When in 1999 I began working on writing an undergraduate unit on creative
nonfiction writing one name come up across all my Internet searches -
Lee Gutkind. Before I started researching, I knew creative nonfiction
was taught widely in writing schools across the USA, with its popularity
and profile having developed rapidly over the last decade. So much so
that (as Nigel Krauth can testify from personal experience) creative nonfiction
was the 'buzz' area of the 1999 American Associated Writing Programs Conference
held in Albany, New York, a conference which was attended by 1400 delegates.
What I did not know was who stood at the centre of this whirlwind.
Lee Gutkind, the former Director of the writing program of the university
of Pittsburgh, is currently Professor of English at that university, Director
of the Creative Nonfiction Foundation, and founding editor of the pioneering
journal, Creative Nonfiction. (http://www.cnf.edu/)
Author of eight creative nonfiction books including Many Sleepless
Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation (1990) and Stuck in
Time: The Tragedy of Childhood Mental Illness (1993), Gutkind is editor
of The Creative Nonfiction Reader (Tarcher/Putnam), the Emerging
Writers in Creative Nonfiction book series (Duquesne University Press)
and Director of the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Writers' Conference
at Goucher College in Baltimore. His The Art of Creative Nonfiction:
Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality (1997) has become a
leading title in the (John) Wiley writing series in the USA.
In order to introduce Professor Gutkind as the Keynote Speaker in the
Creative Nonfiction strand of the Writing 2000 Conference, I have constructed
this (creative nonfiction) virtual interview from our email conversation
and by utilising excerpts from the author's published works.
The questions which I am sure you are always asked are: How do you
define Creative Nonfiction? How does this differ from traditional nonfiction
writing, from journalism and especially from the feature article?
Ever since I began to write and to teach writing 20 years ago, people
have been asking me to define creative nonfiction. And I always refuse
because, for one thing, it is an unfair and usually provocative question.
Are poets and novelists asked to define poetry and fiction? Then why
must I define creative nonfiction?
I will say how creative nonfiction differs from fiction and traditional
journalism, however. Fiction, from a literal standpoint, is not true
- or at least not totally true (not so as the writer is willing to admit)
while creative nonfiction, if not completely true, is as true as the
writer can make it. I am not unaware of the foggy gray line being drawn
here, but one can't be easily literal about art and literature. The
creative nonfiction writer tries to be as truthful and factual as possible.
Making things up to enhance the narrative is unacceptable. But creative
nonfiction is very similar to fiction in technique.
The creative nonfiction writer is permitted (encouraged, in fact) to
take advantage of all of the literary techniques available to fiction
writers and poets. By this I mean writing in scenes, using description,
dialogue, specificity of detail, characterisation and point of view.
By 'point of view' I mean that the reader can be made to see the world
through the eyes of the writer, the subject about whom the writer is
writing - or through the invisible third person objective eye.
Creative nonfiction is very story-oriented; it is narrative. That's
the 'style' part - the creative part. But then, what about the nonfiction
part? We'll call that 'substance', the informational part - the teaching
and learning part. Most of the best creative nonfiction has information
embedded within story. Look at McPhee, Ackerman, Dillard (and Mailer,
Hemingway, Wolfe, Talese, Ross, etc.). The stories these writers tell
are compelling, but within the story is information that enlightens
a reader. Even in the most compelling memoir (look at Angela's Ashes)
there is a learning element. McCourt not only tells a moving story,
but the reader learns first hand about poverty in a unique but universal
That's a good phrase for the creative nonfiction writer to remember:
Unique (on a personal level) and universal so that all readers can understand
and relate. That's how we make meaning - and meaning is what literature
is all about. What we write must mean something to our readers. Otherwise,
if we aren't saying anything, what's the point of writing?
I want to say one more thing about creative nonfiction. You have to
understand that it is not a genre like fiction and poetry. It is a literary,
cultural and political movement. The creative nonfiction writer is poised
to present reality in such a way that it cannot be avoided. It is provocative
and it has teeth because it is true, and because it is true it can change
lives and shape opinion in ways that fiction has hardly ever been able
to do. I believe that this is one reason that a number of academics
and critics have attempted to discredit it: because it has the potential
to be such a dominant, mind-breaking force.
