wild colonial girl

A freelancer moves to Castlemaine

The World According to Gutkind: Creative Nonfiction (Australia)

The 'Australia' edition of 'Creative Nonfiction' magazine

The ‘Australia’ edition of ‘Creative Nonfiction’ magazine

Creative Nonfiction magazine, edited by Lee Gutkind, has been one of my favourite reads of the past couple of years. I like its focus on various forms of nonfiction: immersion, memoir, the lyric essay. Reading it has taught me a lot about style, and how to embark on my own nonfiction path (I have always found fiction easier). I tend to be drawn in by what Sam Twyford-Moore calls  ‘semi-fiction’ (in an article in Seizure magazine), that tender and fragile writing that’s kind of a personal history (but not quite).

When Creative Nonfiction called out that it was taking on an Australian edition, it was the incentive I needed. I had a subject looking for a place to live. It took me three months to write the 4,000-word essay. When I sent it off, I wasn’t completely happy with it. How do you fit into the ‘Australia’ idea. How do you corral a subject so it represents the small and the large? I struggled. Part of the problem was that I wanted to write about a journey as it happened, a search. But when I was doing the research, the people I was interviewing found this hard to understand. I was setting off without any plan. I had no end in mind. It’s difficult to get people involved, when they don’t know where you are heading or, more importantly, where you are going to end up. But this is the place in writing that I enjoy the most: the being lost.

I wasn’t successful in getting into the magazine. But when you’re rejected, stats always make you feel better. There were 343 submissions. Seven essays were eventually published. My rejection letter was also unusually exciting in that it said that the magazine was hoping to publish a book and my essay was of interest. Yay! Unfortunately this didn’t happen in the end. Which got me to thinking. What happened to those other 335 essays? I bet there are some beauties out there. I could easily do a website, or an ebook that throws them all together: the fish that John West rejected – McSweeney’s-style! If you’re interested, contact me. It’s a project I’d like to get my teeth into. For, despite the fact that nonfiction is a growing genre, and what the publishers want, there aren’t enough publishing options.

The launch of the ‘Australia’ edition of the magazine hit the Melbourne Writers’ Festival. Lee Gutkind was in the house. What I didn’t realise about Gutkind is that he has a message to push: You Can’t Make This Stuff Up. Because that’s the title of his latest book. He is an entrepreneur, regaling the audience with stories and passion. But the message is starting to wear thin (after you’ve heard it for the tenth time). There’s a culture clash happening here, and it was made clear on the night of the launch. Like most attending, I was keen to see who was in the magazine, what the essays were about and who had won the prizes (call me shallow). The ‘Emerging Writer Prize’ went to Susan Bradley-Smith for ‘Writing an Obituary in a Hot Climate: Seven Things’. (It’s interesting to me that Bradley-Smith is called an emerging writer, despite her bio saying she has been a journalist in Sydney and London, and has two publications under her belt — at what point do you emerge from emerging?) Her essay encompasses everything I love about creative nonfiction: it is in the form of a list; it is intensely personal; it is full of passion; and it frogleaps: from a runaway mother to the death of her child to racism to why we don’t read Australian novels to hating real estate agents to grey nurse sharks to the horror of fire to boys dying in car accidents. She read excerpts from the essay on the night and it was powerful and provocative.

Which brings me to the overall winning essay, Rachel Friedman’s ‘Discovery’. Now I have to admit it. When Rachel started reading her essay into the Wheeler Centre — via satellite  — the combination of an American accent and the words ‘James Cook’ in the opening paragraph threw me. I knew the essay competition was open to international contributors but I didn’t expect an American to actually, you know, like, win. I was doing battle: with my idea of cultural imperalism — of having an American tell me what Australia is all about. Suddenly I found myself feeling patriotic. The defender of all things local. I’d have to erect an Aussie flag in my backyard. Where was this coming from?

