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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…

DO YOU LIKE READING CREATIVE NONFICTION? WHAT ARE YOU FAVOURITE JOURNALS, BLOGS OR WEBSITES?

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Crafting the truth: Jeanette Winterson + Kate Holden

Kate Holden, The RomanticAs the NonfictioNow Conference heads to Melbourne in November, I’ve been thinking a lot about creative nonfiction. It’s my favourite genre at the moment. I love its playfulness, its lyrical language, the ability to create exciting narratives with historical resonance, the way writers can shape people’s lives (and their own).

I think I’m most interested in where boundaries blur, where nonfiction blends into fiction and other genres, at what point the self dissolves in memoir. Recent discussions at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival around nonfiction concentrated (as always) on the truth. Lee Gutkind, the so-called ‘godfather’ of the creative nonfiction movement, kept repeating his mantra: true stories, well told. But I found this emphasis frustrating and limiting. Why do we always have to focus on the ‘truth’, that slippery and elusive notion? Why do readers get so angry when the author is revealed to have made things up? It’s the same for documentary film. Many still carry the notion that docos are somehow real, rather than carefully constructed arguments.

I’ve never understood this strong attachment to ‘what really happened’. It seems that when you write nonfiction you’ve signed a contract with the reader. As with an intimate relationship, if you lie, it’s a betrayal. Readers don’t seem to forgive. But I’m more interested in the slippages, what lies between what happened and what the writer reveals. Take a look at your daily life and the story you tell about it to others. I’d guess you lie to yourself (and others) many times a day; or if not quite a lie, then not quite the truth. If you write about your life, this takes on an extra dimension; you’re creating for an audience, shaping a narrative so that others will want to share the journey.

Kate Holden, author, The Romantic

Kate Holden, author of The Romantic

Kate Holden is one of the most interesting writers working in nonfiction. Her first memoir In My Skin was a page-turner, in the best sense (one of my favourite books of past years). Her tale of heroin addiction, and the lure of prostitution, was unusual in that it worked almost as literary fiction, beautifully crafted and confident in technique and attention to detail and character.

In her second, The Romantic, she has even more of an experiment with style and genre. In an interview for The Age, Jane Sullivan spoke to Holden and commented:

Everything in The Romantic is true, but it has been “filtered and worked on”. Readers tend to think a memoir is a chronicle or record of a life, “but it’s a much more subtle form. You’re compressing, eliding, using your craft to present a good story.”

Her disclaimer at the beginning of the book (that she read out at the Melbourne Writers’ Festival) is a careful reminder to readers that all may not be as it seems:

This is a work of imagination as well as truth. All names have been changed and characterisation compressed. It is a sincere memory in shaped retrospect. The author is real.

Although again a memoir, Holden plays with the conventions of a rom-com-style odyssey through Italy — while revealing the passivity that plagues her in many situations, especially in her relationships with men. This is no Eat, Pray, Love. While a recovering addict, she is also in a sense testing out her new identity as a single woman abroad, re-learning how to be independent, and working out how to relate to men (with sex and without) now she’s no longer a paid sex worker. While there’s the occasional joyous moment, many of her experiences are brutal and painful, full of self-doubt and despair.

Jeanette Winterson, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?Jeanette Winterson is also prepared to be brutal (about herself and others) in Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, her memoir about growing up in an abusive household, with a deranged mother who’s waiting for the end of the world. Winterson’s style is savage, rushed, compelling — as if she’s running down a mountain trying to escape an avalanche (of emotion). But there are some gaps (big ones), years that she jumps over, a suicide attempt mentioned in passing.

As with Kate Holden’s writing, her strength is in her ability to feel, convey and translate pain. But also maintain a sense of wonder. As her mother bans and burns her books, she decides she can hold them close (within her body) by memorising texts; her connection to literature, to the local library, keeps her alive.

I’ve just started on my own nonfiction path. I don’t find it different from writing fiction, really. I try to inhabit my characters (real or not), play with the landscape I’m creating, and transform research into something dynamic. I don’t like being tied down by boundaries and expectations. But I do let the players involved read the end product, and if they’re happy, I run with it.

WHAT ABOUT YOU? READ ANY GREAT NONFICTION LATELY? 

WILD COLONIAL GIRL IS NOW ON FACEBOOK. IF YOU COULD LIKE, I WOULD REALLY LOVE!

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