The Literature of Reality: Writing Creative Nonfiction

 

 

review by Donna Lee Brien

     
 

 

Tapestry
Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli
Random House Australia, Sydney, 1999
pb. 275pp
ISBN 0 09 183872 X

The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality
Lee Gutkind
John Wiley & Sons, New York, 1997
pb. 211pp
ISBN 0 471 11356 5


When Brisbane author Venero Armanno worked with a creative writing class at QUT last year he provided students with a series of quotations from respected writers. First for consideration was James Baldwin's assertion that 'A writer's job is to write about the world not as he or she would like it to be, but as it really is. The unexamined life isn't worth living.' This was juxtaposed with Tennessee Williams' question, 'Why would I write about real life? Real life is so ugly, and people's lives so petty, that I would prefer to write about my dreams'.[1] Creative nonfiction writers, we would like to believe, can have it both ways. Lee Gutkind agrees, and has written a manual for writing in this relatively recently-defined genre of creative nonfiction. I don't know if Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli would characterise her innovative memoir, Tapestry, in this way, but I have included her work as a set reading in a semester unit on creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction as a genre is recently-defined rather than new because much of that which comes under creative nonfiction's umbrella could be otherwise classified as personal essay, feature article, literary journalism, memoir or fictocriticism. Similarly, there have been books with creative nonfiction in the title, but much of what has been written purporting to be about a uniquely new-fashioned form of writing (called creative nonfiction) is more narrowly about how to write feature articles which are more personal and/or dramatic, interesting and vivid. Creative nonfiction, however, as it is now beginning to be written, published, understood and taught is more than journalism with flair, and offers fresh ways of writing, researching and thinking about nonfiction as a genre - new and creative ways, ways that most usually include utilising the techniques and forms more usually thought of as belonging to fiction writing. Such writing (in my definition of creative nonfiction) includes the types of writing listed above, together with narrative and dramatised history, fictionalised biography and other hybrid narrative forms sometimes referred to under the ugly umbrella of faction.

Lee Gutkind's definition of what others have called 'the literature of fact' or the 'fourth genre' [2] (after poetry, fiction and drama) is uncompromising.

Creative nonfiction differs from fiction because it is necessarily and scrupulously accurate and the presentation of information, a teaching element to readers, is paramount. Creative nonfiction differs from traditional reportage, however, because balance is unnecessary and subjectivity is not only permitted but encouraged. (Gutkind 15)

For this passionate defender and promoter of the genre (which he labels 'a movement') the central factual elements - names, dates, places, Descriptions and quotations - may not be created or altered, but the author can utilise literary devices (such as Description, dialogue and the creation of a series of scenes) to narrate these facts. Pallotta-Chiarolli certainly desires to tell 'the truth' about herself and her family, but realises how complex initially finding this can be.

I lived many lives as a child in Australia. As my body was nourished with abundant good food, my heart and mind were nourished with stories and memories from the past, the many worlds of the present, and the possibilities of the future.
The reality on which my feet trod weaved itself intricately with the realities of my family in Southern Italy.
Whatever I saw was fractured into many pictures, multifaceted and yet crystal clear. (Pallotta-Chiarolli 'Preface')

It is not problematic for this author that 'some names and details have been changed in order to protect family members and others' (271) and some stories have been 'edited and softened' (208), for Pallotta-Chiarolli's desire is to relate larger truths that she judges more important than the accuracy of a singular name or detail. These are truths that can be arrived at despite, or even because of, the odd lie, conflation, omission, slippage or intentional forgetting.

Tapestry details how author/narrator Maria, born and raised in Adelaide of Italian-born parents, comes to trust both the Italian and Australian parts of her identity and history. 'Being second generation Italian in Australia has been really painful for many of us,' (135) she writes, asking her daughter (as herself) whether she is 'Italian, Australian, or both, or neither?' (4). To investigate this involves Pallotta-Chiarolli in what Gutkind defines as immersion research, seeking 'a personal experience by immersing yourself in the place or experience about which you are writing' (94). Gutkind writes at length on such research, noting this is not a new practice, such an approach having been utilised by Ernest Hemingway in writing The Green Hills of Africa, A Moveable Feast and Death in the Afternoon. Gutkind provides a series of useful pointers for the immersion researcher: how not to regard yourself as an interloper; gaining and keeping access to your subject; and the importance of remaining unobtrusive. He follows this with a short chapter on interviewing and a section on the essential importance of 'fact checking' (returning to the research information after the creative nonfiction piece has been written).

