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The Godfather Speaks

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The Godfather at work: Lee Gutkind (Photo: Cory Morton)

I first met author Lee Gutkind at the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers’ Conference at Goucher College when I was a grad student in the mid-1990s. The conference brought together some of the greatest practitioners of a literary form of nonfiction breaking new ground: creative nonfiction. Featured were authors Tracy Kidder. Susan Orlean. Gay Talese. Mary Karr. Tobias Wolff. Ntozake Shonge. Diane Ackerman. It was an Olympus of gods working in the field, writing books and long-form true narratives for The New Yorker and elsewhere.

Within a couple years, it seemed the fledgling newly defined genre might come crashing to Earth.

A scathing article in Vanity Fair accused creative nonfiction writers, of memoir in particular, of “navel gazing.” Cultural critic James Wolcott reserved his sharpest words for an unsuspecting Lee Gutkind, a conference founder, editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction, and then-professor at the University of Pittsburgh: He labeled Lee, with a healthy dose of sarcasm, “The Godfather behind creative nonfiction.”

Wolcott lambasted the form itself as: a “sickly transfusion, whereby the weakling personal voice of sensitive fiction is inserted into the beery carcass of nonfiction.” This, despite the fact that some of the most revered writers of the day, also including Annie Dillard, Joyce Carol Oates, George Plimpton, Barry Lopez and others, were writing nonfiction with a literary style and focus, and successfully so.

The criticism also didn’t stop Lee, a yogi and avid motorcyclist. He knew he might be okay when at work one day soon after, an elevator opened and a colleague, Bruce Dobler, went down on one knee, grabbed Lee’s hand and said, “I kiss your hand, Godfather.” That same year, Lee helped found a unique low-residency MFA in Creative Nonfiction at the same locale as the seminal conference: Goucher College in Baltimore, MD. For the past few years, I’ve been an MFA candidate in the program.

Lee and I met up at a 20th anniversary founders’ lecture on campus and later discussed the status of the movement two decades after Vanity Fair launched its snarky ballistic missile. Now a professor in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society at Arizona State University, Lee continues to innovate, write, and speak about communicating true stores. Hope you enjoy our Q&A chat, edited for clarity and flow. Read, reflect, and comment. — 3QR editor Joanne Cavanaugh Simpson

Q: At the 20th anniversary event at Goucher College’s MFA in Creative Nonfiction and in your book, You Can’t Make this Stuff Up, you lead with the Vanity Fair article and its criticisms. You mention the “Godfather of Creative Nonfiction” label. I’m sure you were reeling at first from the article’s slings and arrows at the genre itself. When did the sting start to ease? Maybe not right at the elevator scene?  

A: You know how sometimes a single event can change your perspective on things? That little joking confrontation that Bruce and I had was helpful to me. Changed my perspective.

About 10 years prior to that article everything about creative nonfiction was such a fight—to make creative nonfiction or narrative nonfiction or the new nonfiction, which is what some folks were calling it, happen. Be accepted, especially in the academy.  No one wanted to cooperate or sometimes even listen. There were all kinds of reasons: turf battles between composition and literature folks for one thing—fearful of writing programs gaining attention and preference in English Departments.  And there were some academics who felt that the fact that we were calling this new form “creative” somehow inferred that their work was less so.  And journalists downright hated the word creative because, they insisted, that it meant that we were making stuff up.  I thought I had made a lot of progress in moving the genre forward, but then came the Vanity Fair ambush.  And it was an ambush.  James Wolcott didn’t interview me or anyone else for that article.  It just appeared one day in mailboxes and on newsstands.  For a day or two, I was embarrassed.  Hurt.  But then, almost instantly, people responded in a way I had not envisioned.  (Like Bruce.) By congratulating me because I was featured in Vanity Fair!  Either they didn’t care or didn’t read what Wolcott had to say.  The Godfather label—the positive aspects of it—stuck.  From that point on, emboldened, I was much more in an offensive rather than a defensive mode when it came to creative nonfiction.

Q: Exactly how have you been going on the offensive? It was easy and satisfying to name all of the pre-eminent writers who were writing creative nonfiction, even though they might not have called it creative nonfiction back then.  And I repeatedly pointed out that there were many opportunities for writers who could research and write true stories in and out of the academy. And very few full- time positions for poets in this world, for example, especially in ways that were self-supporting.  As time passed, the genre became very profitable for English departments and writing programs—a cash cow so to speak—which would support other programs.  And people—prospective students and mid-career professionals alike—wanted to write these stories about themselves, their work, their families.  My mantra was and is: ‘It’s a movement–and not a moment.’  And the movement is growing.  I was in New York a couple of weeks ago and checked out a literary calendar.  There were at least 20 creative nonfiction events scheduled over the next couple of weeks.  And for the courses I teach at Arizona State and in the workshops I do across the country, there are now physicians, architects, biologists—an array of people with stories to tell and a hunger to learn how to do it.

