Interview by Lori M. Myers
Sean Prentiss, an assistant professor at Norwich University College of Arts in Vermont, and Joe Wilkins, an associate professor of English at Linfield College in Oregon, pondered these same questions in The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: An Anthology of Exploration in Creative Nonfiction (Michigan State University Press, March 2014). The co-editors collected essays written by Dinty W. Moore, Lee Barnes, Ander Monson, and others who wrote about the craft of writing nonfiction and the challenges of dealing with writing about reality.
Far Edges of the Fourth Genre is a must-read for any writer who wishes to delve further into this curious craft.
Lori: Several terms have been used to identify this genre: nonfiction, contemporary nonfiction, or creative nonfiction – a term that some reject. After gathering these essays, is there a resolution to this controversy? Like history, should we consider it “revisionist” nonfiction?
Joe: Definitely no resolution! But I’m fine with that. Ours is a genre built on and bent toward questions, and the fact that we keep going around and around about what to call it—well, I think it’s fitting. In my writing classes, I use creative nonfiction and literary nonfiction pretty much interchangeably; that said, I do spend time naming the sub-genres—memoir, lyric essay, literary journalism—as naming at that level can become a way to understand and know the powers and boundaries of a thing. It’s just the big one, the big tent name—I’m not sure we’re going to, or even need to, settle that dispute anytime soon.
Sean: Each term brings something to what and how we write. So, like Joe, I like the varied terms. It might be easier to have a single term for our genre (Joe and I decided just to use “the fourth genre” in the title due to its alliteration and “creative nonfiction” within most of the anthology because of its popularity, though some of our authors chose other terms), but we’ve found no single term that best encapsulates all the forms and styles. And I think this book might add to the mess of names. As mentioned above, some of our authors like creative nonfiction (my personal favorite), some like nonfiction, some like narrative nonfiction, Joe uses literary nonfiction. But, yes, I think we should also add revisionist nonfiction to the messy mix. Each one bites off some corner of what we create and how we view ourselves creating it.
Sean, you write “we should not expect truth…” How “flexible” can memory and truth truly be and still be considered nonfiction?
Sean: I’m of the camp, and there are many camps, that creative nonfiction writers need to be true to the event, the emotion, the experience that we are witnessing. That truth is what we are after before art. Art serves truth. As Erik Reece, in his beautiful essay, “The Act of Writing: Speak and Bear Witness,” argues “to elevate reality to the level of art is one of the fundamental tasks of the nonfiction writer [so that it has the] ability to bear witness and the veracity that comes from that act.” So we need to be as true as an individual can be. We need to hold our memories against the mirror of fact, of the known. We should gather differing perspectives. We should acknowledge that our memories are always deeply flawed. We should examine photographs and consult with old journals and diaries. In short, creative nonfiction writers need to do their homework. So on one level, memory and truth have no room for flexibility. There is true and there is false. There is creative nonfiction and there is fiction.
But that position, my preferred position, allows no room for the messy reality of the human mind. What I mean is that we should strive for a perfect truth, a noumenal truth. But we need to acknowledge all the faults with memory and all the limitations on truth. And because of those limitations, we may allow ourselves to get muddy.
Joe: This really is the fundamental question of nonfiction writing, isn’t it? The question inherent in the oxymoronic term we most often use as a title for the genre itself—creative nonfiction. As Sean mentions, many of the writers in The Far Edges grapple with this question in various and fascinating ways. I’d only add that I see the truth, or, more accurately, our grasping after the truth, not as something that limits but as something that allows. Like the meter and rhyme allow a sonnet to become itself, rigorous attention to memory and research and careful observation allow an essay or memoir to find its essential self.
Why was it important to publish The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: An Anthology of Exploration in Creative Nonfiction? How and where do you foresee this book being used?
