The Truth is in the Telling: Creative Nonfiction with Heart
This issue of Creative Nonfiction examines the old adage, “the truth is in the telling.” B.J. Hollars quotes it in his piece, “Between the Lines,” as he discusses who stories belong to and who has the right to tell them. He also writes, “as writers in grad school, we had been trained to believe that stories mattered, that remembering mattered and if we did a good enough job recounting these stories, we might matter, too.” That sets the tone for the rest of the stories to follow.
The theme thread connecting all of the essays published in this issue is one of adventure and (mostly) exotic locales. It's like a print version the PBS show, Globe Trekker. Editor Lee Gutkind writes in his opening letter, “the essays in this issue mostly involve people trying to make sense of unfamiliar circumstances and settings, navigating between documentation and exploitation and, sometimes, simply confusion.” Colleen Kinder's essay titled, “Blot Out,” is a beautiful read about women attempting to “beige out” or go unnoticed amidst the markets of Cairo. There are several levels of achieving this. The women can avoid looking strangers in the eye and stare into the middle distance or they can cover themselves. The women wear niqab which is “a headdress that covers not just the hair, but the face, ears and neck. Paired with a long black tunic, the niqab leaves nothing exposed...the woman underneath can see out, but no one can see in.” Kinder's essay highlights the fear that women can feel whether exposed or completely covered and on an even larger scale, the dangers as well as benefits of traveling to new places and choosing your own adventures.
J. Nicholas Geist's essay, “A Murderer's Work,” takes us to Spain for a bullfight and alternates between watching bulls meet their death and a discussion of how video games have perhaps desensitized not only him but a whole generation to the actualities of watching something bleed out and die. Geist's writing is gritty and beautiful. When writing about a specific gaming scene he says, “dust makes the sky almost khaki, contrasting against the strange paradox of desert verdigris. I watch a family of gazelles caper in the brush – until my vision heaves and my truck's suspension squeals.” The language is poetic and pretty throughout.
I love reading stories with a strong sense of place and I ran across it plenty of times throughout this issue. Jane Bernstein's essay, “Desperately Seeking Subtext,” takes place in Vietnam. It has lots of little bits that I underlined simply because I love the descriptions of food and busy cities. “Streets crammed with beeping motorbikes, the riders in stylish helmets; taxis; street vendors pushing carts; women in conical hats carrying cut pineapples or litchis on shoulder poles.” And later she writes, “our wine arrives, followed by many small dishes: scallops, shrimp, salmon. Several soups are brought to us, along with plates of greens, tomatoes and black olives, and small bowls of condiments, chile peppers, lime and salt, soy sauce and wasabi.”
In “Accidents Will Happen,” Steven Boyd Saum discusses Cherynobyl on The Day of Health “a few weeks after the 10th anniversary of the disastrous explosion at that atomic plant.” Saum's words are lush and delicious. He writes, “I pluck poplar fuzz from my cup of stewed fruit. I imagine the molecules of the air coagulating around us in new configurations. If the reactor at Kuznetsovsk is spewing radiation into the sky, would that I could cull that poison from our drink just as easily as I remove these fleecy seeds.” And later he writes, “a fourth lesson: In case of nuclear disaster, drink red wine – Kagor, strong and sweet, the better to absolve the bitterness of life – the kind they serve in church. Drink not to forget, but to be washed in the blood of Christ. And stay inside.” And although I felt that this piece was a little on the long side, it was a nice read.
The last essay is “Sparks” by Nathaniel Brodie and is about the search for a missing hiker in the Grand Canyon. Once again, there is a delightfully overwhelming sense of place. Brodie writes, “the natural world is a mirror of moods, reflecting one's joy, claustrophobia, pain. But always, at the core, is indifference.” And what I loved so much about Brodie's piece is that he is not indifferent. Neither to the search for the missing hiker nor the carefully chosen words he uses to tell the story. The sparks he mentions in the title are brought up later in the piece as he writes that he's “learned to seek beauty and meaning in the sparks of life rather than in death.” “Sparks” feels special.
The experimental piece listed under the title of “Pushing the Boundaries: Experiments in Nonfiction” is called “Contract” by Mieke Eerkens. It is a series of snippets about relationships, written up as legally binding contracts. I love it I love it I love it. It is unique and incredibly well-written and I didn't want it to end. The issue is completed with articles about the world of creative nonfiction, truthiness and the permeance/non-permanence of online publishing. I also enjoyed the little Tiny Truths section, true twitter-sized stories told in 130 characters or less.
Most of the writers included have MFAs, are professors or both. Almost all of them have books and several of them have more than one. Of the five essays, three are written by men and two are written by women. That was nice to see. I also really like the artwork that accompanies each piece; black and white collages that combine scribbles/drawings/photography/text.
It's obvious that the folks at Creative Nonfiction are pros. The editors have a good eye for what makes nonfiction interesting and the writers certainly know what they're doing. The pieces are polished, well-written and beautiful. Anyone submitting here would have to make sure that theirs fell in line, as well. Regardless of the specific subject, the rise of creative nonfiction and publications like this can sweeten a non-believer into believing that everyone truly has a story that matters. You just have to step up and tell it.