And have you embraced the Godfather label?  I have mixed feelings about that.  I want to be recognized for my work as an editor and writer.  But I realize that Wolcott’s article, his roasting of me and the genre, did exactly the opposite of what he wanted it to do.  It gave me a platform and a vastly expanded audience.  So I have rolled with the Godfather when I thought it would work to my and the genre’s advantage. It was an opportunity with certain downsides, though.

Q: You Can’t Make Stuff Up is a very modern book on writing: specific and conversational. You have written other books on writing in the genre. Why do you think this one was needed? What else does it accomplish?

A: Hardly anybody except the new John McPhee book [Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process] talks about structure. Writers need to know what it is and how to do it. It’s not just that you sit down and write and look for scenes and other stuff you think might be interesting to tell your reader. There’s an order to how we piece together our work and that order allows you to achieve the integral style-and-substance objective that is the hallmark of the genre—entertain and inform.

 Q: In terms of looking back, are their other ways you’ve seen creative nonfiction change over the past 20 years? You mention a growing role in literature, publishing, and the academy; what about style or forms? (The braided essay, for example). Is there a thread of change, moving toward what exactly? What purposes might CNF serve in the near future?

I think what is happening today is a gradual but significant return to more of an adherence to fact-based, verifiable content.  Writers now seem to be increasingly concerned with the integrity of their work and how to distinguish their work from the awful emergence of “fake news” and “alternative facts” that’s become part of our political and, alas, cultural landscape. This “thread of change,” to use your term, which I like, also, as I think I said to you, leads to many experts and academics learning more about how to employ the techniques of the genre to communicate what they know to the general public. And more and more publishers and magazines are becoming wary of writers who cannot support their ideas and observations and information with evidence. This is not happening quickly, because it takes a lot of time and effort to not make things up and not take shortcuts—but that is what is emerging now, I believe.

Q: What about the braided essay, especially in terms of social justice: According to Purdue University, this form “usually contains at least one thread that is very personal and based on memory, and at least one thread that is heavily researched. Often, the threads seem very disparate at first, but by the climax of the essay, the threads begin to blend together; connections are revealed.” Why is the personal and analytical so important? 

Yes, the braided essay looks different—and it has a cool label, braided—and it can be both a delight of discovery and a challenge to read.  But in the end it achieves the effect and the mission of the genre: to tell a personal story and to connect that story to information and ideas that the writer perceives as compelling and perhaps vital.  I like the form and [at Creative Nonfiction] we publish braided essays from time to time. It is a challenge to do well because it can become formulaic and predictable, a struggle to read.  So when we find a writer who can master the form, we snatch it up!

I encourage and appreciate the way writers push the boundaries of the genre.  From the beginning, I have been on a mission to make this genre as all-encompassing as it can be. Early on, the reason creative nonfiction became such a successful genre was because poets and fiction writers made it into something more than it could or would have been at the time had they continued their work without reaching for something new. Hemingway, Diane Ackerman, George Orwell, James Baldwin—there are only a few of the many poets and fiction writers who pushed the genre to a new level.

Q: The topics of your books are widely variedfrom thinking robots to motorcycle subculture, baseball umpires to organ transplantation, and other disparate alleyways and byways of reportage. Why are you so curious?

I guess I am curious. But, more so, I hunger to enrich my life with as many different experiences as I can fit in, and to live what I call the creative nonfiction life.  I want to interact with all kinds of people and embrace the challenge of fitting in and gaining their trust and, in the process, learn what they think and know.  This is not easy.  In my work, you have to have patience and be empathetic, waiting for something to happen that will lead to stories that will capture the essence of the experience.  When that happens, all the time and energy you have invested pays off because then, at that moment, you have something unique and special to write about.  And I am not talking just about the immersion work I do.  For the past couple of years, I have been working on a memoir, and I have been immersing myself in who I am and why I do the things I do and did.  The answers don’t come quickly.  I need to be as curious about myself as I am with others, pushing and prodding and waiting for answers.

Q: In terms of other forms, such as poetry, do you find that poets do not want to admit some of their poems are actually true?

A: This is a broad generalization, but it seems the poetry is much truer than fiction and closer to nonfiction than short stories or novels. The fiction writer tries to engage and entertain and that’s great, but it seems poets try harder to make their words matter and to capture what is true metaphorically and factually.

