The 5 R's of creative nonfiction
Published: April 1, 2004
|Reading, 'Riting, 'Rithmitic--the 3 R's--was how basic public school education was once described. The "5 R's" is an easy way to remember the basic tenets of creative nonfiction or immersion journalism. |
The first R is Real life. As a writing teacher, I design assignments that have a real-life aspect: I force my students out into their communities for an hour, a day or even a week so that they see and understand that the foundation of good writing emerges from personal experience. Some writers (and students) may use their own personal experience rather than immersing themselves in the experiences of others. In an introductory class, one young man working his way through school as a salesperson wrote about selling shoes, while another student, who served as a volunteer in a hospice, captured a dramatic moment of death, grief and family relief. I've sent my students to police stations, bagel shops, golf courses; together, my classes have gone on excursions and participated in public-service projects--all in an attempt to experience or re-create from real life.
In contrast to the term "reportage," the word "essay" usually connotes a more personal message from writer to reader. "An essay is when I write what I think about something," students will often say to me. Which is true, to a certain extent--and the source of the second R, Reflection.
Writers' feelings and responses about a subject are permitted and encouraged, as long as what they think is written to embrace the reader in a variety of ways. As editor of Creative Nonfiction, I receive approximately 150 unsolicited essays, book excerpts and profiles a month for possible publication. Of the many reasons most of these submissions are rejected, two are most prevalent, the first being an overwhelming egocentrism. Writers write too much about themselves without seeking a universal focus or umbrella so that readers are properly and firmly engaged. Essays that are so personal they omit the reader are essays that will never see the light of print.
The second reason for rejection is a lack of attention to the mission of the genre, which is to gather and present information, to teach readers about a person, place, idea or situation--combining the creativity of the artistic experience with the essential third R in the formula: Research.
Even the most personal essay is usually full of substantive detail about a subject that affects or concerns a writer and the people about whom he or she is writing. Read the books and essays of the most renowned nonfiction writers in this century, and you will read about a writer engaged in a quest for information and discovery. Personal experience and spontaneous intellectual discourse--the airing and exploration of ideas--are equally vital.
One of my favorite Annie Dillard essays, "Schedules," focuses upon the importance of writers working on a regular schedule rather than writing only intermittently. In "Schedules," she discusses, among many other subjects, Hasidism, chess, baseball, warblers, pine trees, June bugs, writers' studios and potted plants--not to mention her own schedule and writing habits, and those of Wallace Stevens and Jack London.
What I am saying is that the genre of creative nonfiction, though anchored in factual information, is open to anyone with a curious mind and a sense of self. The research phase actually launches and anchors the creative effort. Reflection may permit a certain amount of speculation, but only when based upon a solid foundation of knowledge.
Which brings me to the fourth R in our formula: Reading. Not only must writers read the research material unearthed in the library, but they also must read the work of the masters of their profession. Try Jon Krakauer's Into Thin Air, Erik Larson's The Devil in the White City or Diane Ackerman's Natural History of the Senses.
So far, we have mostly discussed the nonfiction or journalistic aspects of the immersion journalism/creative nonfiction genre. The fifth R, the 'Riting part, is the most artistic and romantic aspect of the total experience. After all of the preparatory (nonfiction) work is complete, writers will often begin their creative process with an inspirational explosion, when they allow instinct and feeling to guide their fingers as they create paragraphs, pages and even entire chapters of books or complete essays. This is what art of any form is all about--the passion of the moment and the magic of the muse.
Lee Gutkind, from Essayist at Work, with permission of the author. Copyrighted.
--Posted April 1, 2004