Do you know when the term was first used?
'Creative nonfiction' was first popularly used as an umbrella to describe
this kind of work in the application form for the National Endowment
for the Arts (NEA) Creative Writing Fellowships. It was a title which
seemed to have been employed defensively to distinguish between traditional
journalism and the personal essay. (For a while, the NEA foolishly replaced
creative nonfiction with something called 'belles lettres'.) Ironically,
under the NEA's guidelines (five essays published over the previous
five years in respected journals), writing by Talese, Wolfe, McPhee,
et al would probably not have qualified in any category.
It is surprising to learn how many writers (and readers) don't understand,
exactly, the elements of the form in which they are writing. Some are
attracted by the word 'creative' and think that because their prose
is unusual or distinctive and because the stories they are telling are
true that they are writing in the genre of creative nonfiction. Others,
usually people with a journalistic background, are put off by the word
'creative,' maintaining that if it is creative, then it certainly can't
be accurate, believable or ethical - the essences and anchors of nonfiction
However, there is no conflict between being a good 'reporter' and a
good writer, creative in technique and approach. The essays published
in each issue of Creative Nonfiction, the journal I edit, are,
I believe, models of the truest forms of creative nonfiction, in that
they simultaneously 'showcase' or 'frame' fact in a creative context.
The 'truth' (which should not be confused with the factual or informational
aspects of the genre) is another important element of the 'classic'
creative nonfiction form - and often a more personal one. A writer's
concept of the truth may not be universally accepted and may even conflict
with the facts as others understand or remember them. Good creative
nonfiction does not deny personal opinion; on the contrary, it welcomes
the subjective voice.
There is the danger that the first person subjective voice can easily
become narcissistic or queasily egocentric in its self focus.
Most creative nonfiction is written in the first person. The challenge
in writing nonfiction in this way is to be intimate and revealing while
reaching beyond the boundaries of self and embracing a universal audience
You've mentioned truth, but you have also written about nonfiction
creative writers having a permission to lie.
For a memoir about her family, a novelist and former journalist whom
I know manipulated the transition from fiction to nonfiction in such
a way. When she began her book, she felt blocked by the perceived conflict
between the two, unable to comfortably employ the novelistic techniques
of scene, dialog and description. And so, in order to get started, she
granted herself permission to lie.
The author did not intend to make up facts or tell stories that weren't
true, a violation of the promise inherent in all nonfiction. But the
narrow range of creative options traditionally granted to a journalist
inhibited her. Giving herself 'permission to lie' allowed three-dimensional
thought and scenic expression in a novelistic context. She did not permit
her writing momentum to be interrupted by the literal truth.
After her first draft was completed and the revision and rewriting
process was launched, she removed or repaired the 'lies' she had inserted.
At that point, the book was as true and honest as she could make it.
She then submitted complete drafts to the people most involved in her
story over the years. They returned the manuscripts without any significant
changes or suggestions. Giving herself permission to lie led to as true
a document as possible - from all characters' points-of-view.
It is important to point out that this author was working from memory;
during the year of crisis about which she had been writing she had been
unable to keep a journal with regularity or take all the necessary notes.
It's not certain that the people who 'fact-checked' her manuscript actually
said exactly what she remembered that they said and whether the conversations,
scenes and surroundings were exactly as she had recreated them. But
according to the characters involved in the experience, her version
or 'reconstruction' was as correct an approximation as possible.
Would you always advocate giving work for subjects to check? Couldn't
this also be fraught with problems?
Sending a draft of an essay or article to people about whom you have
written and asking them to review it for factual discrepancies is touchy.
A writer never really knows what aspects of conversations, ideas or
incidents will touch a nerve. I am often amazed at what people actually
complain about. I was once telephoned by a heart transplant surgeon
about whom I had written. I was wary when he identified himself on the
telephone and I heard the serious tone of his voice.
