“NonfictioNow” to me was a question: What is nonfiction (now)?
There was not one answer. Asking a group of graduate students from the Nonfiction Writing Program yielded all different responses:
“The only genre defined by what it is not.”
“Fiction with a prefix.”
“There’s only one thing it isn’t, though often it is.”
Nonfiction may be true, but not true like math, not one-right-answer true.
Maybe the slogan for the conference–“exploring the past, present, and future of nonfiction and its myriad forms”–is also a way of repeatedly, disparately answering the question. The schedule of the conference perhaps does too, with its broad range of offerings: performances, readings, and panels by songwriters, graphic memoirists, small presses and visitors from far off places–Ireland, Australia, Alaska.
Like the “past” the slogan references, creative nonfiction is old, though it hasn’t always been called by that name. It’s writing familiar across time and place–to Seneca, in Rome, during the first century; to Sei Shonagon, in Japan, around the year 1000; to Montaigne in the French Renaissance; to Borges, from Argentina, who died at the age of 86 in 1986–and it’s familiar to pop culture, with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes as examples. It has not always been labeled “creative,” however, and sometimes it’s been hiding:
“In my parents’ day, ‘memoirs’ didn’t exist,” Robin Hemley, Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program (NWP), told me. “They were called ‘first novels’.”
Hemley finds “creative nonfiction” a tortured term: in fiction and poetry, “creative” is always assumed.
Maggie McKnight, an organizer for the conference, admits that it can be “tricky” to explain.
“It’s like the difference between a good documentary film and an instructional film on how to install a garbage disposal,” she said. “In documentary, obviously there is a filmmaker, whereas watching an instructional video you don’t wonder, ‘How did they make that decision?’”
“You can’t help but make stuff up,” Hemley said. “Every time we lay down words, we try to do so honestly, but there are different perspectives on what honesty is.”
Nonfiction may be true, but not black-and-white true.
The word “true” is not really black-and-white, except when typed out onto newsprint. There is the “true” you hope your sweetheart will be, the “true” paired with blue that has nothing to do with hue. There is the truth you stand for. Once, in New York, I watched a panel discussion on the topic of nonfiction. An historian in the crowd stood up and pontificated with magnanimous gestures about the truth (not everyone agrees). There is the truth you can’t handle, so Jack Nicholson yells.
Writing it, sometimes nonfiction can become a different question: Is this nonfiction now? Even Hemley, the author of eight books and certainly not an amateur, has been lost in the gray.
“The form of the story is a fairly regulated form–with exposition, climax, denouement–but with nonfiction, that’s all out the window,” said Hemley, who graduated in 1982 from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with a Fiction M.F.A. “It in many ways mirrors the way the mind works.”
“I just had the odd experience of finishing an 18 page piece after five years,” Hemley told me. Originally supposed to be an essay on marriage, the piece eventually began to look more like a work of historical fiction. “I kept wondering what it was, but I decided I didn’t have to decide.”
It’s perhaps in this deciding-not-to-decide way that NonfictioNow is like the “future” it aims to explore: we are all still deciding, today and the next day.