Creative Nonfiction, the magazine, has begun to suck.
I’ve subscribed to the genre’s flagship journal, Creative Nonfiction (abbreviated “CNF”), for eight years, since issue #21, and recently it’s changed its format, logo, ad policy and placement, and (here’s my beef) quality. The journal version had a dullish cover; its new format’s cover is still dullish but sized for newsstand sales. Editor Lee Gutkind (“the godfather of creative nonfiction”) and staff used to send me a semiannual so filled with thrilling essays that reading it was a kind of debauchery, and I set it aside until I could fully savor it, as if it were a box of chocolates. And I worked for the day that I would believe I’d written something good enough to send there.
Subscribe to CNF and you will receive its anthologies from time to time. In Fact (2004), was a winner I assigned to a dozen of my classes, and The Best Creative Nonfiction (2007) showcased daringly different shapes for creative nonfiction and included essays culled from other litmags such as PMS (poemmemoirstory). The Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 2 I threw away. I’m tired of reading about how lost and lonely a man feels after paying for a blowjob. The Best Creative Nonfiction Volume 3 (2009) didn’t make a lot of sense, but one of its essays, “The Face of Seung Hui Cho,” about the perpetrator of the Virginia Tech massacre, was such a knockout that I sent its author, Wesley Yang, a fan letter.
The format change began with issue #39, and the current issue, #40, is the second of this type. CNF fills these big pages with white space, hideous illustrations, big “pull quotes,” and ads for MFA programs, but the body type is freakishly tiny (9 point? 8 point? at least one point smaller than the old type). There’s a sense of hollowness, and darn it, they’ll fill the hollow with fevered prose about breast cancer (by a famous name, but written as if she’s the first ever afflicted and the first to write about it), the winners of CNF’s daily tweet contest (#cnftweet), and, in the current issue, #40, themed “Animals,” with nothing-to-say narratives by writers with famous names describing their raccoon problems or their daughter’s pet mice, or their ditz of a spendthrift father; and a crossword puzzle. No lie! And maybe the worst: lyric essays, low on substance but done up in diva prose. That’s prose which requires the use of the word “thus.” Or Tinkerbelle prose, which requires the word “chrysalis.” Even Philip Lopate’s column, and the interview with Lauren Slater (who owes her fame to CNF) say nothing new. Thanks, Lauren, for telling the world that writers of creative nonfiction have to make stuff up. We don’t.
I’m never against change and maybe the new CNF is just getting its legs and will prosper. Hope so. Reading #39 and #40 I realized what I want: essays searing enough to shift my perceptions, esthetics, and boundaries, and my whole life. I want the “human news” the best essays deliver. I want the cutting edge of the expanding universe of creative nonfiction. I want to be spellbound by sheer excellence. I want creative nonfiction so real it makes me writhe. The editors know what I mean.
I was going to say how I can't forgive myself my premature publications and missteps, but realized that writers grow up in public, more so, than say, business or pre-med majors. There is still every chance that a fire will consume the archives. I wonder how it'll be for the young writers growing up online. I sure am glad there was no Internet when I was 19.
Poets deliberately withhold from their resumes and job applications the fact that they are poets. You may not be aware you have poets on staff. There is absolutely nothing worse. This list of “poet behaviors” will help you root them out. A poet:
- frequents the post office
- reads books and magazines with no pictures in them
- cannot tell you the current date and time
- claims to have cremated one “Sam McGee”
- has studied "humanities"
- frequently finds important workplace communications to be “vague” or “hilarious”
- brings bearded individuals to the company party
- claims to possess talents which, however, are undetectable and unquantifiable
- says, without context, things such as “’twas the wily Boche that got me”
Mailer denounced "Women's Lib," and a woman in the audience stood up and said, "Women's Lib isn't ____[forgot what she said]; it is a FACT." And Mailer replied, "Your ass is not a fact." Nobody laughed but nobody left. The probable origin of this then-very-daring/discomfiting exchange: In 1971 Mailer had published The Prisoner of Sex, a book tearing apart feminist intellectuals such as Kate Millett, whose world-changing Sexual Politics (1970) tore apart some work of Mailer's. I would not read Sexual Politics until 1975 (receiving it as a Christmas gift from another boyfriend). And that's all I recall. I don't remember that Mailer's books were sold there or that Mailer read from his books. This was when writers commonly toured. (What writer now would be booked by his publisher on the campus of the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, so named because calling it UW-Kenosha would make people laff?) But I don't think that at that time writers toured only to read excerpts from their books. If somebody can recall, set me straight on this. It could have been that people sought writers' views on things in general, because writers, or artists in general, were equated with thinkers.
Later. when I read some Mailer, given all I knew of him, I judged him as an excellent stylist with a gift for turning a phrase. I believe he was not as much a thinker as a "doer," which, for all who are doers, carries with it the risk of making an ass of yourself.
[Photo of Norman Mailer, 1988, used under the terms of the GNU Free Documentation License.]
Wearing her trademark rhinestone pin saying "Bobbi," Smith sat with us, read us some early efforts and told us she writes Westerns because NYC says no romance fan wants to read about the Midwest, or even any Western state except Arizona or Texas. Wyoming does not cut it. We talked about digital, about vampire books, about agents. I don't think I've ever been so close to someone so creative as to invent 54 full-length novels, even if they're not the lit'ry kind I read (exclusively, mind you!). She said a romance-writers convention had once held a Hunk Contest, and the winner got to be on the cover of a romance novel, and it happened to be Bobbi's, and she did her book tour with him, drawing tons of fans smitten not with the novel but with the Hunk.
Above all, she said, "You have no control." Luck. Publishers' and agents' whims. Audience whims. Cultural and technological shifts. Her new book is digital only, and not by her choice; by her publisher's.
If you have ever sought an audience, doubtless the little-to-no audience has happened to you. I have seen a poet at a bookstore bravely reading to empty chairs. Once I read poems in a restaurant on a night raining cats & dogs. There were no diners. The audience: a friend from work and a man who had a crush on me (note: I later married this guy). I have given "workshops" on the topic of, say, writing tone and style, and had two people show up. I have taught classes of two (who stuck with me after others dropped out). Each time I doggedly went through with it. Slightly sick at heart, but it was my own expectations that did that. This happens at last to everyone. But show up and do your job (or your show). We can control only what we do; we can't control results.
Baseless worry and catastrophizing are byproducts of a creative mind, so artists often suffer from these mental monsters, which are made up of backed-up, souring creativity. If such a thing is bothering you, write the absolute Truth about it. No one has to see it. Or you may want everyone to see it.
Have I been lied to? What is this thing about "perfection"? Are all great pieces of writing sweated over? I know one that isn't, the American masterpiece Moby-Dick. I mean, that's a breathtaking book. And yet somewhere in its depths author Melville put forth what I thought an unforgettable cry:
"This whole book is but a draft—nay, but the draft of a draft. Oh, Time, Strength, Cash, and Patience!"