I had previously passed along to him sections of my book in which he
appeared. As it turned out, of the many scenes I had recreated - dozens
of pages - he objected to only one expletive, which he used quite frequently.
He asked if I would delete that word (or substitute it with a more benign
alternative) because his mother would read the book, and he did not
want her to know that he swore. I complied.
The fact that my observations of the heart transplant world resonated
with the surgeon doesn't mean that we concurred about every single detail
along the way. We saw the plight of his patients and the motivations
behind his actions somewhat differently. This difference in perception
is expected in literature, however; the absolute essence of truth is
always debatable. Imagine putting a video camera on the shoulders of
each participant of a dispute, game or debate. Even though experience
and location are shared, each interpretation will be skewed.
Much of this is especially relevant to writing memoir.
Precisely. This divergence of opinion and perception is what makes
memoir so special. We all view the past through translucent layers of
resentment, anger, love, misunderstanding, stubbornness, respect - and
a multitude of other emotions and beliefs. Writing a memoir is the most
personal and frightening of all forms of literature because it reveals
layers of memory and reflection so biting and painful that the writing
of it can radically change the entire reality - past, present and future
- of a writer's life.
On the writer's life you often mention the authors you admire and
whose work has influenced you - Tom Wolfe, Jack Kerouac, Annie Dillard,
Most of my contemporaries have been inspired by books and writers when
they were young. This makes sense. Obviously, if you want to be a writer
then, first, you will have no doubt been a reader. Even Beethoven, who
achieved his best work after he became deaf, was inspired to compose
and conduct music by the real thing. The books which have had a strong
influence on me and my writing are all of Hemingway's, but most especially
his short stories. Gay Talese and John McPhee were also inspirational,
especially The Bridge and Fame and Obscurity by Talese
and The Pine Barrens and Coming into the Country by McPhee.
I would also have to mention Janet Malcolm's The Journalist and the
Murderer, as well as Susan Sheehan and Marc Singer. A Fan's Notes
by Frederick Exley is brilliant, as is Brothers and Keepers by
John Wideman and everything by James Baldwin. Poetry by Robert Frost
and William Merredith was very influential in my twenties.
Are your students similarly inspired?
Lately I have been astounded to learn that many undergraduate writing
majors have not been inspired in this way and, in fact, are not seemingly
inspired at all. I don't know exactly when this happened because when
I started teaching in the early 1970s, Talese, Wolfe, Jack Kerouac,
Lillian Ross, Hemingway and Joseph Mitchell were student heroes, a mainstay
of my students' regular dialogue in class and out. But lately I have
been asking my students to name the last good nonfiction book they read
or which authors influenced them to choose nonfiction as a career. Not
more than perhaps one in ten of my students (we are talking about sophomores,
juniors and sometimes seniors) can usually answer by naming anyone else
but Jon Krakhauer. Sometimes I name the leading writers in our field.
I will say, 'Who are these people? Diane Ackerman, Annie Dillard, John
McPhee, Tracy Kidder?' The names will be vaguely familiar, but most
students won't know.
Why, then, are they studying writing?
It is not often that a student can provide a reason, I am dismayed
to say. Writing seems like an interesting major - a springboard to law
school, marketing, sales, etc. I guess it is.
At QUT we are also experiencing a general lack of interest in literature
among many of our students. Is this malaise USA-wide?
This ambivalence toward literature is certainly not limited to undergraduate
students at the University of Pittsburgh where I do most of my teaching.
Wherever I travel, giving workshops and readings across the US, and
abroad, I am always amazed to discover how unfamiliar creative writing
students are with creative writers.
Do you think this could be a result of the 'MTV generation' syndrome?
Yes, and poor high school preparation. And parents who don't understand
that literature remains the most powerful artistic and political force
in the world - not sports and not even popular music.