Now, having read Friedman’s article in a more open frame of mind, I realise, it just doesn’t compare with the other essays, in terms of style, spice, flavour of the place. Just look at Stephen Wright’s ‘Nation of Grief’, Madelaine Dicke’s ‘Battling Collective Amnesia’, Rosemary Jones’ ‘Arms of the Earth’, Kirsten Fogg’s ‘After the Flood on Harte Street’ and James Guida’s ‘Strong Loyalties’: these essays sing with a shared spirit. Friedman’s work may be clever and tricksy, but it doesn’t match up, for me.

As an editor, you’re always going to commission articles with a certain bent. But I think Gutkind’s framing of the ‘Australia’ edition is pushing his (somewhat conservative) idea of ‘true stories, well told’ too much, to the occasional detriment of the magazine. His quote by Geraldine Brooks on the magazine’s cover (‘It’s either true or it’s not true, and if you’ve made it up, then it should be on the fiction shelf’) seems a disappointing reduction of all the elegant questioning that’s going on within the pages. It seems a shame that much of the magazine focuses, in such a limited space, on the (old hat) musings of Brooks, Robert Dessaix and Robyn Williams, when it’s clear from the few essays reproduced that there’s a lot of insightful, exciting, questioning going on by other (less established) writers. I would have liked to see a few more.

Which brings me back. Where are those missing essays? If you have one (and it hasn’t been published), send it to me. And we can take it from there…


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9 thoughts on “The World According to Gutkind: Creative Nonfiction (Australia)

  1. Yes. Let’s do this!!

  2. Hi Kirsten,
    Thank you for reviewing this issue of CNF amid all your other writing deadlines. It’s refreshing to hear your thoughts, as I was disappointed by the volume as a whole. And not just because my own essay was rejected! Despite knowing that anthologies are a biatch to produce and generally sell few copies, I got my hopes up about a possible anthology because I’m sure there are a bunch of strong essays floating about. My essay is now on submission elsewhere.
    I wonder if Australian writers read too much into the selection of the theme and crafted overly ponderous essays on identity as a result. Maybe there was too much sameness to the themes of the submissions? It would be interesting to hear the CNF editors speak about that. Australians do tend to directly address questions of cultural identity in a way Americans rarely do. The recent Griffith Review issue “What is Australia For?” is a good example of a question that Australians take very seriously that many Americans either find amusing, or fail to understand. I loved the breadth of that issue, by the way. Generally I also found some of the material in the CNF Australia issue repetitive – such as the Dessaix and Brooks interviews – but only because I’d been sated by other previously published essays (eg Dessaix’s brilliant piece in Australian Book Review that considered some of these nonfiction issues deeply). But ABR is not something American readers would know about … which raises the question of who the Australia issue of CNF was for. –Virginia

    • Thanks, Virginia. I was wondering whether anyone else has actually read the magazine. Let me know when your essay is published. I’ve decided to have another go at mine as it’s still not working quite the way I’d like it to. It’s as much about learning to write in this style. I’m not sure regarding the possible ‘over ponderous’ nature of the essays. Yes, I thought and thought about the theme, and then Lee Gutkind mentioned in a talk that most of the essays were too ‘small’, not bringing in wider issues of worldly debate. But those aren’t necessarily the essays I love to read; I quite like the ‘small’ in many cases. But Bradley-Smith I think manages to do it all. I haven’t read the Griffith Review so will look at that. I usually like both Dessaix’s and Brooks’ writing – but they seemed uncomfortable in the edition. What did you think of the winning essay? Was it just me?

  3. Hmm I also had an essay in this that didn’t make it but I wasn’t overly concerned or surprised because I haven’t written much in this genre. But I’m happy to have another look at it and see if it would suit something you have in mind, Kirsten. I like the idea of a leftovers-collection of some sort. My piece was about a trip to Lake Eyre in 1989 merged with unrequited love. Would be great to read some other essays.

  4. Okay I’ll drag it out and look at it. Try to get it better. Will email, thanks. And Happy New Year and all that. 2013 – onwards and upwards!

  5. Samantha D on said:

    Hi, Kirsten.

    An interesting blog post – I hadn’t heard of Creative Nonfiction magazine before and am now very interested to read it.

    I’d also be interested to hear about the progress of your project, and will check back here from time to time. Maybe even offer an opinion or two when I am more informed on the subject!



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