Words to the Wise
Creative Nonfiction? Isn't
That an Oxymoron?
In Tell It Slant:
Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, co-author Brenda
Miller imagines being cornered at a party and asked the
deceptively simple question, "So, you're a writer. What do you
write?" All the possible replies flash through her head:
Essays—but that sounds too much like academic papers and
articles. Nonfiction—but her inquirer might think
celebrity biographies, cookbooks or historical treatises on
World War II. Autobiography, memoir—but isn't she
too young to write her memoirs? She knows that if she answers
with the correct phrase, creative nonfiction, she will be
in for a long night. She longs to tell her confused companion
that she loves writing creative nonfiction precisely because of
the ambiguity of this apparent oxymoron, ambiguity that allows
her "to straddle a kind of 'borderland' where I can discover new
aspects of myself and the world, forge surprising metaphors, and
create artistic order out of life's chaos." Instead, she directs
her friend's attention to the punch bowl and thereby to the
myriad things of this world and thinks "maybe that is the
correct answer after all."
The book's title is
from a line of poetry by Emily Dickinson, which Miller and
co-author Suzanne Paola interpret to mean that truth takes on
many guises. The authors felt that the poem aptly described the
task of the creative nonfiction writer: "to tell the truth, yes,
but to become more than a mere transcriber of life's factual
experiences." Every chapter opens with an artful example—just a
few paragraphs—of the subject of the chapter: early memory,
family, the physical world, spiritual autobiography, gathering
history, writing the arts; and even the particular challenges of
creative nonfiction and the basics of good writing. Just reading
these examples is a revelation in itself: everything is
interesting—or can be—even the exercise assigned to a group
of novice nonfiction writers, to pull out a piece of their own
prose and count the number of words in each sentence. "Ohmigod!"
said one woman. "All of my sentences are eleven words long!"
Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola,
Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction.
New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005.
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