Can you further characterise your students? Who are the best (creative
While it is true that I have taught in creative writing programs for
the last two decades, my best students are almost always students who
are not writing majors exclusively - men and women with a knowledge
of, and a passion for, science, architecture or music (for example)
in addition to writing always excel. These are people with something
to say, which is at the cusp of the best creative nonfiction. All the
writers I have named above as preeminent leaders in the field have chosen
to emphasise the substance of their work over the style of their presentation.
Does that last statement mean you think the content of creative nonfiction
is its most important element, that the substance of creative nonfiction
is more central than the style in which it is written?
Substance can mean fact, it can mean feeling, and it can mean the universal
appeal of the human spirit. This is not to say that style shouldn't
be important to writers, but not at the expense of the message and the
meaning. Writing programs tend to minimise the intellectual value of
the essay or article, while maximising the presentation.
You speak, of course, from personal experience. How did you become
a (creative nonfiction) writer?
Before I decided to be a writer, I thought a lot about what I wanted
to accomplish in my life. I admit that I didn't know exactly what that
was, but I knew two things. First, I wanted to be understood. That is,
I wanted people to be interested in my ideas and feelings generally
- and what I knew, specifically. Secondly, I wanted my ideas and experiences
to make an impact on other people - to change or influence a small part
of the world, in one way or another. In order to achieve those goals,
I had to more thoroughly understand myself. And I had to learn a great
deal about how other people lived. Of course, I had a passion for writing,
and I had been significantly affected by the writers I had been reading.
I thought that I would give myself a year to see whether this was the
lifestyle and the profession that would help me achieve those objectives.
At the time I was a motorcyclist, and I was travelling extensively
around the country on my two-wheeled machine. This was the subject of
my first book. Since then, I have travelled through a half-dozen different
worlds in order to write books - baseball umpires, organ transplantation,
veterinary hospitals, psychiatric institutions - with the same ideas
and intentions in mind. I'm not exactly certain if I have successfully
achieved even an iota of the goals I have described, but I covet the
memories and experiences of the journeys I have made.
How do you manage your own nonfiction research notes - do you work
from notebooks, index cards, computer files? What do you do with these
when you finish a project?
When I am involved in an immersion situation, which is very often,
I jot notes from my observations into my notebook. I don't take down
everything - just key words. Enough to jog my memory. Then, when my
day is done (or when I want to take a break), I find a private place,
I take out my micro tape recorder and use the notes in my notebook to
verbally reconstruct my day, my readings, observations - all the experiences
I felt that were noteworthy, etc. In essence, I tell myself stories
when I am recreating in the tape recorder - I strain to remember everything
possible about the experiences I have just recently observed. I tell
all. Then I type the transcripts into the computer, shaping and eliminating
and adding, as needed, with the help of my memory. The idea is to record
EVERYTHING you remember - collect a gigantic block of information -
then cut back and shape later. This may sound like a lot of work on
the front side of the experience, but it pays off in the end. Much of
what I end up with becomes the anchor and foundation of my first draft.
Remember also that the idea is to tell that tape recorder stories, to
embed information into story form and embed information between stories.
That's the classic Creative Nonfiction approach.
What are you working on now?
I just finished a memoir called 'Dr. Mason's Revelation'. I will read
from it in Australia. It chronicles a part of my life that takes me
from my youth, through my motorcycle experiences as a hippy/nomad and
into my new life as a father and 'respectable' writer and teacher. In
this book I am attempting to make life fun and meaningful at the same
You have been enormously influential in the development of teaching
creative nonfiction in the USA. Can you describe the current state of
the university teaching of creative writing in the USA? Is it still a
growth area, and will this growth continue?
Creative writing programs have increased at such a phenomenal rate
in this country, an increase which, given the general lack of interest
in reading, I find it difficult to understand. I assume creative writing
programs are profitable, which is what must drive the proliferation,
but there's surely a limit to the amount of potential income being generated
considering that most workshops are limited to 15-20 students. Some
of my colleagues in history or philosophy (with the help of a couple
of grad assistants) lecture to 400 plus students in a gigantic auditorium.
