Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Lee Gutkind: Launching Creative Nonfiction

Three decades ago, creative writing programs were relatively new. The University of Pittsburgh, where I was then teaching, didn’t have one. Iowa, Stanford, and a few other programs had been around for a good while, but basically, if you wanted to study creative writing—officially, that is, with a graduate degree—there weren’t a lot of options, and perhaps with good reason. Writers were like painters and composers; they followed their muse and created literature—poems, stories, plays and shared them with friends and followers through readings and informal gatherings. There were certainly apprenticeships and mentoring situations for artists and writers. But courses? Who needed courses? 

It’s hard to imagine now, but there was a time when most writers were not affiliated with universities. They were much more a part of the world—driving taxis, selling insurance, teaching high school, thinking that you had to experience life in order to write about it.  But gradually, the establishment and growing popularity of creative writing programs became a lure and a safe haven.  Why struggle for health insurance and a certain amount of praise and prominence? Teach the craft and huddle under the protective academic umbrella, where young wannabes idolized you, for as long as possible.

During those years, the debate about creative writing—and creative nonfiction writing in particular—was intense, mean, and often nonsensical. I remember the student editor of The Pitt News once went to see the department chair, requesting that the department offer a new journalism course. In the expository writing course I was teaching, I was introducing Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, Hunter S. Thompson, et al.—and the students, especially from the student newspaper, were turned on. The idea of immersion got them going—experiencing life and using literary techniques to make their work cinematic. They wanted more.

So the editor—his name was Bill Gormley, and today he is an author and professor of public policy at Georgetown University—made an appointment with Walter Evert, the chair of the English department, and proposed something like “Basic New Journalism 101,” which I would teach. It was actually what I was already doing clandestinely in the expository writing course I had been assigned, but this would allow me to come clean and could lead to other more advanced and challenging courses. Evert, in the spirit of free speech and openness reflected in the early 1970s, allowed Gormley to make a presentation at the next faculty meeting.

I will never forget the scene. Gormley was a little guy, bespectacled, with straight brown hair hanging in bangs down his forehead. Almost dwarfed by the podium, he stood reading from the sheaf of notes he had prepared, about the history and relevance of new journalism and its many practitioners, to a totally silent collection of Birkenstocked, ponytailed professors. There may have been a few questions—I don’t remember—but after Gormley’s presentation, a big, balding, flat-nosed guy named Don Petesch stood up, carrying one of those massive, flat-bottomed leather briefcases that fold out like an accordion so you can carry around half of your library, as well as lunch and dinner. He plopped the case on the table beside the podium and, facing Gormley, began pulling out books—Faulkner, Thurber, Fitzgerald, Thomas (not Tom) Wolfe, Welty, and on and on—holding each up in the air and providing a succinct description of its literary value and inherent brilliance and then slamming it down on the table beside his briefcase, kaboom, kaboom, until the massive briefcase was empty. And then, peering across the room and addressing Gormley, he said something to the effect of: Until you and the other Pitt News staffers read these books and learn to appreciate and understand them, this department should never support such lightweight work as what you think you are calling writing that is “new” in journalism. Like I said, I don’t remember the words—but that was the gist of the finale of his illustrious presentation.

Listening to Petesch pontificate was actually too much for the other members of the department, who all burst out in debate over the books he had selected as classics—which didn’t have anything to do with the subject at hand. Finally Evert stood up to tone down the rhetoric and move to another subject, reasoning, “After all, gentlemen, we are interested in literature here—not writing.” We few writers paused for a moment to allow that to sink in. (There were, by the way, many women in the room who snickered but also held their fire.)

So this is the atmosphere in which creative writing existed—was forced to exist. Literature professors were willing to tolerate courses in poetry and fiction writing, but to discuss journalism and literature in the same breath? How dare you?

Well, Bill Gormley dared, and the faculty backed off after a while, and the following year, I was permitted to introduce a course called “The New Nonfiction.” As bad as the term nonfiction was—according to my colleagues, “Nonfiction is a non sequitur! How can you describe what you do as something you don’t do?”  At least it was better than the J-word—journalism—which many academics likened to plumbing.

Not that those traditional journalists were in the clear here; to these folks, the contentious word was “creative.”  Essentially, journalists hated creative because to them it meant that you made stuff up—lying, exaggerating, etc. But the academics in the English department also found it threatening. “Why can’t my work be considered creative, too?” they whined and argued. Why, for God’s sake, were their essays on Milton or postmodernism referred to as “criticism” while my prose about traveling the country on a motorcycle or hanging out with major league baseball umpires was artistic and literary and creative? This didn’t seem fair.

