Arts and Culture

Creative nonfiction

PENMAN - Butch Dalisay -
A reader named Freddie Santos (the theater-person Freddie Santos, I presume?) wrote in to say this:

"I appreciate your lessons in fine writing. I must confess, though, that this article confused me a little. I had always seen fiction as counter to fact, and poetry as counter to prose. Perhaps it’s just semantics but my assumption is that poetry and prose can deal with and delve into either fiction or fact which, in turn, can be presented and represented in either poetry or prose. That said, I found your ‘moments’ two-phraser the most succinct description yet of the two, but in my mind, I replace the word ‘fiction’ with ‘prose.’ I’d hate to have to turn all that I have considered fact into fiction in just a moment."

Thanks for the message, Freddie, and now let me confuse you a little more – after making the easy clarification that we merely need to see fiction as a sub-category of prose, which also includes the essay, news reports, news features, and basically anything that employs sentences on a page. (And what about drama? Drama’s not much if the play isn’t acted out on a stage before an audience, but if you take just the script – or what we loosely call "the play" – into account, then the script – the dialogue, in particular – will usually be in prose, although it can also take the form of poetry, as do all of Shakespeare’s plays, which are written, albeit subtly, in iambic pentameter.)

Indeed both prose and poetry can deal with fact and fiction, or a mixture of both. The question, really, is how. I’m going to leave poetry to experts like Jimmy Abad and Krip Yuson. But speaking for prose, with which genre I’ve had more experience, I always remind myself and my students that there are many kinds of prose, as I’ve enumerated above, and that the writer has to decide what manner or approach serves his or her purposes and material best. By this I mean that, once moved to write by or about an experience, an idea, a situation, or a character, you basically have a choice between writing an essay or a piece of fiction (setting news stories aside for the time being, not to mention "creative nonfiction," about which we’ll say more, later).

Some people are much more predisposed toward the essay than to fiction. These are people possessed of a polemical or argumentative frame of mind, thinkers at home with abstractions and grand concepts like freedom, justice, criminality, terrorism, empowerment, identity, and sustainable development. Not surprisingly, they include editorial writers and op-ed columnists, politicians, speechwriters, academics, critics, and theorists of every kind.

The essay may deal with abstractions, but – take the editorial – it can leave very little doubt as to what it means. Indeed, it will often say that, pointblank, in the kind of thesis statement that we train our freshmen to crystallize in the primordial chicken soup of their minds, statements like "The digital revolution has only succeeded in creating a new social elite" and "The price to pay for freedom is often the loss of some personal liberty." Or – to get off our high horse – what about such popular propositions as "Love conquers all," and "Crime does not pay"? The virtue of the well-written essay is in its clarity of thought and expression, its inexorable logic, its unfailing precision.

Also not surprisingly, many essayists – some talented friends among them – have the hardest time shifting to fiction, where ambiguity of meaning can be a desirable yet often difficult effect to achieve. The short story produces meaning in indirect ways, working not with lofty abstractions but with concrete images, objects, characters, and situations; its cumulative impact depends less on the technician’s linear logic than on the artist’s deep intuition.

As I’ve often suggested in this corner, the fiction writer doesn’t know – can’t know – what he or she truly means until the work is finished; and even then, it may take another pair of eyes, another sensibility – a critical reader’s – to discern the writer’s message. All the fiction writer has to begin with is a sense of things, worked out in a series of imaginary events and encounters, leading to a certain fullness, the completion of an arc, an intuited trajectory.

Stories that yield their meanings in one sitting (or, worse, on Page 3 of a 10-page work) are often boring, one-dimensional, mechanically dramatized manifestoes. (You know the kind, where the protagonist strikes a tragic pose and launches into an aria like: "This is how the world treats worthless scum like you and me, Estrellita. Love can be bought wholesale by those with money and power, while we fight for crumbs of affection." Followed by thunderclap.) This is why I tell my fiction writing students to begin working on their stories with anything except a theme in mind – not because it can’t be done or done well, but because, in inexpert hands, a theme can be sheer deadweight, pulling everything down to the level of a propagandistic treatise, with little by way of fresh insight or leavening humor.