And creative nonfiction programs specifically?
The main problem with teaching creative nonfiction is that there aren't
enough teachers with strong credentials in the area. Because creative
nonfiction continues to be a growth area, people are finding a way into
the field through different avenues - composition and poetry, primarily.
While the field has been significantly strengthened by writers who choose
to cross genres, such as John Updike, Diane Ackerman, W.S. Merwin and
John Irving (to name only a very few) it doesn't do us any good to have
teachers and colleagues who come to us by default. This is changing,
for sure, as more and more young people become increasingly turned on
by 'The Movement'.
And make no mistake about it, creative nonfiction is not just a genre
- it is a movement. This is key to understanding what is happening in
this country - why it is exploding so rapidly. I am not going to Australia
to talk about poetry or fiction, I am going to help 'introduce' Creative
Nonfiction. This is an artistic and cultural event combined.
How do you balance your own writing practice with the demands of teaching?
I have always written on a regular schedule. Up at 4.30am seven days
a week, and writing for as many hours as possible before even thinking
about my teaching. Three years ago I became a single father with a nine-year-old
son, so now, although I start at 4.30, I stop at 6.30 and resume work
after breakfast and taking him to school at about 8.30. I am an incredibly
happy father and I wouldn't trade my life for anything or anybody, but
I simply can't be as productive as I once was at the moment - or at
least professionally productive. I will now write for about 4-5 hours
a day, then work on Creative Nonfiction for 3-4 hours or prepare
for teaching, then work out at the local gym or take a run, then get
Sam and help him with his homework. I teach evening classes. I put Sam
to bed afterwards, then work for about an hour more, cleaning up the
day's loose ends. I admit I am not so rigid with my evening hours. Sometimes
I go out and have fun.
All successful writers will write on a regular schedule and in a disciplined
way. But creative nonfiction requires an even more focused discipline
because we are not only writers but also reporters and researchers who
utilise literary techniques to capture and portray real life and to
investigate significant moral and cultural issues.
Would you say you are interested in both writing and teaching to the
As a teacher, I am very committed to my students and make myself available
to them whenever they need me - literally. But the politics of the Academy
bore me. There's an awful lot of time-wasting going on.
I take it that most of your students are external?
Yes, most of the students are external, most have other lives (thank
goodness) and many are more mature (30 and up). Creative nonfiction
is very experiential - difficult for young people with limited life
experience and limited confidence to confront important issues. Yet,
I love teaching the introductory course to the four-course creative
nonfiction sequence, revelling in the opportunity to teach technique
and to turn them on to the creative nonfiction form and movement - getting
them to learn how to think about what they are writing and what it means.
What do you think is the optimum number of students for a creative
To me 10-12 is perfect.
Many of my creative nonfiction students find that when they discover
research, they can't decide what to write about. Is this your experience?
My students don't often say anything like that; rather, they say, 'Why
do I have to research? I am a writer not a researcher'. I am exaggerating,
but research and reading are not their favourite things to do, and many
students cannot understand the layers of research, reading and experience/immersion
a writer must wade-through/endure before finding a good topic. I spend
an inordinate amount of time talking to my students about topic development
and the narrowing of topic focus. I try to tell my students that writing
isn't a mechanical act - the creative part of creative nonfiction, in
many respects, is the thinking part. This is the best advice I can give
anyone who intends to teach creative nonfiction: teach your students
to think about story development and about meaning.
Do you have a graded or Pass/Fail assessment system in your courses?
What are the positives/drawbacks of this?
Graded. There's nothing positive about this. In our country, we suffer
from grade inflation. I always warn my undergrads that 'I give C's!'
This always scares them. No one wants to admit to being average. Grad
students 'freak out' when they get B's.
How do you assess creative nonfiction writing in your courses? From
your books I'd think it was according to how they have achieved your 5
R's - the real life (immersion) aspect of the writing experience, reflection,
research, reading and 'riting.
Yes, precisely, and how clearly they think about the meaning of whatever
it is they are writing about.
