tirelessly witty phrases that perfectly sum up the zeitgeist. (You wish).

Aren’t these stories merely an indirect way of discussing what most matters to us: ourselves? Is there anything more important in life than what is happening to each of us right here, right now? Why do we post Facebook bulletins with such urgency or write blogs talking up the significance of our every bowel movement?

Fiction for some can be such a dead-end. I’ve read stories drawn from personal experience that obscure the truth in an attempt to honour those involved or draw attention away from themselves, through embarrassment or not having dealt with the experience emotionally. The result is a mess. In some cases, it would clearly be easier to write about “an issue” using memoir as a springboard.

I’m starting a creative non-fiction module this week. Right now, the genre appears to be both pulpit and confessional. The ‘non-fiction’ element implies reportage and information and fact-enforced analysis. The ‘creative’ element opens up a whole box of possibilities. It suggests narrative, entertainment, a license to take risks. It invites the stuff of literature into the hallowed realm of fact.

For fiction writers who write “topical” books, it seems creative nonfiction is a much better fit. Jodi Picoult went to live among the Amish to write her novel Plain Vomit then wrote a protagonist clearly based on herself. Why the rigmarole? Why not write first-hand about the experience and the narratives within the real Amish community? Why feed us clichés and tired plots when the facts might be twice as interesting?

More on this as the crow flies. These are my first fumblings.

11 comments:

  1. So do these creative non-fiction plans involve doing outrageous things and then writing about them? Because I am all for that, especially if it involves public nudity.

    I agree that fiction where the protag is a barely changed version of the author is tedious at best. Drives me NUTS.

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  2. Yes, outrageous things are encouraged. Might try the nudity when it warms up. If it warms up.

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  3. Do you have an idea about what your project will be? I keep hitting dead ends.

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  4. Is it possible that actually hitting dead ends and reporting on their reactions could be a project in itself? Spice it up with a little analytic flogging from time to time.

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  5. Yes, Mona, that'll be part of the process. Being surprised at your results.

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  6. My apology if I sounded flippant. Rephrased: If one can make the ordinary, that which is beneath the conscious recognition of almost everybody, 'surprised at your results' interesting to others, one has grasped the basic skills. Possibly this is too dull to mention. Failing this, I suppose nudity is the way to go.

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  7. It's true that most of these books unearth some surprising or exciting fact at the end. As though it's a mark of a good investigation to drag some shibboleth into the light and beat it with sticks.

    I'm not sure nudity will feature in my project but I do sleep nude in the summer.

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  8. I had in mind something along the lines of Vonnegut's account of fetching a postal stamp. Surely you can come up with 100 or so more lengthy examples on your own.

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  9. Ah, I see. Yep, making the ordinary into a thrill-packed narrative ride does interest me. I'll work on those examples.

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