I usually begin my own stories with a description of a scene, or an object (such as that 1934 Parker Vacumatic fountain pen I bought eight years ago in Edinburgh, at a price so outrageously steep that my guilt drove me to write something – anything – with that pen in it; the story would become "Penmanship"), with no real notion of what would happen next, and much less of what the theme of the work might eventually be. That’s always been the fun part of writing for me – the discovery, the chase, the unexpected turn of one’s own imagination, driven and disciplined only by that most powerful of earthly forces, human character and its inclinations.

Let’’s make things just a little more complicated here, by introducing the concept of creative nonfiction, one of the hottest "new" areas in the study of creative writing today. Indeed it’’s one of our most popular courses at UP, drawing professionals and even retired persons who had always wanted to write their memoirs, family biographies, or travel essays, and just needed some help and direction with their research and presentation.

I had a very interesting dinner the other week with two visiting professors – Greg Bankoff, a historian from the University of Auckland, and Robin Hemley, a creative writer from the University of Utah. Robin has just finished a book on the Tasaday controversy, and we got to talking about creative nonfiction vs. mainstream historical writing. Greg – who, like most people, had never heard of "creative nonfiction" – seemed aghast at the liberties creative nonfictionists could presume to take with their material.

Just what is creative nonfiction, anyway? One online source says that "Alternatively known as ‘literary journalism’ or the ‘literature of fact,’ creative nonfiction is that branch of writing which employs literary techniques and artistic vision usually associated with fiction or poetry to report on actual persons and events. Though only recently identified and taught as a distinct and separate literary genre, the roots of creative nonfiction run deeply into literary tradition and history. The genre, as currently defined, is broad enough to include nature and travel writing, the personal memoir and essay, as well as ‘new journalism,’ ‘gonzo journalism,’ and the ‘nonfiction novel.’" That comes from the website of the University of Pittsburgh – where, incidentally, one of our best young poets (and no mean fictionist, as well), Chingbee Cruz-Basilio, is now doing an MFA in Creative Writing on a Fulbright grant.

The website of Creative Nonfiction Magazine describes the genre as "Dramatic, true stories using scenes, dialogue, close, detailed descriptions and other techniques usually employed by poets and fiction writers about important subjects – from politics, to economics, to sports, to the arts and sciences, to racial relations, and family relations... Creative Nonfiction heightens the whole concept and idea of essay writing. It allows a writer to employ the diligence of a reporter, the shifting voices and viewpoints of a novelist, the refined wordplay of a poet, and the analytical modes of the essayist."

Put simply, it’s writing about factual characters and events using fictional techniques and elements like point of view, dialogue, extended or focused descriptions, and playing with the chronology of events. As "new journalism" in America, it gained prominence with such blockbusters as Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Norman Mailer’s The Executioner’s Song; hereabouts, its practitioner non pareil has been Nick Joaquin, whose "true-crime" essays such as "The House on Zapote Street" and "The Boy Who Wanted to Become Society" became the basis for the movies Kisapmata and Jaguar.

Whatever we think of or do with creative nonfiction, let’s give a listen to Mark Twain, who advised people to "Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please."
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By the time you read this, I should be at the Bellagio Center in Italy, there to finish writing a long-overdue novel and to take a break (don’t I always?) from the rigors of teaching and the five or six other jobs I maintain to allow me to buy more old pens and new electronic gadgets. The less I say about this project until it’s done, the better, but I’ll take your good wishes and pray that I bring home something you’d be as glad to read as I was to write it. With my editor’s indulgence, I shall also be taking leave of PenMan for a month, to focus as well as I can on the novel.

My deepest thanks to the Rockefeller Foundation for the grant, which will also enable a watercolorist who’s coming along for the ride to chart the shores of Lake Como and pick up an antique bottle or two. Let me thank as well National Artist Frankie Sionil Jose, with some of whose writing I’ve publicly disagreed, but yet who took the time and trouble to give my name to the Bellagio people for a possible residency, which has now come about.

I’ve never been to Italy, so this will be quite exciting; my problem will be with cheese, which I strangely abhor (no, it’s not lactose intolerance, just plain weirdness), and so I’m bringing along, as I usually do on long foreign trips, at least a dozen packets of ramen and a few cans of Ligo sardines, to reward myself with and stave off starvation in the homeland of ravioli, rigatoni, risotto, putanesca, and what have you. Let’s see what wonders an exotic setting and comfort food can do in a month for my constipated fiction.
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Send e-mail to Butch Dalisay at [email protected].











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