There was also the personal aspect to the whole idea of creative nonfiction—allowing the writer to think and write about how they feel. This was clearly threatening to the popular media critics like Vanity Fair’s James Wolcott, who lambasted creative nonfiction because of its insidious “navel gazing.” Wolcott railed against writers coming clean with personal feelings. Similarly, inside the Academy students were not to be trusted with voicing what they believed about what they were reading or writing. David Bartholomae, my colleague at Pitt, a leading figure in the world of composition and the editor of a textbook, Ways of Writing, which would eventually be used in composition programs all over the world, was especially vocal and resistant.  Perhaps it was a turf issue for Bartholomae—the work in many composition programs often parallels (or competes with?) the mission of many creative nonfiction programs. Suffice it to say, creative nonfiction was not one of the “ways of writing” of which Bartholomae approved. In a 1995 article in the journal College Competition and Communication, published by the National Council of Teachers, he wrote:

Should we teach new journalism or creative nonfiction as part of the required undergraduate curriculum? That is, should all students be required to participate in a first person, narrative or expressive genre whose goal it is to reproduce the ideology of sentimental realism—where a world is made in the image of a single, authorizing point of view? A narrative that celebrates a world made up of the details of private life and whose hero is sincere? I don’t have an easy answer to this question. It is like asking, should students be allowed to talk about their feelings after reading The Color Purple? Of course, they should, but where and when and under whose authority?

Clearly, Bartholomae believed that students should not be permitted to think or feel for themselves—at least not without a professor of composition to monitor them.

The debate went on in our department for years—literally—and it got to be very bitter. The MFA in creative writing for poetry and fiction was established at Pitt in the 1980s while an MA in nonfiction—perhaps the first advanced degree in nonfiction in the world—came about in 1991. A couple of us began campaigning for an nonfiction MFA, and at that point, the nonfiction writing students were harassed, intimidated, and threatened by literature and composition professors. One woman actually resigned her teaching assistantship under the constant pressure and torment.

I didn’t like what they were saying about creative nonfiction, and how they were treating the student writers who were inspired by it.  So I found myself fighting back again, like in high school—not with my fists, but with my headstrong persistence and the originality of my idea. Not that I was telling anyone I had invented the genre—no way. Like I said, you can’t invent what already exists; you can only spin it and fight for it—and that was an opening and an opportunity made for me at home and throughout the country. During that time, I went wherever an opportunity presented itself and defended the idea that you could be literary and journalistic at the same time, that creative and nonfiction can stand together as a concept and a practice, and that you could write about yourself and how you feel and think and make it all work together without being sickeningly egocentric. Make it—the facts and the truth—vivid, passionate, beautiful, powerful, electrifying. I had found a cause to champion, in which I deeply believed.

The MFA in creative nonfiction was established at Pitt the same year as I started the journal Creative Nonfiction. They were meant to function and grow together—at least I thought they would. I had a vision for the department, the program, and the nonfiction journal, as a triple threat that would unite all writers interested in telling true stories, everywhere. It would never be realized.

But why start a creative nonfiction literary magazine in the first place?  It’s complicated. I was vaguely aware of the importance of literary magazines when I came to work in the English department. Remember, I was a working writer, a reporter. No academic background, no advanced degrees.  And I discovered that my colleagues were appreciative of these “littles,” as well—in some cases, more than I was. In fact, if you looked in the department’s library or on the shelves in the offices of literature profs, you’d see some of these publications—The Georgia Review, The Partisan Review, and others were popular at the time. Interestingly, my colleagues did not display Esquire, The New Yorker, Harper’s, or The Atlantic Monthly in their offices. Maybe these magazines were in their living rooms, bedrooms, and bathrooms at home—but not in the academic workplace. What was going on? I knew that many of my colleagues read these magazines, because we had discussions about them on a regular basis around the faculty mailboxes or over Iron City beer drafts at local pubs. I knew they appreciated the work—but it just didn’t seem to count for much in the world in which they lived. There was a definite disconnect, much of which had to do with their public persona. Back then, in English departments, you had to be “tweedy” (unless, of course, you were the token chain-smoking motorcyclist like me.)

So I began to make a plan. My colleagues appreciated literary magazines—maybe because they were called “literary” magazines—and they refused to consider new journalism as something students might want to study and write in a “literary” or literature department. But what if there was an actual literary magazine that published this stuff exclusively? Not something bold and brassy like Esquire or outrageous like Rolling Stone or Mother Jones, but something—how should I say it?  “Unpretentious,” on nice paper—not glossy—and page after page of type. No photos, no ads, just words—lots of big words. It would have to seem somewhat scholarly; the less style and personality, the better. Or so it seemed to me. Of course, I wasn’t just talking about my colleagues at Pitt; it was the whole goddamned English academy in universities everywhere. They were boring. Conservative, uninspiring—despite their Birkenstocks and ponytails. So that was one thing I was thinking about.

