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The smell of toner in spring
Thesises, thesis people, & "creative nonfiction"
I’m writing this on the first real day of spring in Oregon. The sun fully emerged, we cracked sixty degrees, and my weather app finally shows something other than the “light rain for the next hour” it’s been predicting for six months straight. Everyone immediately feels better, and realizes we’ve been suffering from seasonal depression since Thanksgiving. Or maybe it’s just me. I grew up in the desert. I’m not built for this shit.
But this is my favorite time of yearfor another reason: it’s also thesis season, when graduate students hand in their MFA thesises, roughly a hundred pages of original work, the beginnings of a book.
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(An aside: according to all the authorities, the proper plural for thesis is theses. That term’s scatological ring presents some problems, but thesises is both technically incorrect and does not, itself, exactly roll off the ol’ tongue. Still, for lack of a better option, my colleagues and I generally use the latter. There’s also the issue of what to call the thesis writer/supervisor relationship, as well as each participant; the inimitable Benjamin Dreyer once had a whole Twitter thread about this. Lately I’ve taken to calling my advisees “thesis people,” which is probably the worst of all options. I don’t want to know what they call me. It’s a good thing nobody else cares about any of this.)
Thesis season is, by far, my favorite part of my job. Having done this for a while now, I don’t put much stock in the idea that professors deserve credit for their students’ work. People are going to write what they’re going to write; teachers can help or accelerate that process, but it’s not a collaborative one. Even my most influential writing professors mostly showed they cared, gave timely encouragement, and pointed out the obvious in my drafts, usually in a descriptive manner, which is what I try to do myself. But after spending a year talking intensely with a writer about a project, which is often very personal—especially in nonfiction—I do feel invested in them and their work.
I’m advising two thesises this year, and reading five in total. I’m also currently reading two pre-publication book drafts by former thesis people—both of which I’ve been awaiting, as they say, with batedbreath—and this past weekend I saw three others in social situations. Those relationships are one of the bigger reasons I’ve stayed in academia despite a handful of quixotic attempts to do something else over the years. But thesis season is also why I have nothing bookish to write about here, since I can’t discuss them for obvious reasons, and I haven’t finished a non-thesis book this month.
I did read this New Yorker article, which a former grad student posted to Instagram. The article itself seems fine. It’s mostly a review of a book I haven’t read about the recent history and evolution of the term “creativity,” and it gives me a sense of the book while still making me want to read it, which is what a good review should do.
Unfortunately, the author, Louis Menand, brackets his review by musing on the term “creative nonfiction.” Here’s the opening paragraph:
What is “creative nonfiction,” exactly? Isn’t the term an oxymoron? Creative writers—playwrights, poets, novelists—are people who make stuff up. Which means that the basic definition of “nonfiction writer” is a writer who doesn’t make stuff up, or is not supposed to make stuff up. If nonfiction writers are “creative” in the sense that poets and novelists are creative, if what they write is partly make-believe, are they still writing nonfiction?
This, folks, is why I lie about what I do on airplanes. I cannot tell you how many times I’ve been subjected to this exact conversation. Not a few culprits have been literature professors of a vintage and persuasion matching Menand’s, who seem to enjoy nothing more than cornering me in some dank cranny of a humanities building, furrowing their brows, and asking, What is “creative nonfiction”? Isn’t that an oxymoron?
Listen, I don't like the term, either. I’m guessing most professors of the subject agree. “Creative nonfiction” is silly, self-congratulatory, and redundant. I try my best not to use it. In academic settings, I usually just say nonfiction. In the airplane situation, I'll either say I teach literature—which tends to end the conversation—or I’ll lie and say fiction, and then, inevitably, “Yes, just like Stephen King.”
But for all its flaws, “creative nonfiction” is not an oxymoron. There’s nothing contradictory about calling nonfiction creative. Since we’re engaging in disciplinary cliches, I looked up “creative” in the Oxford English Dictionary. The relevant definition is:
Inventive, imaginative; of, relating to, displaying, using, or involving imagination or original ideas as well as routine skill or intellect, esp. in literature or art.
The ors are doing a lot of work there, but just about all nonfiction writing involves original ideas. It’s also, in one sense or another, pretty much always based on memory, which is essentially an act of imagination, not the recall of reality it’s so often mistaken for. So by any reasonable, good-faith understanding of what creative means, nonfiction writing obviously qualifies.
Menand seems to agree, eventually. His article is not the takedown of the genre it might seem at first. He ends up thinking of the term as:
… an effort to endow nonfiction writers with the same qualities—individualism, outside-the-box thinking, and invention—that creative people are assumed to possess. “Creative nonfiction” in this respect doesn’t mean “made up.” It’s an honorific. In an economy that claims to prize creative workers, the nonfiction writer qualifies.
Thanks, I guess, although I thought that this question was settled decades ago.
