Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring blog posts by current and former Oyez Review student editors. Today’s post is the first of a two-part entry by Ryan Michael Johnson. As we transition from celebrating Issue 41 to opening submissions for Issue 42 in August, more attention will be paid to creative nonfiction. In this post, Johnson explores his introduction to the genre, his appreciation, and how an understanding of its loose definition ultimately led him to progress in the genre, despite his preference for writing fiction.
Journey to Genre
Part One: Introduction to Fear
After five years of teaching and really hating my life, I was elated to go back to school for an MFA in Creative Writing. I had spent a couple years writing a novel, but I needed outside help in the process of editing and (eventually) publication. My genre is fiction; I’m a fiction writer. However, my adviser recommended I take a creative nonfiction workshop in my first semester. I was terrified, mortified, and stupefied. Fiction’s in my wheelhouse, but creative nonfiction?
My only experience with writing nonfiction came in college. It was also a requirement for my English minor. It was truly one of the most difficult classes that I took as an undergrad, but the course forced me to become a better writer. Why? It required me to shake off my safety blanket and focus on a given topic. I followed the advice that every writer gets: I wrote what I knew. But that was then.
One of the most difficult aspects to this genre is that, because it’s relatively new, there is not a solid definition. I consulted the almighty Wikipedia to learn what the All-Seeing said about the subject:
Creative nonfiction…is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft. As a genre, creative nonfiction is still relatively young, and is only beginning to be scrutinized with the same critical analysis given to fiction and poetry.
If you are like me, you read this and thought, What? So, it’s…I still don’t get it. It is a sufficient definition, but not a great one. Reading further, however, Lee Gutkind helps us out with a quite from The Best Creative Nonfiction Vol. 1: “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.”
Creative nonfiction is the best of both worlds, I have found. You get to take what you know and shape it into a story. Like all styles of writing, there is a lot more to the genre than what a simple definition can provide. I find profound beauty in lyrical meditations, experimental work, and essays that challenge the mind and perspectives. The most powerful aspect of this is that the events have actually happened. Fiction is boundless, but it sometimes lacks the punch of knowledge that something happened for real. Sure, fiction can give us fantastical aliens, pandemics, and wars; but the Titanic, for example, really did go down in the deep blue.
Now that we know what we’re talking about, what should someone do to begin writing it? That was where I was most perplexed. In class, our professor told us to meditate on an idea and then write it out. It was so simple, and yet the best advice for me to begin dabbling in the genre. All of the trite abstract nouns popped into my head: peace, hate, loyalty, religion, and love. Wait: love was my first inspiration. I wrote for several weeks about friendship, family, and romance. It was a start, and now I have three strong pieces that I am proud of and have submitted to publications.
Ryan Michael Johnson is an MFA Candidate in Creative Writing at Roosevelt University. He served as a reader and editor for Issue 41 of Oyez Review, and his writing has been published in Chicago Quarterly Review.