“Hugging the Shore”:
This Paradoxical Genre of Ours1Revised and condensed version of the Annual Holder Lecture at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, April 2008.
by Jeffrey Hammond
The kind of writing that Under the Sun publishes has no agreed-upon name. It has been called the literary essay, the lyric essay, the creative essay, the literature of fact, literary nonfiction, and, perhaps most commonly, creative nonfiction. Given that its most immediate forebears were the New Journalists of the Sixties, it is sometimes called personal or literary journalism. And because the genre has deep roots in a tradition of reflective and observational prose that reaches back through Bacon and Montaigne to St. Augustine and Seneca, some see it simply as the contemporary version of the familiar or personal essay.
I’m not crazy about the term “creative nonfiction” because it implies that other kinds of nonfiction—journalism, criticism, even workplace writing—are somehow uncreative. But the name matters less than those two adjectives, observational and reflective. Creative nonfiction lives where the X axis of an observer and the Y axis of a thing observed intersect. This crossing is not marked by a crisp point but by an amorphous blob, and its fusion of imagination and fact puts the genre in a kind of limbo. It’s not memoir, exactly. Although the voice is personal, the self is used as a vehicle for getting at something beyond the self. Creative nonfiction is not straightforward exposition, either. It does not frame its content in ostensibly “objective” terms but enacts a deeply personal engagement with that content. This kind of prose blurs the usual distinction between subjective and objective experience. What it presents is not the world as it is, but the world as it seems to the writer.
This bidirectional movement—both inner and outer—has marked the essay since its early modern beginnings. We often say that Bacon looked at the external world and Montaigne looked within himself, but outside and inside are not so easy to separate. Bacon and Montaigne illustrate two poles in what has always been a vibrant oscillation of subject and object.
Like any genre, ours has its pitfalls, and the chief one is a danger that it shares with memoir: narcissism. If the inward turn is not balanced by the outward turn, creative nonfiction can read like an exercise in navel-gazing. If I seize the fifteen minutes of fame that Andy Warhol promised me by self-actualizing in prose, I’ll be OK, but you, dear reader, might not be. The fact is, exclusively “inside” narratives often reduce themselves to a depressingly limited number of paradigms, the main ones being, I’m eccentric, or I’m a survivor, or I once was lost but now am found, or, more rarely, I once was found but now am lost. Unmediated by an external focus, a larger significance, and verbal craft, purely inside narratives can result in unintentional exhibitionism. Whether I present myself as a superhero or a train wreck, the message is always the same: Reader, look at me.
Such excesses aside, there are historical reasons why many people see “creative nonfiction” as an oxymoron, an uneasy blend of oil and water. The traditional assumption has always been that to “be creative” is to make stuff up, to invent things. John Updike distinguished between sailing into the uncharted seas of fiction and a decidedly less adventuresome “hugging the shore” of reality, the title that he once gave to a collection of his criticism, reviews, and essays. But Renaissance scholars know that there is an older sense to the word “invent,” a sense retained from the Latin invenire, literally “to come into” or, more simply, “to find.” Writers of creative nonfiction get excited by what we find ashore, on the semi-solid ground of perceived reality. For us, the deflections of fiction can feel too indirect, too contrived.
Given our fascination with lived experience, we occasionally take flak from both sides of the literary community. While critics and scholars sometimes think that we’re too loopy, other creative writers think that we’re not loopy enough. There’s a history here, too. The usual construal of “literature,” which stems chiefly from popular interpretations of Romanticism, posits an inner realm—the Xanadu of a writer’s interiority—as the only place where the Muse truly speaks. This is the Wordsworthian ideal of wandering “lonely as a cloud” and letting art flow from within. On our side of the Atlantic, Emerson and Thoreau placed a similar premium on autonomous genius. We often forget, however, that even though the Romantics championed radical individualism, they were not dreamy hermits. Those pastoral glimpses of the Lake District were also eye-opening critiques of deplorable living conditions among the rural poor. The Transcendentalists were passionately involved with abolition and with educational and labor reform. In short, Romantic artists were fully engaged with the real world, the world of actual experience. Indeed, their engagement with the natural real world was one of their hallmarks. They might have humanized or theologized nature as a source of moral uplift or Sublime terror, but a case could be made that we didn’t really see nature until people like Wordsworth and Thoreau wrote about it.
Although we routinely contrast the “imaginary” with the “factual,” philosophers, psychologists, and literary theorists have been pointing out for some time that this is a dubious opposition. Phenomenologists in particular tell us that perceived reality is a vibrant blend of the two. Ditto for the alleged split between the intellect and the emotions, the head and the heart. I believe that breaking down these old dichotomies is not just the primary goal of our genre but the most exciting thing about it. Fiction writers often speak of the seductive power of alternative realities, but writers of creative nonfiction aren’t ready for Xanadu just yet. We’re writing not to escape from the real world, but to see it more clearly.
Of course, fiction mirrors the real world, too. All texts enact a mimesis of something outside themselves. If they didn’t, they would be unreadable. We speak of the credibility of fictional characters, the verisimilitude of details, the plausibility of plots, the “realism” of settings. Fiction does real-world work, too—psychological, cultural, and political—and not just for readers. I could, for example, write a short story about an aging man who is concerned about his thinning hair. I could work out my issues through the main character, who would probably be dashing as well as bald. But what if I wanted to cut to the chase and confront these issues more directly, as the real me? And what if I wanted to push them toward a significance that was bigger than me? Say, the cultural valence of baldness in American culture, the proliferation of spurious hair-growth products, or the unsettling dynamics of male aging? The result, if it worked, would be creative nonfiction. Rather than probing the factual by way of the fictive, I’d be probing the factual in and of itself as deeply as my insights, research, and capacity for language allowed.
