Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Keep It Real

A half century ago Tom Wolfe called it The New Journalism. Today it is no longer new… though it does have a new name: creative nonfiction.

Famous examples abound from Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood to Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings. Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast is in this category as is John Hersey’s Hiroshima. In fact, a website cataloging 100 major modern works of creative nonfiction includes such early forerunners of the genre as Virginia Woolf (A Room of One’s Own, 1929) and George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933) in this category.

Five years ago Lee Gutkind assembled and edited a book designed to help writers navigate the potentially treacherous waters associated with this genre. Gutkind’s aim is to not only help us understand this approach to reportage, but also to make us aware of some the potential minefields to avoid lest we lose a pound of flesh as a result of lawsuits or reputation-crushing experiences.

“This is creative nonfiction’s greatest asset: It offers flexibility and freedom while adhering to the basic tenets of reportage. In creative nonfiction, writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously,” he writes here.

A problem arises, however, when an author fictionalizes to such an extent that the book is a deceptive and false misrepresentation. No one likes being duped, and no author in recent times did it more notoriously than James Frey with his A Million Little Pieces, a much-fabricated memoir that gained him the opportunity to keep even Oprah gripped in it revelations. Unfortunately, when Frey was outed by The Smoking Gun, well… it created a stir.

What frustrated Gutkind and his peers was that many in the media indicted the creative nonfiction form itself instead of the culprit who abused the form. In response Gutkind and friends wrote an article titled "A Million Little Choices." This book is an outgrowth of the principles initially assembled there.

As for me, I found it an affirmation of much that I have been saying over the years with regard to writing as an avocation. Early in my career it became apparent that each and every kind of writing that you master can strengthen other kinds of writing. Writing poetry teaches you about the sound of language, helps increase your sensitivity to literary rhythms. Writing descriptive prose bleeds over into both journalism and fiction, as well as business proposals and grant writing. Writing is a craft, and our aim as writers is mastery.

The many short chapters assembled in Keep It Real cover all manner of topics from fact-checking and documentation to the basic ABCs of the genre. Is it OK to take three interviews and compress them into one? Is it OK to put words in another person's mouth when you didn't really record the dialogue and don't really exactly have it down?

Gutkind's gives the writer a lot of rope,  but warns that there are risks involved and writers should weigh those risks. Because we're journalists and not fiction writers, the standards we hold ourselves to must remain high ones ethically. Many of us recall when Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for a story about an 8-year old  heroin addict named Jimmy, only to have us later learn she fabricated the boy. Cooke crossed a line that we cannot cross, and paid a price for it... not only being stripped of her Prize, but also her job and reputation. If we present it as true, it must be true.

Ultimately, we are asking readers to trust us. Misrepresentations and fictions paraded as facts will erode that trust.

For writers of all ages and levels of experience Keep It Real is worth your time.

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