from the editor's desk

Rachel Robertson Creative nonfiction

Introducing Creative Nonfiction

Issue 61.2 introduced Rachel Robertson as Westerly’s new Editor for Prose. Rachel is a writer and senior lecturer in Professional Writing and Publishing at Curtin University, and we are very lucky to have her with us. Westerly relies on our external editors to make the blind selection for publication from the work submitted. Rachel brings with her a particular interest in creative nonfiction as a form. Our print issues last year reintroduced creative nonfiction as a submission category and now, with Rachel’s involvement, we are hoping to see more wonderful submissions in this genre come to publication.

To more fully introduce the form as part of Westerly’s publication, we asked Rachel to offer a definition of creative nonfiction, and some sense of the style of writing she is looking for in a submission.

We welcome submissions of innovative creative nonfiction, through the Online Submission Portal.

Creative Nonfiction: A Definition

Creative nonfiction is a term used to describe nonfiction prose work that uses the techniques of creative writing (which are most obvious in fiction) to bring it to life. The term covers memoir, literary or personal essays, experimental nonfiction, lyric essays and literary journalism but not news reportage, poetry or fiction. Philip Gerard says: ‘Creative non-fiction is the stories you find out, captured with a clear eye and an alert imagination, filtered through a mind passionate to know and tell, told accurately and with compelling grace.’ (12)

In general, creative nonfiction is told in the first person and the narrator’s voice is a key part of the work, reflecting a serious attention to the craft of writing. As with all nonfiction, these works are based on facts, whether of a verifiable kind or a personal memory or reflection. The best works of creative nonfiction use their apparent topic to explore a deeper issue and are both timely and timeless.

Like fiction, creative nonfiction has a narrator and characters, tells a story, and uses dialogue, scenes, figurative language and sensory details. The narrator may speculate and use their imagination, but aims for veracity.

Of course, literary genres are complex things and definition is not simple. Thinking of John Frow’s description of genre as ‘a set of conventional and highly organised constraints on the production and interpretation of meaning’ (10), we are reminded that understandings of genres change over time and in different contexts. Singer and Walker argue that ‘creative nonfiction does not simply borrow elements from fiction and poetry, but bends and recombines them to make a hybrid that perpetually troubles and transcends generic bounds’ (4). This project of bending, blending and transcending is very much in evidence in the exciting new creative nonfiction being recently published in the USA and, to a lesser extent, in Australia. We welcome submissions of innovative creative nonfiction.

An Interview with Rachel Robertson

Rachel kindly spoke to Westerly intern Miah De Francesch about creative nonfiction as a genre.

Miah De Francesch: You’ve given us a comprehensive definition for creative nonfiction, but could you tell us a little more about the genre itself? How does creative nonfiction differ from nonfiction and prose?

Rachel Robertson: Like all genre terms, creative nonfiction is a term of convenience, used to describe a particular type of nonfiction writing. So, there are not necessarily clear demarcations between creative nonfiction and other forms of narrative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is based on factual events or a personal story, usually (but not always) told in the first person and shaped to make some meaning (that is, it is not just an anecdote nor simply news reportage). One key feature of creative nonfiction is that it will have both an apparent subject and a deeper subject, and it is thus both timely and timeless. In contrast, journalism, for example, is more likely to be timely and focused on a single subject. The personal presence is also important in creative nonfiction: the narrator’s voice is key. This is different from scholarly writing and other forms of nonfiction (e.g. traditional history writing), where the personal presence and voice is much less central.

Miah: What sparked your initial interest in creative nonfiction? What is your favourite piece?

Rachel: After years of reading fiction most of the time, I started to read literary memoirs about fifteen years ago. I then read other forms of creative nonfiction, including personal essays and book length works. Some of my favourite creative nonfiction writers from Australia are Alice Pung, Helen Garner and Anna Goldsworthy. Beyond Australia, I enjoy the work of Mary Cappello, Adam Gopnik, Brenda Miller, Geoff Dyer and Adam Phillips (though I’m not sure he would recognise himself as a writer of creative nonfiction). I recently read and really enjoyed Fiona Wright’s book Small Acts of Disappearance (2015). My favourite creative nonfiction book is Anna Funder’s Stasiland (2002) and my favourite essay is Alive in Ant and Bee (2007) by Gillian Mears.

There are also a couple of books about creative nonfiction that I think are terrific: The Situation and the Story (2001) by Vivian Gornick and The Art of Time in Memoir (2007) by Sven Birkets. And two recent anthologies of creative nonfiction that I’ve really enjoyed reading are Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women (2016) edited by Marcia Aldrich and Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction (2013) edited by Margot Singer and Nicole Walker.

Miah: What do you hope to achieve as Westerly’s Editor for Prose?

Rachel: My aim is to support Westerly to publish well written, exciting and engaging fiction and nonfiction. Because I have a particular interest in creative nonfiction, I’ll be keeping an eye open for really good essays, memoir, nature writing or other forms of nonfiction, including experimental works.

Miah: What are you looking for in creative nonfiction submissions? Do you have any advice for creative nonfiction writers?

Rachel: The great Susan Sontag once gave these directions for writing: ‘Write, Read, Rewrite. Repeat steps 2 and 3 as needed.’ So, my advice to creative nonfiction authors is to work hard on the craft of the writing as well as the content and to read lots of quality literature. If you are writing memoir, remember that the reader has to get value from reading your piece; it is not about your writing experience but rather their reading experience. The reader must gain pleasure or learn something, preferably both.

Miah: What is a trap people fall into when writing creative nonfiction?

Rachel: One of the biggest traps we can all fall into is writing a first draft and then polishing and editing it instead of stepping back and revising or rewriting it completely. Often, especially with creative nonfiction, the first draft is a bit superficial and doesn’t get to the real issues you want to write about. Being willing to rewrite something completely to see if you can engage more deeply with the topic or experience is a great way to expand your range and, often, produce better work. Patricia Hampl wrote a lovely essay about just this topic called ‘Memory and Imagination’ (see I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory, 1999: 21-37).

Works Cited

Frow, John, Genre. Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge, 2005.

Gerard, Philip, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. Longrove, IL.: Waveland Press, 2004.

Hampl, Patricia, I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory. New York: W.W. Norton, 1999.

Singer, Margot and Nicole Walker, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction. New York: Bloomsbury, 2013.

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