Pallotta-Chiarolli's research as detailed in Tapestry reveals her attempt to discover and then understand and relate in text and images the rich material of her family history, the tapestry of the title which is 'rich with the colours of many realities, woven with the threads of many places, spaces and times that existed alongside each other' ('Preface'). These lives, memories and identities are densely interwoven, and Maria knows she 'cannot unthread the tapestry ... [can only let] the woven cloth reveal the shapes in its shapelessness, the clarities in its confusion' ('Preface'). As Maria pieces together the stories of family members across the past century and from Italy to Australia, any simple linear chronology is subverted, but various type-face fonts differentiate (and order) these shifts in time and place. Divers forms of writing and documentation are similarly intertwined to construct the narrative, which shifts from prose to diary entries, letters, short stories, poems, an extract from a school journal, dialogues between characters, and family photographs. The potential of these photos to generate meaning is greatly enhanced by their placement through the book's pages rather than segregated into a section in the middle of the book. The images are intensely evocative, but the lack of photo credit details means there is some obscurity as to who the pictures were of, when and where they were taken and by whom - information which would have only further increased the photographs' narrative power.

Pallotta-Chiarolli's text is rich with wonderfully observed images and detail. How Maria's father always cuts her toenails, how the floor of her parent's garage was tiled with pale blue and white tiles and kept oil free with bleach, how working in pie and tomato sauce factories was a disgusting experience. My own nan worked in a sauce factory in Melbourne in the 1920s and told me almost the same story as Maria's mother, 'Standing for hours on an assembly-line sorting tomatoes and mopping her brow, and trying not to throw up at the churned mess, including a few grubs, that's going to become the Australian version of their tomato sauce.' (114) The history of the street Maria grows up on is a familiar one, built up of a kaleidoscope of these believable real life stories. These are sometimes charming:

There are marriages for which everyone turns out onto the street to see the bride or groom before she/he heads for the church. And as the wedding cars go off with loud honking and loud cheering from the neighbours, the street is a rainbow-coloured carpet of confetti. (51)

Sometimes (blackly) humorous:

There's the local butcher who speaks strangely but has a huge smile and a delicious piece of fritz for her every time she accompanies Dora. One day her mother tells her sadly that the butcher has died. His son is the new butcher, coolly efficient, having studied small business management at university. He no longer gives away free fritz. The butcher doesn't do very well and sells up. (48)

Sometimes sad:

Another source of indoor discussion and public silence is an Aboriginal family who rent a house for a few months. The adults seem uncomfortable but are unable to articulate why. The children notice the discomfort but don't quite understand why. (52)

Tapestry is thus built up, as Gutkind promotes, from a series of these scenes and stories. There are birth stories, school stories, food stories, relationship stories, romance and sex and love stories. Stories of brides, of wives, of blood, of wars, of the church, of witches and magic. Stories about denim jeans and about being gay. Stories told to Maria by relatives in Italy, by relatives in Australia, by taxi drivers and by shopkeepers. There are difficult stories too, such as when her father, Stefano, beats her mother.

She's eight years old when she hears the shouting and the door-slamming. This has been happening for a couple of weeks. Maria Giovanna feels frightened but she goes to look for her parents. They're in the corridor. Her father has one hand around her mother's throat, pushing her against the wall, with the other he slaps her face, again and again. (85)

Pallotta-Chiarolli was understandably worried about how the people she knew would react to these stories but she writes she was pleasantly surprised - one of the very women she thinks will be most scandalised, instead, 'approaches her and kisses her, saying she is so honoured to know her' (96-7).

Gutkind also tells a great story. By far, the most engaging sample included in the 'Readings' section of Gutkind's book is that by the author himself, 'Teeth', a section taken from his 1984 volume of creative nonfiction, The People of Penns Woods West. [3] In common with the best of all creative nonfiction, this piece melds a sensitive authorial voice with a well-told tale of real life.

In contrast, poor creative nonfiction (as both detractors and writers of the genre agree) displays a twinned weakness. The presence of the writer can easily be overstated and result in an 'overbearing egocentrism' (Gutkind 69), a focus which is often joined to a lack of attention to what Gutkind terms the 'mission of the genre' - to write principally about a subject (not the author) and 'to gather and present information, to teach readers about a person, place, idea or situation' (70). Within this brief, the writer's singular voice can form an active part of the text, exploring and chronicling individual discoveries or conflicts, interrogating the author's opinion or establishing or defining a personal identity, but not to the detriment of the subject being elucidated.

This is, obviously, where memoir is a special case, for one of Pallotta-Chiarolli's main subjects is herself. Tapestry begins with a warning that there are at least four Marias in this book - that the very name Maria 'is like a basic chord that links many of the stories together' ('Preface'). The name has deep significance for the author who is named Maria Giovanna for both grandmothers, but who alternately identifies herself as Maria for her Australian self 'out there' in the world, and Maria Giovanna for her Italian self within her community. These two (at times) conflicting perspectives are further complicated when it is realised how complex the notion 'to be Italian' is. Maria finds, for instance, that some things are unexpectedly disappointing in Italy - the pastas and pizzas are bland and stale, Italians use shop-bought pasta sauces and salamis, put their old people in nursing homes and discuss sex at length. Coming to grips with her personal identity is not, however, the memoirist's only concern, as Tapestry weaves together the stories of five generations of her family to raise issues of identity, gender, sexuality, ethnicity and cultural/racial stereotyping.

