Creative Non-Fiction With Lee Gutkind

July 5, 2010 in On Writing

This one’s a little overdue.  Weeks before my trip to India and Hong Kong, I attended a free session presented by the “Godfather of Creative Non-Fiction” (not originally his own name but more recently it has become self-proclaimed), Lee Gutkind.

Just what the heck is “creative” non-fiction?  Aren’t the two mutually exclusive?

To be honest, the seminar never explained exactly what creative non-fiction is.  Fortunately, I had come across the term before and had a fair idea.  Essentially, it’s writing a true story (ie non fiction) in a creative way (ie like a story).  I believe Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood is a good example of creative non-fiction.  A bad example would be James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces (just kidding, that’s just pure fiction parading as non-fiction).  Other names for creative non-fiction include literary or narrative non-fiction.

What I expected to be an informative seminar about how to write creative non-fiction turned out to be an hour-long pitch by Lee Gutkind to budding writers (such as myself) about how wonderful creative non-fiction is.  Lee was down in Australia for the Sydney Writers’ Festival, and was promoting his magazine Creative Nonfiction and his new book about travelling cross-country with his son.  The session had the same problem as my main issue with the Sydney Writers’ Festival: too much promotion and not enough learning.  Nevertheless, his website can be found here.  The website for the magazine can be found here.

Of course, this is not to say the talk itself was not fascinating.  According to Gutkind, creative non-fiction was the future of writing and publishing.  Creative non-fiction was breaking into education.  Law, medicine, engineering — disciplines previously dominated by textbooks are now using creative non-fiction to teach the new generation.

I can understand why, because textbooks are bloody boring.  It’s much easier to remember elements of a story than rote learn a list.  That’s why when I studied law, it was always easier to remember the facts of a case than sections of a statute.

Actually, a lot of the creative writing stories I have been doing for my classes could be classified as creative non-fiction because many of them were based in fact, if not entirely true.  I definitely see the appeal in such writing because it’s a different type of challenge.  Rather than coming up with a brand new story from scratch, you already have the story right there — you just have to find a way to tell it in a way that is compelling and connects with your audience.

Lee finished his talk with an extract reading of Gay Talese’s creative non-fictional piece, “Frank Sinatra has a Cold”, which was published in Esquire in April 1966 and is regarded as one of the best creative non-fiction stories ever.  Esquire even declared it the “Best Story Esquire Ever Published” in 2003.  It actually is very good.  Check it out here.

PS: When I entered the auditorium, I saw copies of the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction and Lee’s new book on a table by the front.  Thinking that it was free, I almost grabbed a copy, only to find out later that the whole point of the talk was so that he could sell them.  Oops.