Sean: This idea came to me in maybe 2005. I was sitting in creative nonfiction classes led by Mary Clearman Blew and Kim Barnes. The class would have a great discussion on some wonderful topic. But it was just one class all alone having a great conversation. We had no sparking essay to discuss; we had to come up with every idea on our own. As someone who loved talking about and immersing myself in creative nonfiction, I felt alone and lonely. I knew other great conversations were occurring on campuses and in bars across the nation. But we couldn’t access them. This book was designed to bring some of those many discussions together, to give students of creative nonfiction a chance to talk with each other, to read a text that offers seventeen ways to converse about creative nonfiction. And those seventeen chapters can bind themselves together into a multitude of conversations. So this book was designed to be a conversation starter and to bring together the various conversations we were already having.
And we hope that it is used in the classroom. That advanced and graduate level teachers find value in these conversations. We also hope that lovers and writers of creative nonfiction read this book and find new ways to consider the genre. But the pleasant surprise thus far has been all the non-writer who’ve found the book and read it; they’ve talked about being drawn to the ideas not because they are writers but because they are humans, because every one of us has our stories to tell.
Which essay(s) speak to you as a writer? Which surprised you in its reflections on creative nonfiction?
Joe: Though I’ve spent lovely, challenging hours reckoning with all the essays in the collection—and, really, there are so many great essays in there, essays I know I’ll be learning from for years to come—I distinctly remember reading Erik Reece’s “The Act of Writing: Speak and Bear Witness” for the first time.
I’d read Reece’s work before—he’s such a wise, insightful writer—and admired his attention to and care for place and landscape, as well as his courage: he’s a writer unafraid of getting out in the world, for one, but he’s also brave enough to draw conclusions, to take a hard-won, carefully considered stand on the page. And that’s what I so admire about his piece in The Far Edges as well. There’s an emotional clarity here that leads to a moral clarity. Reece knows how he feels about the mountains of Kentucky, and he understands, then, what he must do on the page to honor those feelings: he must bear witness to the truth, he must sing.
Sean: I hate this question because either I give you one essay and feel hemmed in, or I list most of the entire book and feel like a sell out, or I write pages and pages on why I love the different essays. How about I try to narrow it down to three?
Like Joe mentions, I remember reading Reece’s essay, and I was blown away. We both knew this needed to end the anthology. This powerful call to action. You can read Reece’s piece at Terrain.
I know Jonathan Rovner well. I’ve admired his work since graduate school. So we invited him to write a piece, and he came back with this snarky, funny, poignant, sad look at a failed text-and-email relationship. It should be boring and trite. Instead, it’s a beautiful look at failed love and also at creative nonfiction in the technology age. Read Rovner’s piece at Brevity. And to really cop out, I’ll go with a tie for third. Nancer Ballard talks about the science of time, which I find just fascinating. And Robin Hemley made me think about translation in a whole new way.
Do we need to change readers’ expectations when they read creative nonfiction? Why or why not?
Joe: I’m teaching a class on rural America in contemporary literature this semester, and we just finished Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped and Lacy M. Johnson’s Trespasses, two very fine and very different memoirs. And for the most part my students did well with them: they read carefully, they made connections, they understood both books as exploding the common myths we hold concerning rural America.
But as we began Ward’s memoir, which came after two books of fiction, I did take the time to talk with them about how, despite the fact that both genres tell stories in prose, the project of nonfiction is fundamentally different than that of fiction: in fiction, the story itself, because it is a created thing, is a matter of analysis; in nonfiction, though, we’re dealing with a given story, and so it’s not the story we’re taking apart—but what the author makes of the story. Though I think this notion may seem self-evident to us, I could tell from my students’ reactions that they hadn’t considered this, that they had planned to read the memoirs just as they would a novel or a book of short stories.
So, yes, as creative nonfiction continues to mature, I do think we writers of personal narratives need to help readers—and many essays and memoirs, including Ward’s and Johnson’s, integrate this instruction into the body of the project itself—see and appreciate these differences.
Sean: Outside of Joe’s look at the shift between fiction and creative nonfiction, writers and readers also need to actively think about what writers are giving and what readers are receiving. As I mention in my essay, “Eternal Sunshine of the Nonfiction Mind,” both the writer and the reader need to have a clear understanding of what the writing is creating. I advocate for thinking about our genre not as truth but as personal mythology: then our essays and memoirs become something that is completely true and factual to the writer but is understood to be a myth, a sculpted story, to the reader because of the limitations of memory.
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