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"Advanced Directive to My Future Roommate…"

"Things Gone the Way of Time," recently reprinted in Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction (Norton)

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Word Painting Revised Edition: The Fine Art of Writing Descriptively

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The Tribal Knot

Rebecca'a newest nonfiction book, The Tribal Knot: A Memoir of Family, Community, and a Century of Change is now available from Indiana University Press and Amazon.

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My Response to the Frequently Asked Question: What Exactly Do you Mean by Creative/Literary Nonfiction?


Literary nonfiction is nonfiction that aspires to the condition of art. This aspiration may reveal itself in many ways—in close attention to language, for instance, or in an elegant, original structure, a well-paced narrative, a surprising voice or in a new take on an old subject. Literary nonfiction uses the materials of the ordinary world in extraordinary ways. It pays attention and attempts to find what Henry James calls "the figure in the carpet," the design that is woven into even the most everyday events. It notices collisions and intersections, using them as opportunities into the deeper story while also holding as its highest task what Faulkner, in his Nobel acceptance speech, called the search for "the human heart in conflict with itself." This conflict of heart, this place where the nonfiction writer is divided—intellectually, perhaps, or emotionally—is the center of nonfiction writing, even if the writer herself is only the "eye" viewing her subject peripherally, rather than the "I" at the center of the storm.

The center of the storm may not always reveal itself in story, so I wish to enlarge the notion of literary nonfiction to include structures other than narrative. There are also lyric modes; segmented, "follow the brush" structures; the profile; the travel piece; the personal essay fueled by argument or voice; collage or montage or mosaic; meditation; rant; reverie; journal or diary; language-propelled texts I call “exhalations” and any number of hybrid forms.

Though nonfiction is, by definition, rooted in actual experience, in getting the facts straight—or as straight as any facts can be gotten—it is also rooted in what writer Dinty W. Moore calls the "author's authentic thoughts." I recently read a book (which I almost didn't finish for reasons I will only partially explain) that bothered me a great deal. I had no problem with the facts of the story; they were, I was convinced, highly researched and reliably accurate facts. However, I did not trust the author's take on the events. Specifically, I did not believe that the events she so scrupulously and accurately described actually meant as much to her as she made them out to mean. No one will take her to court on this charge. No one will scream, "You lied!" about facts, timeline, etc. Still, something about the book felt untrue to this reader; the emotion felt trumped up. For this reason and others, I do not consider her book an example of artful literary nonfiction. Writers can get the facts right—and it goes without saying that getting the facts right is an essential job of nonfiction writers—and still miss the truth of the heart.

Another way to distinguish literary nonfiction from non-literary nonfiction regards not so much the definition of "finished" nonfiction, by which I mean the text itself and what we might glean from that finished text, but rather the process of that text's making. The process of writing literary nonfiction is closer, I feel, to the process of writing other forms of literary art (fiction, poetry, drama) than it is to the process of writing traditional, academic, or strictly journalistic forms of nonfiction. The literary nonfiction writer often proceeds without knowing what she will discover or what form the final work will take. Words are not just containers into which she places her already conceived notions, plots, or structures; words are her partners in the journey to discover the pattern hiding within the facts. The literary nonfiction writer writes into the question, into the mystery, and the writing process itself is part of the journey.

NOTE: One of the many reasons I dislike the term “creative nonfiction” is that it so often leads directly into a discussion of whether it is permissible for nonfiction writers to “make things up,” a tiresome and often pointless discussion that robs us of energy to explore the myriad ways in which nonfiction writers can approach their subjects with creativity and imagination.