What do you say to the assertion that creativity can't be assessed?
That creative writing/creativity/writing can't be taught?
I agree that creativity can't be taught, and I am not even certain
of the exact definition of 'creativity' which means, obviously, different
things to different people. But how to write in a lively, engaging and
thoughtful manner and how to make your work intellectually significant
for your reader can be taught. Many people do it every day.
Does new technology have a place in your teaching?
I communicate with my students on a day-to-day basis almost exclusively
through e-mail or the Net. I also have long and very satisfying relationships
with colleagues and other writers through e-mail. I communicate with
my editors electronically. I meet readers everywhere - at workshops
I give, readings at colleges, universities, libraries, but as I provide
my e-mail address in some of my books, readers often will respond with
questions and/or suggestions.
The Creative Nonfiction journal has been groundbreaking in
the field, as has your other promotion of the genre through other publishing
We started publishing the journal seven years ago and, at the moment,
we publish tri-quarterly - with one double issue annually. Currently,
we are working on an alliance with a major publisher to produce and
distribute each issue as a book. We already have developed a book series
with Duquesne University Press for 'Emerging Writers in Creative Nonfiction,'
(and I would love to see the work of Australian writers). I would like
to do more theme issues, covering issues such as diversity, the economy,
high-tech medicine, etc. I want to increase circulation to 25,000 in
the next 3 years, and I very much want to begin publishing editions
devoted to other countries. To this end I am looking for institutions
to affiliate with in this country and overseas.
And there is the annual nonfiction conference as well.
We co-sponsor a writers' conference in which the best writers of nonfiction
(John McPhee, Gay Talese, Diane Ackerman, etc.) come to teach and engage
with students who enrol from across the country. I would like to do
such a conference in other countries, on a regular basis. Australia
is a possible first stop. I will be looking for sponsors while I am
Have you ever been to Australia before?
I visited Australia in 1987 for the International Transplant Congress
in Sydney while I was working on Many Sleepless Nights: The World
on Organ Transplantation. I had a wonderful time in Sydney visiting
old friends and seeing the sights. Then I went to the Gold Coast for
a holiday, which was terrific.
I have a long lost relative - my grandfather's youngest brother, a
man who was supposed to have perished in the concentration camps during
WWII. But there were vague rumours that he escaped from Poland/Germany
and found his way to Australia. When my father retired, he went to the
business library here and started searching telephone directories. He
did not find Gutkind, but he did find a Goodchild family in Melbourne
and he wrote to them. It turns out that he is the long lost brother.
We had a reunion in Pittsburgh a few years ago, and I had intended to
go to Melbourne to visit this June, but it turns out he has a winter
home about 20 minutes from where I will be staying for the conference.
So I will get to see him and meet some of my other cousins - and they
will meet me and my son for the first time.
Any plans to write any 'pure' fiction?
Deciding to dedicate myself to writing creative nonfiction and delaying
the dream of writing fiction was a conscious and carefully considered
decision. At the time, I was in my middle twenties, and I realised that
I didn't know enough about the world to write with the insight and experience
necessary to make my novels and short stories culturally and morally
significant. To be a better writer (and to be a better and a more well-rounded
person) I realised the importance of learning to relate to others and
understand the struggles and challenges of people from different walks
of life. If the characters I created in my fiction were to be compelling
and true, then, I concluded, I had to learn about other lifestyles,
other professions and the patchwork of prejudices and kindnesses that
make some people different from others. So I decided to write creative
nonfiction, and in that way become more mature by broadening my scope
of experiences. At some point, I would gradually return to my literary
roots - fiction - and make my impact on the world, I assumed. Perhaps
you will think me naive, but I really thought that writers with something
to say could affect the world. I still do, and I am still trying. Although
I dreamed of being a novelist, I have never looked back or stopped to
rethink my decision or direction. I continue my total involvement in
the creative nonfiction experience - an odyssey that has consumed me
and monumentally enriched my life.
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. Her review of creative
non fiction titles is published in this edition. Brien