The more interesting question underneath this taxonomical pedantry is what it actually means for a piece of writing to be “made up,” as Menand puts it.In his article, Menand critiques a biography of John Adams for “reading like a novel.” Here’s the relevant passage of the biography:
In the cold, nearly colorless light of a New England winter, two men on horseback traveled the coast road below Boston, heading north. A foot or more of snow covered the landscape, the remnants of a Christmas storm that had blanketed Massachusetts from one end of the province to the other. Beneath the snow, after weeks of severe cold, the ground was frozen solid to a depth of two feet. Packed ice in the road, ruts as hard as iron, made the going hazardous, and the riders, mindful of the horses, kept at a walk.
And here’s Menand’s response:
Is it nonfiction? The only source the author cites for this paragraph verifies the statement “weeks of severe cold.” Presumably, the “Christmas storm” has a source, too, perhaps in newspapers of the time (1776). The rest—the light, the exact depth of frozen ground, the packed ice, the ruts, the riders’ mindfulness, the walking horses—seems to have been extrapolated in order to unfold a dramatic scene, evoke a mental picture … It’s all perfectly plausible, but much of it is imagined. Is being “creative” simply a license to embellish? Is there a point beyond which inference becomes fantasy?
To take the bait here, I think Menand’s argument is a pretty good example of a common idea about truth in writing, probably the prevailing one: an almost fundamentalist belief in facts, which should be based directly on sources.
I’m not going to get into the facts part. What constitutes a fact, what facts mean, what determines or defines a fact—that’s a whole book, one most people seem to hate.Menand seems to think all information in nonfiction has to be based directly on sources, as if sources=truth. But that idea is a house of cards.
More to the point, when talking about a passage describing events that happened 250 years ago: what if no sources exist? What if none survive? Who’s to say what’s true? Are you just not supposed to write about it? Maybe Menand’s right that some details in the passage he quotes are extrapolated for effect. Maybe that is an act of imagination. But that’s not the same as being untrue.
I’ve seen a few New England winters, visiting my dad, and the light is often the way that passage describes it. So are the snow and the ice and the ruts and the frozen ground. I don’t know exactly how deep the ice typically goes, but it probably wouldn’t be that hard for the author to find out, and besides, who gives a shit? Nobody in their right mind is going to be galloping or cantering a horse down an icy road in the middle of winter, so the riders must have kept theirs to a walk. If I had to guess—and I do, because there’s no other way to know—everything in that passage seems as true as it can be. Isn’t it the closest thing to a nonfiction account of that horseback ride that can possibly exist?
A few other things I liked this month:
Speaking of thesis people, I want to recommend one’s ongoing multimedia writing project about wildfires. Riley came to Oregon with a photojournalism background and later became a wildland firefighter. For his thesis he wrote a series of spectacular photoessays on fire, a few of which you can read on his website. You can also follow along with fire season on his Instagram.
A while ago, another graduate student recommended to me the work of Emmanuel Iduma, whose book A Stranger’s Pose I read last year and liked a lot. (His latest book was recently released, but I haven’t read it yet.) Recently I stumbled on his Substack, Tender Photo, which features brief pieces of commentary on African photography.
This past month I’ve watched two great documentaries, American Factory and The Act of Killing. The former, an Obama-produced film about a Chinese-operated factory in Ohio, won an Oscar a few years ago. It’s probably more of a crowd-pleaser than Killing, a long, dubiously nonfictional, and deeply unsettling account of the American-aided Indonesian genocide that includes reenactments staged by the mass murderers themselves. I just finished it last night, and it’s the kind of movie that demands some processing, but I might write more about it at some point.
The NBA is a distant third in my personal pro-sports hierarchy, but if you haven’t been watching this year’s playoffs, you’re really missing out. As I write this, my Sixers’ dismantling of the Nets—while deeply satisfying for many reasons—has been the least entertaining part. Somebody seems to have defibrillated the late-LeBron Lakers; I’ve found myself rooting for the Sacramento Kings, of all teams; best of all, Playoff Jimmy Butler has entered the chat. I’ll never forgive the Sixers for letting him go.
People who don’t teach often assume this is summer, but that’s the season of sloth and degeneracy.
Not “baited”–see the aforementioned Benjamin Dreyer’s Dreyer’s English, page 172.
Under no circumstances do I tell strangers I teach true crime; I learned that lesson long ago.
I’ve noticed that even sophisticated literary critics—Menand teaches at Harvard—often revert to childish terminology when discussing the fiction/nonfiction distinction. (Menand also uses the term “make-believe.”) I don’t understand why. Maybe they’re trying to rhetorically signal how elementary and obvious it is in their minds? Philosophers don’t seem to think it’s so cut and dry.
I don’t hate that book. I don’t love it, either, but that’s a post in itself. Mostly I’ve always been amused by how much so many other writers hate that book.