At its best, creative nonfiction places individual experience within a larger context through which it assumes collective significance. At their best, other literary genres do this, too, because all texts are grounded in larger realities. Shakespeare’s audiences went to see Hamlet knowing something about princes and how they should act. We read Hemingway against the world-shattering backdrop of the First War. We read Kerouac and Plath in light of the existential anomie that followed the Second War. Drama, fiction, and poetry also need larger, real-world contexts if they’re going to transcend mere self-display.
Even good memoirists have always pursued a significance bigger than themselves. Think of Montaigne posing his famous question—“What do I know?”—in response to the budding humanism that surrounded him. Think of Franklin offering himself as a comic parable of unbridled ambition in the Colonies. Or think of Henry Adams lending us eyes with which to see the rise of industrial America. Maxine Hong Kingston places herself in a realm—multicultural, multigenerational, and intersubjective—that transcends her own space and time. Frank McCourt embeds his younger self within Irish economic conditions. And Mary Carr’s The Liar’s Club offers an unsentimental view of not just one dysfunctional family, but working-class Texas. Connecting a life to a larger context reaches back to that ur-memoirist St. Augustine, who framed his story within the sin/grace paradigm of Christian salvation. And before him, Seneca wrote to promote the quality of virtus—stoic strength—among the Roman aristocracy. These people weren’t saying “look at me.” They were saying “Look at something important through me.”
I believe that this extrapersonal dimension gives us as creative nonfiction writers two important responsibilities beyond simply telling a good story. The first is to the facts as we know or have learned them, and the second is to ourselves as writers and as human beings.
The first responsibility is implicit in the fundamental contract that nonfiction makes with the reader, its claim to be telling the truth about something. Granted, “truth” is always subjective, but this is precisely why we must remain faithful to our truth, to what we believe really happened and how we really feel about it. We can engage this truth with an imagination as active as any poet’s or novelist’s, but if we violate it by writing what we know to be false, we are no longer writing nonfiction.
Does this mean that our genre has to stick to a narrowly defined empiricism, to nothing but verifiable reportage? Not at all. Imagining things, guessing at them, and wishing for them are all human ways of knowing. If we acknowledge their provisional quality by framing them clearly as speculation, they can become vital parts of the writer’s truth. We write to discover what we know but also what we don’t know, at least, not yet. This is why research is so effective as a stimulus and springboard for the imagination. But even when we follow the facts to the limits of where they lead us, there is always something left over, something that remains unknown or poorly understood. This gap offers the imagination plenty of room for maneuvering.
Our second responsibility is to ourselves. This means writing not to become a different person or even a better person, but to confront and understand more clearly the person who we actually are. This requires us to embrace our own uncertainties and confusions. The best creative nonfiction often begins with an itch, an unanswered question or a vague sense of unease. If things go well, the writing process nudges things toward a greater sense of clarity. This can happen only if we remain open for something to happen and are willing to let the reader in on the discovery. Often, the writer’s progression toward clarity becomes the main story, an underlying trajectory that unifies an otherwise ungovernable piece.
Our genre offers a terrific vehicle for exploring Montaigne’s great question, What do I know? What we know, however, can change over time. This temporal element gives creative nonfiction—the record of an intense engagement with something at a particular moment—a provisional quality that does not exist, at least not so obviously, in poetry and fiction. When a piece feels finished, we send it off and move on to other things. A few years or even months later, we might treat that topic differently, but that’s fine. We have recorded the reality of our encounter at a specific point in time. This, too, accounts for the genre’s appeal. In all its paradoxical messiness, it feels like real life. What’s more, real lives are not lived in isolation. By engaging with an external reality that we all share, creative nonfiction makes especially explicit the fact that language is a social medium. The instant we use words, even if we’re just thinking them, we are no longer alone.
This might be the greatest paradox about creative nonfiction. It records an act of introspection that has been triggered by a look outward, not only to the world and other people, but to language as an artistic medium. This explains why good writers are avid readers, of all sorts of texts. How does Shakespeare make Polonius’s advice seem wise and foolish at the same time? How does Milton meet the linguistic challenge of showing deathless angels getting wounded in battle? How does Edith Wharton use the description of a parlor to convey the atmospherics of social class? Questions like these are important to any creative writer. Seeing how others have handled language is fundamental to learning the craft.
My enthusiasm for our genre proves a cliché. There’s no zealot like a convert. I came to creative nonfiction in my late forties, after spending two decades as a literary historian. I began writing it in an attempt to stay sane while chairing an English Department, a ploy that worked, sort of. In other words, I once was lost but now am found. I still do scholarship, but now I also do this other thing that feels riskier but is definitely more fun. It is risky, too, because no matter how extensive the revising or how meticulous the attention paid to craft, creative nonfiction is usually read as the unmediated expression of a writer’s self. Although the revision process complicates things a bit, this assumption is fundamentally valid. A reader who doesn’t like an essay is, in a very real sense, reacting to us: how we see things, how our minds work, how we use words. When readers respond favorably, however, the reward is enhanced by the directness of the connection and by the satisfaction that comes with shedding some light on a real world that writer and reader share. There might be some artistic timidity in “hugging the shore” of reality and pursuing this paradoxical literature of fact, but those of us who practice it know that getting a little clarity on a few real things has its own delights.
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|1.||↑||Revised and condensed version of the Annual Holder Lecture at Nebraska Wesleyan University in Lincoln, April 2008.|