Throughout the text Pallotta-Chiarolli writes of herself in the third person. This voice allows the author to reflect on her own life from a distance not afforded by writing in the first person but, despite this, I never felt that the Maria of the story was not the author, and often found myself reading 'I' instead of the printed 'She'. In this, Pallotta-Chiarolli is possibly also investigating the narrative possibilities of adding a layer of (false) objectivity to the (obviously) subjective narrative, but if so, this adds little to the power of the narrative, which lies at least partly in its uncompromising directness. The third person point of view does allow the other family members to be represented with some substance of their own, and the story of Maria's parents' courtship, for instance, is far more vivid and interesting than the tedious litany of ancestry which often begins traditional autobiographies and memoirs.

Gutkind's text is clearly introduced and signposted as a process textbook. In chapters 1 through 6 ('The Creative Part') he offers concise and uncomplicated advice for all writers, fiction as well as nonfiction, with clearly signposted sections on writing Description, dialogue and scenes, and building a sustained narrative from a series of those scenes. In the subsequent chapters of the book ('The Nonfiction Part') Gutkind stresses that the foundation of creative nonfiction is the genre's desire to be truth-telling. In 'The Elusive Truth' he raises a number of the important ethical dilemmas many creative nonfiction writers encounter when compressing incident and conversation into coherent dramatic forms, using direct versus remembered quotations, and recreating another's thoughts in text. Gutkind emphasises that it is reaching for the 'factual reality' of the work which is paramount, striving not to 'misconstrue the inherent truth of the experience' (121), misquote the subject or mislead readers about the subject. Drawing the fine line between recreation and fabrication is a difficulty creative nonfiction continually faces, and Gutkind's warning regarding the litigation that can be brought against writers who misrepresent their subjects is as pertinent for an Australian audience as in his American setting.

One factual issue with which I would take Professor Gutkind to task is his statement that 'in countries outside of the United States, creative writing programs on a high school or university level are literally nonexistent' (149). Australia, as we know, has an extensive range of creative writing courses available at universities across the continent. Creative Writing can be studied as a single unit choice, a minor or major in an undergraduate degree, at Graduate Certificate, Graduate Diploma, Masters and PhD level in Australian universities. Creative Writing is also a widely available choice in TAFE and high school programs. The Association of Australian Writing Programs (AAWP) is the professional body representing these courses and teachers, and a comprehensive guide to these courses was recently compiled by the AAWP and published in TEXT.

Gutkind's section on writing a book proposal guides by practical example, providing his own successful proposal for his book on heart transplants, Many Sleepless Nights [4]. This proposal indicates the significant preliminary research which is necessary, together with the level of planning and organisational ability such a successful proposal requires. On publishing creative nonfiction, Gutkind discusses the dealings the author must have with literary agents, editors, publishing houses, contracts and lawyers. Much of this advice has universal general relevance for writers, although some is only of more particular use in the USA market. Gutkind's text is particularly American in one aspect of the text, however - its consistently positive, upbeat tone. This is a 'how-to, can-do' text, with little indication of the dead-ends, dissatisfactions and disappointments of writing and the writer's life. Knowing, however, that writing creative nonfiction can be as taxing and frustrating as it is fascinating and rewarding, is never a reason not to persevere with writing in this, as any, genre. As Maria Pallotta-Chiarolli writes, quoting Adrienne Rich, 'When we become weavers, we learn of the tiny multiple threads unseen in the overall pattern' [5].

 

Notes
1 Baldwin was paraphrasing Socrates' famous quote. Return to article
2 See for example, Theodore A. Rees Cheney, Writing Creative Nonfiction, Ten Speed Press, Berkeley, 1991; and Michael Steinberg, Robert L. Root Jr, The Fourth Genre, Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, Allyn & Bacon, US, 1998. Return to article
3 Lee Gutkind, The People of Penns Woods West, University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, 1984. Return to article
4 Lee Gutkind, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation, University of Pittsburgh Press, (reprint edition) 1990. Return to article
5 Adrienne Rich, 1975, quoted in Tapestry. Return to article

 


Donna Lee Brien teaches Creative Nonfiction in the Creative Writing programs at the Queensland University of Technology and is currently writing her PhD in the area of fictionalised biography.

 

 
     
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Vol 4 No 1 April 2000
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