Q: Since you have written in many forms, including fiction, what about other writers whose work in each genre informs the other? How do you see that happening or evolving today? Any examples or authors you might suggest reading…

I think it was a bigger deal—20 to 30 years ago—for writers to switch genres. But now that creative nonfiction has been established as a literary and publishing force, writers can remain comfortably focused here for an entire career. It pays better, and in CNF you can exercise your craft in extraordinary ways, using all available literary techniques to pursue real life.  As to the reading of younger writers who cross genres, you gotta go with Michael Chabon and Eula Biss, first and foremost.

Q: What do you think of the early works of Daniel Defoe as a pioneering example? In your book, you describe Defoe’s use of the composite character–though people believed his early novels, like Robinson Crusoe to be partly true… 

A: I know so little about him, but I do know that he was in business, and was a journalist. He was in jail, in a debtors’ prison.  He traveled widely. He pushed the envelope of life and literature in all kinds of different directions.  He lived the creative nonfiction life.

Q: Do you find that some younger writers resist getting their hands dirty? Creative Writing programs are absolutely terrific. They serve a definite purpose, and I believe in them.  But they can limit student experience—keep students in the classroom focusing on craft and minimize the substance and material that make the craft useful.  “Getting their hands dirty,” as you put it, is what life is all about and experiencing and capturing real life is what creative nonfiction is all about. There ought to be a better balance.  I prefer the low-residency model, like Goucher College’s.  Many students are older, and may be into their second or third lives. Creative writing programs can also discourage the opportunity to be a Hemingway or a Kerouac. To find the world and write about the world is part of the Great American Literary Tradition.  The other problem I have is the emphasis on the MFA degree in hiring faculty.  McPhee, Talese, Lillian Ross did not have and did not need an MFA.  I don’t have an MFA degree, and I did alright.

Q: How might resistance to experiencing life first change? If I was the czar of a writing program, which I’m not right now, I would say you can’t be a graduate student in my creative writing program unless you are 30 years of age, or that you can show me you have something to write about that reflects a world view.

Q: What about a required internship in a blue-collar or similar job? Absolutely. The Peace Corps, Teach for America, the military—Starbucks, McDonald’s, being an EMT are all great ideas and ways to see something else in the world and connect with your readers. What the hell!  We become writers because we want to make an impact, to change and inform people. If we don’t have the ammunition and experience to communicate and connect with the reader, we won’t be able to do much good. 

Q: Along those lines, do you find that younger writers are less likely to use details about people, fearful of invading privacy or showing judgment/being offensive by describing someone’s girth, etc.? (An example, my students had such criticisms of “XXXL/The Giant” by Micheal Paterniti). Some people spend a good deal of time focusing on curating and selfie-izing their profiles and public images. In your view, how might this affect an ability to observe and report?

I honestly don’t think writers think a lot about political correctness and, if they do, they shouldn’t—or not until they allow themselves to be as vivid and expansive as possible. No writer should inhibit their spontaneous creative expression by worrying about who might be offended by their words, ideas, and observations.  I think their editors should worry about that—or at least help them worry about that.  But I do think, if you work hard enough, you can intimately describe people and places in evocative ways without being mean and hurtful.

On the other hand, people are very sensitive, and often, whatever you say, if it is in any way unflattering, and even if it isn’t all unflattering, you invariably get some blowback. And what’s so terrible about blowback, especially if your observations are rendered truthfully and with eloquent precision?  And, frankly, in my experience, young people are much more apt to be more honest and direct and spontaneous than older folks.  Universities—where young people learn their trade and shape their futures—fear criticism and litigation. The hesitations are enforced from higher up.  Like I said, writers should open up, go for broke initially, then reassess in later drafts, with the help of their editors.

Q: You write that subjectivity is part of creative nonfiction. Yet there’s also the objective fly-on-the wall approach, such as House, Among Schoolchildren, Old Friends, and other books by Tracy Kidder. Can you talk a little about such approaches?

A: We all know true objectivity is impossible. And subjectivity can be subtle.  I mean, who and what we choose to write about—and not write about—is a subjective choice.  Readers know that what they are reading is mostly what is seen and reported with a writer’s eye.  And I think that in creative nonfiction it is okay, although not necessary, to tell your readers what you think about—how you feel about the subjects you are writing about, including yourself—if it is personal history/memoir.  If we do our work well, we writers know a lot, more so in some respects than the people we are writing about.  When I did my book about organ transplantation, I devoted weeks and months to spending time with, living with, patients and their families. And I knew a lot more about them than their surgeons did.  I would have been cheating my readers if I had not added that dimension, even though my reflections and observations were not necessarily balanced.  Many great writers, of course, like John McPhee, capture things so vividly they don’t have to reflect so much, and that is okay. But the traditional objective journalistic barriers are way down.

