Books: In Fact

Apparently I’ve been reading creative nonfiction for years, but never came across the term until a few weeks ago. After I finished reading Moby Duck, I had enjoyed it so much that I looked up author Donovan Hohn in the library’s catalog system to see what else I could find by him.

What I found was The Best of Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 2, edited by Lee Gutkind, which includes the essay “Moby-Duck” by Hohn. I don’t know if he wrote the essay first then lengthened it into a book or the other way around. In any case, I wasn’t looking to read the same material again.

I was intrigued, however, by the idea that I could read an anthology containing a variety of nonfiction writing that was as readable as Hohn’s. (Opinions vary on how good his writing is, but it definitely appeals to me.) Rather than read Volume 2, however, I decided I’d start with Gutkind’s first creative nonfiction anthology, published under the title In Fact.

It’s a good thing I had already decided I liked the genre. There are some good pieces in this book (one would hope so, with a subtitle of The Best of Creative Nonfiction), but I was tempted not to continue reading after the first few.

“Three Spheres” was an engrossing read, about a psychologist visiting a patient with borderline personality disorder at the hospital where she herself had been a patient – with the same disorder – as a teenager. “Looking at Emmett Till,” written by a black man who was the same age as Emmett Till, makes us look again at an ugly incident that we would rather not look at, and warns that it represents a wound that has been covered over but not healed.

“Shunned” tells the story of being a pregnant 16-year-old back in the 1960’s, when getting pregnant as an unwed teenager was still considered a terribly shameful thing. So shameful, that she was shunned by everyone who knew her. Overnight, friends erased her from their lives. Her mother sent her to live with her father and his second wife, in another town, and even they require her to stay hidden so no one will know they harbor such a shameful person in their home.

These are all true stories, stories about a person’s past and society’s past, a past that still reverberates in the present. They are stories that are easy to read in the sense of being well-written, “readable” – but hard to read because of the unpleasantness of the subject. I don’t want to avoid reading unpleasant truths, but I wasn’t sure I wanted to read a book full of them.

I’d rather read well-written works on difficult subjects than mediocre writing on any subject, however, so I keep reading. I am a bit bored by some of the memoirs, but other essays fascinate me. This is the kind of nonfiction I was looking for. I learn about prairie dogs, their importance to a diverse environment (their tunneling keeps the ground from becoming too hard-packed), and how their population has seriously declined as people develop the land where they once lived.

I learn about techniques for trapping and killing wolves – written by a woman who is not a hunter herself and is not exactly sympathetic toward the hunters – but who wants to give a fair picture of the details of how wolves are hunted and killed. I read the story of an attorney who chose not to sue for medical malpractice so that she would be free to tell the story of the cancer that nearly killed her.

I learn how sailors are able to navigate by the stars (not that most do anymore, but classes in celestial navigation are still available). I am especially fascinated by the story of a brain-damaged writer, and I can only try to imagine the immense amount of time and effort it took to tell the story. I read about a divorce ceremony in Israel, following the strict Orthodox traditions.

As I read, I wonder what creative nonfiction I could try writing. To a very limited degree, that’s what I do with this blog, but I generally spend a couple of hours at most on even a long post. I do a certain amount of research (mostly on the internet) and a certain amount of rewriting, but not the way I would in order to be published.

I’ve often thought, as I have read fascinating nonfiction books (which I now realize would mostly be considered creative nonfiction), what subject I might write about. One day I came up with the idea of beards – different styles of beards, famous men with beards, how they affect the way we think about the person, beards in poems and cartoons, humor about beards, etc. I took a quick look using Google, and of course it turned out someone had already written that book.

I hadn’t thought until recently, reading these examples of creative nonfiction, of how much personal experience and memories can be used. I’ve been told sometimes, after telling someone about events from my childhood, that I should write a book. There’s no reason anyone should be especially interested in my childhood, but there are topics that I could write about that intersect with it in some way (mental illness, for instance).

Creative nonfiction is a “dramatic and exciting new genre,” according to the back cover of In Fact. Actually, writers have been doing creative nonfiction for a long time, but it has only been recognized as a distinct genre since the publication of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Previous books cited as examples of the genre include James Agee’s Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon,  John Hersey’s Hiroshima, and Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago,

The only one of those that I have read is Hiroshima, and I read it so long ago (when I was growing up and found it in the attic one day) that I remember nothing about it. Some of the more recent books that I’ve read (and blogged about), that belong to the creative nonfiction genre, are Simon Winchester’s The Professor and the Madman and A. J. Jacobs’s The Know-It-All and The Year of Living Biblically.

As well as, of course, Moby Duck.

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