I mentioned at the end of my last post that I planned to start with the books on craft for this “40 in 40” project, so this week I started reading Lee Gutkind’s book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up in earnest. The first day I read 26 pages. Then I stayed up extra hours that night to read more. By the next morning, I’d hit page 100. The project is officially underway!
Gutkind is, by his own ironic admission, the “godfather” of creative nonfiction, having been given that nickname by a withering critic of the form. He accepts the nomenclature because 1) it was his early use of the phrase creative nonfiction that inspired the National Endowment for the Arts to adopt it as the name of a new fellowship category in 1983 and 2) he founded the literary magazine of the same name.
He calls creative nonfiction the “literature of reality.” (I love that!)
One of the most helpful gifts of the book thus far is the distinction between “public” and “personal” endeavors within the work of creative nonfiction. Works of creative nonfiction exist along a spectrum, Gutkind says, and the greatest success is usually found in a blend between the two—“a public subject with an intimate and personal spin.”
Personal projects within creative nonfiction are, most obviously, memoirs. They’re the stories that take us inside an author’s own life (they’re personal!) by framing that life through a particular lens, season, or experience.
Public projects, on the other hand, usually surface issues, stories, and questions about the world as we know it. (Think of Michael Pollan’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma or Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks or Buzz Bissinger’s Friday Night Lights, all examples Gutkind references in his book.) These books tell stories, Gutkind says, that “anybody, potentially, owns.” Whoever wants to take the time to think about and research a subject, ultimately getting immersed inside its world in order to render it forth for the public in a generally accessible, beautifully cast, story-driven way, can.
In the first 100 pages of Gutkind’s book, I’ve found myself confronted with two questions that will be given dedicated space in my discernment process through this project:
Do I want to contribute to the “literature of reality” (creative nonfiction), or would I rather create and spin unrealities (otherwise known as fiction)? These aren’t the only two options available to me, of course, but they’re two of the major choices, and I’m finding it a helpful framing to consider whether reality or unreality appeals to me more as a writer.
What big ideas matter to me? And do I love any subject enough to be drawn toward the immersive experience creative nonfiction demands? When Gutkind began spinning out examples of projects on the more public end of the creative nonfiction spectrum, he talked about an author who moved his family from Pennsylvania to Texas for a year so he could live inside the extreme reality of high school football culture. Gutkind himself lived on two wheels for three years so he could write about motorcycle culture after living inside it. He traveled the country another year to profile four umpires for his book about baseball. And for another book, he followed nurses, surgeons, and patients around, keeping a beeper on his person so that when it chirped he could jump into an operating room or on a plane to experience the realities of organ donation. He says works on the public end of the creative nonfiction spectrum invite immersive commitments like these from the writer. Would I be willing to live such a life? Does any subject compel me this much?
These are deep questions I need to and want to and will sit with.
An Immersive Life
Of course, there’s more than one kind of immersive life. Memoirists immerse themselves inside their own life stories. Novelists, too, get immersed—and invite our immersion—in the worlds they create.
And I see Bookwifery authors, who write in the category of general nonfiction, incarnating this immersive life too. They’re drawn by a particular message and presence and work in this world that is theirs to inhabit, to speak, to teach, and to love. In many ways, they’re drawn to write their books because their lives have already been immersed in a particular reality for quite a long time and they know it’s time to share that immersion with others in a way that brings light and hope.
Then there are the ways life invites immersion from us.
Just today, I was reading a newsletter by the lovely Tonia Peckover that demonstrated this exact truth. I’ve been recently getting to know Tonia, and although I met her on Instagram, she’s in the process of leaving that space so she can give herself more wholly to what she is calling “the long quiet.” She’s just launched a website where she’ll be writing about this quiet life on her blog, and she’s also sending a deeply rich monthly newsletter, my first issue of which I received today.
Tonia’s life is asking a specific kind of immersion from her. In today’s newsletter, she spoke of needing “months, years, decades, of cultivated spaciousness in order to be the woman [she] long[s] to be.” She spoke of “living presently, trying to be human and centered and wise in [her] own time.” She shared about two books she recently read—one a novel about trees (The Overstory by Richard Powers) and the other a creative nonfiction book about trees (The Hidden Life of Trees by Peter Wohlleben)—and went on to say the books led her to walk the property on which she lives in this way:
I’ve been walking the woods each morning after I care for the animals, touching the different trunks, trying to learn their names, their unique attributes. It's a project that could unfold for the rest of my life. . . . When we first moved to Fernwood thirteen years ago, I had the deep sense that we were joining a community. I didn’t understand it then; I thought of community only in terms of human connection. But now I am beginning to understand that it was Fernwood herself that was inviting us in: the land, the creatures, the plants, the winds and weather that pass through, all a living circle of giving and taking, learning and embracing.
Is that not gorgeous?!
Such a treat to read Tonia’s words. You can sign up for her monthly newsletter here.
The Question As I’m Beginning to See It
Here’s what I’m noticing, then, with this “40 in 40” project. It’s asking me to consider what kind of immersive life is mine.
Where am I already immersed?
What invitations to immersion will compel me in my writing life?
How might all of this connect to what my life is ultimately about?
Because I don’t want to give my to life anything less.
And you, dear reader? Are you being immersed somewhere particular now? What does that immersion ask of you? How are you responding?