Thursday, May 5, 2016

Writing the Other Half: A Conversation About Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers

Erin Murphy and Jen Hirt are the co-editors behind the nonfiction anthology, Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers, published in 2016 by SUNY Press. As the second in a series (the first was Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets), this anthology sets out to show a range of creative nonfiction techniques from contemporary writers (all essays are from 2009 or later). Short interviews after each essay reveal the craft involved in everything from graphic essays to lyrical essays to longer, narrative nonfiction. Hirt and Murphy sat down recently to discuss two contributors, Cheryl Strayed and Kristen Radtke.

Jen Hirt: I think I remember it this way: you texted me an ambitious idea along the lines of "let's invite Cheryl Strayed to contribute to the anthology!" As a newbie to anthologies, I recall thinking, "Can we really just do that? We can be a couple of professors in central Pennsylvania querying Oprah's favorite solo hiker of the Pacific Crest Trail? Isn't Strayed having tea with Reese Witherspoon right this very moment?" Turns out, however, that you were right. We can be a couple of profs cold-calling a bestselling nonfiction writer, because it turns out the bestselling author had humble writing roots like all of us. When her contribution, "Kestrel Avenue," showed up in our in-boxes, I read it right away. One of my favorite parts is just the fact of the situation, which is that Strayed's first writing job was as a journalist for a weekly hometown paper in north-central Minnesota, and she was thrown into a robbery article that had elements fit only for creative nonfiction. This leads to her conclusion: "I didn't tell the story. I didn't write the other half. This is it now. Here it is." From your side of the editing desk, why does Strayed's essay make such a good first chapter? And what is the role of a "lead essay" in an anthology like this?

Erin Murphy: I don’t remember the initial text, but I do remember receiving Cheryl’s essay. I was in the Dollar Tree store in Altoona, and a customer had just mistaken me for a store employee, asking, “Do you know where the tinfoil’s at?” I went directly from saying, “I’m sorry, I don’t work here” to opening Cheryl’s email on my phone. I leaned against the display of Mylar balloons and read it straight through. It is a great example of what creative nonfiction does best: using elements of fiction and poetry to get at a larger truth. The tension builds like a crime novel. And her imagery evokes the people and places she’s describing, from her boss’s “coarse straggles” of gray-brown hairs that he “smoothed back repeatedly with his hand” to “the darker, wilder country roads that surrounded the town like a web.” I remember getting so lost in her essay that I barely noticed having to swat away balloons that said “Happy Anniversary” and “Lordy, Lordy, look who’s 40!” And I knew that if I could be transported, other readers would be, too.

JH: I agree with that sense of feeling transported into another place and time, but also into another thought process. For me, that’s what is so intriguing about reading and writing creative nonfiction. We see the “mental journey” of the writer as she figures out what an event really meant, in the long-run. In her interview, Strayed comments that when she was just starting out as a writer, she thought that “real life was elsewhere,” meaning not in her rural hometown. She realizes, of course, that she was wrong: “One only has to look deeply inward and perceptively outward.” In her essay, she does this a number of times, and one of my favorite passages is her first morning at work. She sits down with her brand new notebook and starts listing article ideas, but “doing so filled me with gloom.” What follows is an insightful self-analysis of how she desperately wanted this job and simultaneously could not wait to get a better job and move away. She looked outward at her article ideas and then looked “deeply inward” to her true motives, and that’s what makes the essay so good. Other readers have other favorite parts – what was one of yours?

EM: Having spent several years in a newsroom myself, I could relate to Strayed’s description of that first job. One of my favorite elements of the piece is her character development. The cowboy who stays with her family is elusive, but she finds just the right details to capture him, such as his penchant for Mountain Dew and the way he alternates wearing his cowboy hat and toupee. I love the part about how he refuses to knock on the door. Instead, he stands at the bottom of the stairs and yells her mother’s name: “‘Bobbi, Bobbi, BOBBI,’ he’d call, his voice growing louder each time, until she opened the door and waved him, exasperated, inside.” Some of this development happens in what’s unsaid. He doesn’t tell them his horse has healed, for instance, and he seemed to take in stride the demand that he leave, riding off in the pouring rain. I think sometimes we take for granted that characters in a creative nonfiction essay will almost develop themselves because the story is true, as opposed to fiction where the need for development is more obvious. Yet it’s just as important to capture the habits, physical descriptions, speech patterns, etc., of characters who appear in essays as it is in fictional accounts. It’s what makes the people – and the writing – come alive.

JH: And that’s what draws people to Strayed’s writing. She’s obviously not the only creative nonfiction writer who succeeds at real-life character development neatly twined with introspection and honesty, but she might be the most well-known at the moment, given the success of Wild. Which brings me to the other element of craft she has a natural talent for—writing about place. Back in the 1990s, when I was an undergrad, writing about place seemed like the new big thing. I remember being assigned whole anthologies based on place, and one of my first-ever creative nonfiction assignments was to write about my hometown. And it was in 1995 that the young Strayed hiked the Pacific Crest Trail and kept the journal that would eventually become her bestseller. That memoir can’t exist without being grounded in place. On the same note, her contribution to our anthology has a title that maps us into a particular place: “Kestrel Avenue.” She explains that this road was known to her as County Road 27. It’s where she first met the bank robber. Many years later, the state renamed the road as Kestrel Avenue, a change Strayed criticizes because someone is trying to citify a country road. It’s these insights into our relationships with place that can turn an essay from good to great. And that takes us to our only other essay in the collection whose title directly references place: Kristen Radtke’s graphic essay, “The City of the Century,” which is about Gary, Indiana. How did you first come across her work?

