Personal Experience

Most creative nonfiction writers write from personal experience, with varying degrees of self-revelation. Scott Russell Sanders' disturbing, cathartic essay, "Under the Influence," describes his childhood with an alcoholic father. In the passage below, Sanders contextual-izes the term alcoholic, setting up a contrast between his own life and what he knew of alcoholism.

Under the Influence

How far a man could slide was gauged by observing our back-road neighbors—the out-of-work miners who had dragged their families to our corner of Ohio from the desolate hollows of Appalachia, the tightfisted farmers, the surly mechanics, the balked and broken men. There was, for example, whiskey-soaked Mr. Jenkins, who beat his wife and kids so hard we could hear their screams from the road. There was Mr. Lavo the wino, who fell asleep smoking time and again, until one night his disgusted wife bundled up the children and went outside and left him in his easy chair to burn; he awoke on his own, staggered out coughing into the yard, and pounded her flat while the children looked on and the shack turned to ash. There was the truck driver, Mr. Sampson, who tripped over his son's tricycle one night while drunk and got so mad that he jumped into his semi and drove away, shifting through the dozen gears, and never came back. We saw the bruised children of these fathers clump onto our school bus, we saw the abandoned children huddle in the pews at church, we saw the stunned and battered mothers begging for help at our doors.

—Scott Russell Sanders, Under the Influence

Vivian Gornick, on the other hand, writes about daily minutae and people interacting on the streets of New York City. At first glance, Gornick's essays feel like a casual conversation with an acquaintance. However, Gornick's subtle insight renders her everyday observations as transformative moments. Often, from precise description, her narratives open up to profound understanding of human behavior. Very different stylistically, both writers employ strategies that reveal surprising truths.

Below is an excerpt from a piece Gornick wrote in response to the tragedy of September 11, 2001, entitled, "How I Read September 11."

How I Read September 11

One soft clear night in January, I was crossing Broadway, somewhere in the seventies, and halfway across, the light changed. I stopped on the island that divides the avenue and did what everyone does: looked down the street for a break in traffic so that I could safely run the light. To my amazement, there was no traffic. Not a car in sight. I stood there hypnotized by the grand and vivid emptiness. I could not recall the time—except for a blizzard, perhaps—when Broadway had ever, even for a moment, been free of oncoming traffic. It looked like a scene from another time. "Just like a Berenice Abb..." I started thinking, and instantly the thought cut itself short. In fact, I wrenched myself from it. I saw that it was frightening me to even consider "a scene from another time." As though some fatal break had occurred between me and the right to yearn over that long-ago New York alive in a Berenice Abbott photograph. The light changed, and I remained standing on the island; unable to step off the sidewalk into a thought whose origin was rooted in an equanimity that now seemed lost forever: the one I used to think was my birthright.

That night I realized what had been draining away throughout this sad, stunned, season: it was nostalgia. And then I realized that it was this that was at the heart of the European novels I'd been reading. It wasn't sentiment that was missing from them, it was nostalgia. That cold pure silence at the heart of modern European prose is the absence of nostalgia: made available only to those who stand at the end of history staring, without longing or regret, into the is-ness of what is. The moment is so stark that for writers, comfort comes only from a stripped-down prose that honors the starkness with a fully present attention. This, it occurred to me, is the great difference between what Americans mean by "postwar literature" and what the rest of the world has meant. A difference, it also occurred to me, that one could perhaps register only at the moment that it was about to evaporate.

—Vivian Gornick, "How I Read September 11"

What emerges in creative nonfiction, and what some say must emerge, is a larger understanding elicited by the writer's exploration of the narrative's given events. In this way, creative nonfiction's task is more explicit than fiction's. We don't expect fiction to teach. But when we read creative nonfiction, we expect some type of illumination to result from the writer's experience. The creative nonfiction writer writes toward that illumination, because the writing is the revelation. Sanders suggests this illumination in the quote that begins this chapter.

Creative nonfiction, however, is not about arriving at a moralized ending or one right answer. Rather, it approaches life's uncertainties with open senses and reveals some collective understanding through the individual's experience. The writer, Paul Heilker, writes essays because

[lit has been my experience that the "truths" in each of the various spheres of my life (emotional, spiritual, familial, intellectual, professional, political, and so on) have been anything but "certain," especially in the innumerable areas where these spheres intersect and conflict...embroiled in continual disagreement and contradiction, defying all my attempts to pin it down and thus settle the matter once and for all, no matter how scrupulously I examine or try to articulate the matter at hand.

Creative nonfiction allows a writer to recall events with a fictive voice. The beauty of that voice, as we have explored in other chapters, is that often, fiction paints more truthfully than journalism. Sticking to "the facts" does not always make the strongest truth. By using elements of fiction writing, such as characterization and dialogue, a writer is able to communicate the "uncertainty" of the truths life brings us.

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