And I was also thinking about my role as a teacher—my impact. In the beginning, when I was first appointed at Pitt, I thought I would teach for a few years, get the feel of it, have the experience, all while writing a couple of books, then go off and do something else. But we teachers can’t easily deny the rewards of the academic life, chief among them the contact and interaction with our students. The thing was—and is—I liked teaching, liked coming into contact with smart and driven young people like Bill Gormley, from whom I could learn and for whom I could be influential. I am not saying that these incredibly bright and talented people would not have achieved what they have without my teaching—not at all. But I was privileged enough to have worked with them during their formative years. And perhaps I made a difference. They certainly made a difference in me and changed my thoughts about writing and life in general.

Somehow all of this—my colleagues’ awareness of the critical importance of literary magazines, and my own professional self-interests and desire to keep teaching—came together for me. I don’t exactly remember a day—a light-bulb moment—when idea and inspiration turned to action and mission or purpose. It just nestled in the back of my mind for a while. It really wasn’t too different from that time long ago when I had just come out of the military, seeking direction, trying to find myself, and my freshman English teacher, Mr. Meyers, casually suggested I could become a writer. It sounded cool—and I took his advice and never looked back.  Or when I decided, for my first book, that I wanted to ride around the country on a motorcycle. The plan for a creative nonfiction literary journal took shape slowly; I was only vaguely aware of it until, suddenly, one day: Commitment! This was what I was going to do—launch Creative Nonfiction, the journal—and that was that.  And it would not be boring—it would be filled with well-told true stories that were cinematic, informative and, when appropriate, personal.

To call it a “plan” might even be too much. I just got started with it—thinking at the time, I have to admit, that the journal would be an integral part of the creative writing program at Pitt, helping to launch and support the MFA and build a lasting community of nonfiction writers. Or at least, this was the way in which I might spin it in a department meeting, if ever called upon to do so.

It never came to that.  Creative Nonfiction was on its own soon after that—20 years ago.  We’ve just published our 50th issue, and we are doing quite well.  But even though it was quite a struggle to get going, the journal (now a magazine) and the genre itself would not be so prominent in the world of publishing today without the eventual buy-in and involvement of writers in the Academy—within and way beyond English Departments and creative writing programs.  A monumental shift of attitude and acceptance has gradually occurred over the past two decades that has helped make creative nonfiction so popular—the go to way of writing for poets, fiction writers, journalists, essayists, as well as scientists, physicians, economists, et al.  There are still a few naysayers and snide critics, but they pretty much talk to themselves these days.  Eventually they will succumb to the power and influence and sheer pleasure of telling true stories, as did James Wolcott, who published a memoir in 2011.  Talk about navel gazing!

This essay is adapted from “The Fine Art of Literary Fist-fighting” which appeared in Creative Nonfiction’s 50th issue.


Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the author and editor of more than 30 books and founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, the first and largest literary magazine to publish narrative nonfiction exclusively.  He is Distinguished Writer-in-Residence in the Consortium for Science, Policy & Outcomes at Arizona State University and a professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication

Gutkind has lectured to audiences around the world—from China to the Czech Republic, from Australia to Africa to Egypt.  He has appeared on many national radio and televisions shows, including The Daily Show with Jon Stewart (Comedy Central), Good Morning America, National Public Radio’s Talk of the Nation and All Things Considered, as well as BBC World. Gutkind is the recipient of grants and awards from many different organizations, from the National Endowment for the Arts to the National Science Foundation.


  1. "The MFA in creative writing for poetry and fiction was established at Pitt in the 1980s while an MA in nonfiction—perhaps the first advanced degree in nonfiction in the world—came about in 1991."

    When I enrolled in the MFA program at Pitt in the mid-1980s, the nonfiction, fiction and poetry tracks were already established. I received my MFA in nonfiction in 1990.

  2. Anyone who knows Lee Gutkind's work knows that he is drawn to heroic narratives--and particularly when he gets to be the big guy on the white horse. This is not the first time I've been cast as a dragon for the dragon-slayer. Let me make some corrections.

    The key question in the passage he cites above is this one: "Should we teach new journalism or creative nonfiction as part of the required undergraduate curriculum?" I was writing to the composition community. I was arguing that forms of academic prose should provide the models for the required, first year composition course. I didn't think memoir was appropriate. (Later in the article I make a case for memoir as subject for critical scrutiny. The personal essay had always been a part of the course I was promoting.) I wasn't arguing that creative nonfiction should be banned from the undergraduate curriculum. In fact, as Lee knows, I always supported the nonfiction track in our Writing Major.

    Another correction: the title of the textbook is Ways of Reading, not Ways of Writing. The difference matters. The textbook is an anthology of contemporary nonfiction. There are authors in the anthology who would not be allowed into Creative Non-Fiction (John Berger, Roland Barthes, Adrienne Rich, Judith Butler, Edward Said), but there are many authors who would be (James Baldwin, Annie Dillard, Gretel Ehrlich, John Wideman, David Foster Wallace, Brian Doyle). I think the mix is important.

    And the title of the journal is College Composition, not College Competition.

    1. Published by the National Council of Teachers OF ENGLISH ...