EM: I had seen Radtke’s work elsewhere and reached out to see if she was interested in contributing to Creating Nonfiction. What I remember most about when she sent me “The City of the Century”—other than loving it—was that the high-resolution files were so big that she had to send them in twenty different emails. From the early stages of our project, I wanted to make sure the graphic essay was represented. I’ve admired graphic nonfiction ever since I first read Alison Bechdel’s memoir Fun Home in 2007. I have no artistic ability whatsoever, so I’m fascinated by the idea of having a medium in addition to words with which to convey your ideas. And the question of what to express in text vs. visual image intrigues me. Initially, I was convinced that one or the other would suffer. But neither does when the work is done well; instead, I find that the words and images speak to each other in a way that adds depth and meaning to the piece. How do you see that relationship working in “The City of the Century”?

JH: Honestly, I see it working in a way that gives me chills, it’s so good. I had a similar experience when I read Fun Home for the first time. I loved drawing when I was younger, but didn’t really have the talent to keep up with college art classes. So to see peers like Radtke merging writing and drawing and creative nonfiction is very exciting. I think her best panels in “The City of the Century,” the ones that let words and images speak to each other in a phenomenal way, are the panels that are heavy with black ink. The essay starts with a few like that, then carries the black-out technique through to the derelict buildings, and then employs careful use of black fill (usually in the background) in the panels that mention the peculiar death Seth Thomas, whose memorial Kristen and Andrew have unwittingly found (and taken) in a run-down building. The moments when Kristen is making an intellectual connection are also more black than white. What I see here is emphasis, like putting words in bold. In traditional text essays, editors and professors frown upon writers using bold (or even italics) to show emphasis, and I agree with that; find the best emphatic phrase instead. But in graphic creative writing, writers have the option of literally making a panel bold with thicker lines or a darker fill.

There is precedent for this; remember Tristam Shandy’s infamous “black page” in The Life and Opinions of Tristam Shandy, Gentleman? I had to read that in an 18th century Brit Lit class and I cannot tell you how much I hated it—except for that black page. That interested me because here, for the first time, was a novelist acknowledging the artificial nature of a book. Shandy was saying, “Why not explore the creative possibilities of this page size, this arbitrary font, or all these technical abilities of a printing press?” Or take, for example, writers who use extensive blank space. There is Jenny Boully’s The Body, which is only footnotes at the bottom of blank pages. Mark Danielewski’s House of Leaves features a page with only brackets and one asterisk, and other pages are printed upside down, and some have to held up to a mirror to be read. I’ve veered from creative nonfiction with those examples, but the point is that writers have long been toying with the relationship between words and images and space.

Or consider woodcut artists, who know the value of negative space. An example here is the completely wordless 1919 novel Passionate Journey, by Franz Masereel. He carved 167 woodcuts to tell a story. He knew just when to cut for an effect that resulted in lots of black (an explosive or dangerous scene), and he knew how to cut the wood for white highlights. I actually have one of his panels tattooed on my arm (it’s the scene where the man finds a dog in the woods). Some of Radtke’s panels remind me of woodcuts. They merge material and emotion.

EM: A tattoo? Wow, Jen—that’s commitment! But yes, those are some excellent connections to other works. Within our own anthology, I’m thinking of Michael Martone’s essay “Footnotes & Endnotes,” which is a tribute both in content and style to David Foster Wallace. You reference editors’ and professors’ rules about the use of bold and italicized text. With its palimpsests of notes on notes, Martone’s piece would seem to break ALL the rules. If my daughter were to turn in an essay that looked like that for her high school English class, she’d flunk. And we probably drove the SUNY Press production and copy editors crazy with all the atypical formatting requirements. Yet despite the apparent unwieldiness on the page, the piece is quite poignant—perhaps even more so than if it had been structurally conventional. Poets are always making use of their poetic license, but prose writers are expected to conform when it comes to grammar, punctuation, transitions, etc. Martone’s essay—along with the contributions from Faith Adiele and Aimee Nezhukumatathil—are good examples of how creative nonfiction writers can make their own rules. After all, they are—as our title suggests—creating nonfiction.


Erin Murphy’s essays and poems have appeared in The Georgia Review, Brevity, Field, North American Review, Southern Indiana Review, and elsewhere. She is the author of six books of poetry, most recently Ancilla (Lamar University Press, 2014), and is co-editor of two anthologies from SUNY Press: Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers and Making Poems: Forty Poems with Commentary by the Poets. She is Professor of English at Penn State Altoona. Her website is

Jen Hirt's essays and poems have recently appeared in The Weeklings, FlashGlass, and Ninth Letter. She is the author of the memoir Under Glass: The Girl with a Thousand Christmas Trees (University of Akron Press, 2010) and is co-editor of Creating Nonfiction: Twenty Essays and Interviews with the Writers and Kept Secret: The Half-Truth in Nonfiction (forthcoming in 2017 from Michigan State University Press). She is an assistant Professor of English at Penn State Harrisburg.


  1. Who has time to read all this???? Way too long.

  2. Nothing is too long, when you like to read, and love creative nonfiction! Thanks for sharing, Essay Daily.