Q: Is journalism still a backbone of creative nonfiction, including reportage, interviews, and being on the scene? Yes. Even in memoir.  The best personal stories include scenes, obviously, experiences and moments, lived-through and observed.  They also include conversations—you can call them interviews—with the people about whom you are writing.  And with yourself.  This is not journalism in the traditional sense of the word, but the ways in which you gather information and ideas and put them on the page is not at all that different.

Q: What about outright lies, when people make things up whole cloth. In You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, you mention the many writers who did just that: Jason Blair, James Frey, and others. What is the pathology behind that do you think? There must be something more to it…

 A: I think the driving force—the pathology—is the mania and need to get published. Bringing to the public what it is you have struggled with for years or even decades. I have no sympathy for James Frey, but I can, rationally, understand what he did. Think of the life of a writer. We all live alone with our keyboard and punch this stuff out without a lot of encouragement or acknowledgment.  Then your book is done, and for various reasons, publishers pay little attention.  It is very hurtful.  And I can even understand how his imagination ran away with him, extending, for example, a few hours in jail to many months.  But that is all rough draft stuff.  At some point, it is time to go back, assess what you have written and decide what you can live with and what is honest and true and accurate, and what is not.  Frey didn’t do that, which in the end was a prescription for disaster, and he deserved all of the criticism and ostracism he received.  Equally egregious I think, maybe even more so, was Jonah Lehrer.  What was he thinking, I can’t help but wonder, making stuff up about Bob Dylan?  That’s not alternative facts, for God’s sake—it is fake news.  Frey and Lehrer, and many others we could name, will never be believed or respected again.

Q: I might be going out on a limb discussing this with the Godfather of Creative Nonfiction, but what do you think of the idea of the three-quarter-true story–what we do here at 3QR, ‘prose and poetry greater than 75 percent true?’ Some would call this simply fiction, but we think there’s another aesthetic offered by a mostly true story, the equivalent in film being based-on-a-true-story. Of course, I agree fully with your idea of nonfiction being factual and sourced, but it seemed to me that a “category” issue has led to restrictions on writers, limiting how and what they write. Why not say what it is?

A: I admire what you are trying to do. I think it’s okay to have three-quarters truth or to stretch the truth or even exaggerate or make stuff up that bolsters what you are trying to say if indeed you are honest with the reader. If you are pushing the genre as far as you can, and your own art and your own potential at the same time, there is nothing wrong with going off on something that might not be true because we do that in our heads anyway—as long as we come back at some point and be honest with the reader. Tell them what we did and why.  It is another interesting dimension.

Q: And lastly, in terms of the political and social arenas of writing, can you tell me a bit more about your recent work with the UA School of the Future of Innovation in Society, and policy-oriented work as a distinguished writer-in-residence at the Consortium for Science Policy and Outcomes? Why are policy and science increasingly important?

A: It is important to me personally, because as we talked when we first started [this interview], I think the parameters of creative nonfiction allow writers to go far past the basics of journalism and personal writing to look at this world we are living in via expanded and analytic ways and dimensions. The world is 50 times more complicated than it was 50 years ago or even 25 years ago. There is so much we need to know in order to get along, to survive and shape the future.  In the science policy think tank, where I am writer in residence and in the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, where I am a professor, I work with very committed and incredibly smart people who don’t necessarily know how to take ideas and information and share their knowledge in ways the general reader will understand. The challenge for me is to help them do that, and I have gained a great deal of knowledge in the process—and a new world has opened up for me.

I have to say that I was way behind the curve with all of this policy stuff, the concern with reshaping the future in a safe and well-defined way—what my new colleagues were calling “responsible innovation.”  But I learned a lot, gradually, and was excited and invigorated by how I could open new avenues of communication—between the experts and those impacted by their ideas and achievements—through what I had been practicing throughout my life: Writing and teaching true stories.  Creative writing programs traditionally focus on craft: story-writing technique and not so much the message inherent in the story, as I’ve said, the reason for writing.

A better balance between message and technique would make writers more productive and allow their words to make a greater impact in the world.  Because of the Internet and social media, no writer, especially those who write nonfiction, is local anymore.  We never know who will tap into our thoughts and ideas, or when and how we can change their perceptions. Yes, we write about what we know, what is around us, but we should always consider the potential global effect.

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