Michael Steinberg's Blog--The Fourth Genre: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction
February 28, 2017
Note: Nicole Walker's short piece on/about the differences between how journalists and writers of creative nonfiction use facts is particularly timely, especially in light of the current dispute about what distinguishes "alternative" facts from "real" facts.
Actual Facts is an essay that should appeal to the genre's teachers, writers, and editors.
#57, Actual Facts, Nicole Walker
I just got back from a quick trip to see my family over President’s Day Weekend. We sold our car to my nephew and drove it up to him. As usual, it was super fun to see my family although they are much better at having fun than I am, so I came back exhausted. Plus, traveling on the weekends during the semester is plain impossible. I had to work both of the days I was there, finishing some revisions to an essay coming out in March. The essay is actually about my sisters and how they are politically like-minded but go about persuading people in different ways. My sister Paige teaches AP Environmental Biology at the public school in Salt Lake and persuades her students to pay attention to gametes. My other sister, Valerie, is the National Sales Manager for a TV Station in Boise. She persuades people by reminding them they are beautiful. Neither of them has a huge agenda, but I’d argue that paying attention to the world around you and to be kind would be their combined philosophies, although they advocate for those ideas in different ways.
I was writing about their similarities and differences for this essay that I asked them to read and they were like, “No, that’s not true! I did not teach 8th grade for four years, I taught it for one year.” And “No, I didn’t say that your boobs remind me of turtles. Frogs. It was frogger boobs.” So I emailed the editor and asked him to change those details and my sisters rolled their eyes as they usually do when I say I write “creative nonfiction” because they tease me that “creative” means I can make up anything I want.
I tell them no, that’s why I had them check the essay. They don’t like it when I lecture so I didn’t tell them the deeper definition of creative nonfiction. I tell my students the nonfiction uses facts as a springboard to creativity. I also tell them, we’re not journalists. We aren’t going for objectivity. We’re actually going for subjectivity. The difference between creative nonfiction and journalism is that you want bias in your creative nonfiction. That said, it’s your responsibility to define and be clear with your bias. You can do that several ways. You can begin with a disclaimer. You can write in short, poetic, syncopated lines. You can use research and cite your sources in a regular font and then imagine the effects of that research in an italicized font. You can use the word “perhaps” or “maybe” or the subjunctive or conditional tense. You can, like John D’Agata, begin your book About a Mountain by listing a numbers that the senators used on C-SPAN to show how truly unfacty numbers can be. Senators pull any number out of the air to suit their agenda to argue about transporting nuclear waste to Yucca Mountain: “Yucca’s projected total cost of $24 billion” and “$27 billion” and “$38 billion” and $46 billion” and $59 billion” and “at least 60 billion” and “100 billion” and “too much” and “we have no other choice.” The whole book is about the facile way people use numbers and statistics as if numbers emblematize the purist meaning so when John D’Agata uses numbers fast and loose, he’s doing it within an established context of fast and loose.
I steer my students away from writing fast and loose with the facts not only because they lose credibility but also because there is something very empowering about facts. You can rely on facts to provide you the biggest bounce to your creativity. I just wrote an essay on the difference between Australia’s possums and the United States’ opossum. What is more exciting than the difference between that O?
In the media, we have descended into ‘alternative facts’ which means now I have to go around and defend my genre all over again. Creative nonfiction isn’t alternative facts. It isn’t even using facts creatively. It is using facts to spur imagination. That imagination is saturated in bias but that bias is noted in every word choice, font, disclaimer, verb, and voice. All people have biases. Here are mine, we say. Alternative facts pretend there are no biases. Alternative facts claim real journalism. But real journalism doesn’t use the I. It weighs and investigates. It informs and substantiates. It is the foundation and to build or create or make anything from it, it has to be stable.
NICOLE WALKER is the author of three forthcoming books Sustainability: A Love Story, Microcosm, and Canning Peaches for the Apocalypse. Her previous books include Egg, Micrograms, Quench Your Thirst with Salt, and This Noisy Egg. She also edited Bending Genre with Margot Singer. She’s nonfiction editor at Diagram and Associate Professor at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona where it rains like the Pacific Northwest, but only in July.