Thursday, August 7, 2014


In the Fall semester (which starts in a few weeks) I will be taking a creative nonfiction class. I am looking forward to it.

When I tell people this they almost invariably ask what ‘creative nonfiction’ is.When they ask me this I always say, “Well, let me tell you …” and then I smash one of my smoke grenades on the floor and disappear in the ensuing chaos. In the last few years smoke grenades have increasingly become standard issue for English majors. We use them when people ask what we think we’re going to be able to do with an English degree, or when people at class reunions ask if we have sold any books yet, or when people ask if we have written anything lately.

I will admit that I have been abusing my smoke grenade privileges. When I’m at work and need to go to the bathroom I will smash one in my cubicle and then scurry to the bathroom. Only once or twice have I failed to find my way out of my own smoke-filled cubicle. I’ve also started using them upon entering a room. I’ll quietly pull the door open a few inches and toss one in and then BAM! And when the smoke clears, there I am, all like, “Hey what’s up?”

I knew a girl who had to change majors because she had asthma and couldn’t handle all the smoke pouring out of the English department.

That’s a true story.

You know what else is a true story? Creative nonfiction.

I am excited, but it is with some trepidation that I am approaching the class. I’m excited for the writing I’ll be doing, but I’m worried about the writing other people will be doing ( That is the most ‘writerly’ thing I have ever written. In this example we are just going to accept that ‘writerly’ actually means ‘aggressively narcissistic’). I’m afraid that people are going to assume ‘creative nonfiction’ is a license to write their memoirs. I do not want to read people’s memoirs, especially not the memoirs of grad students.

So if not the eye-bleedingly bored tedium of grad student memoirs, then what is creative nonfiction?

Well, let me tell you … SMOKE GRENADE!


I’m sorry, I couldn’t help it.

Anyway. Sorry, So! Creative nonfiction? Right.

It isn’t that hard to figure out. It’s just nonfiction that borrows the tricks and devices of narrative fiction. Malcolm Gladwell has gotten himself and his head of supervillain hair famous and quite rich writing creative nonfiction that seeks to explain the to us the world we are already living in. BTW - if you were curious - I think that Malcolm Gladwell and Fareed Zakaria are probably the smartest men alive in the world right now. Jad Abumrad is probably up there too. These aren’t the guys out there designing space shuttles, rather they are the ones who can stand in amongst the trees and somehow see the forest. That requires a unique skillset and a mental alacrity that I think is especially important in the world we live in now; a world that is hugely complicated, dangerously polarized, and littered with distractions.

That’s why I’m excited about the class I am going to be taking. Good fiction seeks to stumble assbackward into some sort of eternal truth about the human condition ( Nope, I was wrong, that is the most ‘writerly’ thing I have ever written.), but creative nonfiction is already dealing in ‘truth’, insofar as ‘truth’ relates to ‘things that actually happened’.

I’m explaining this poorly. Because I’m a bad writer. Sorry. Let me use an example:

One of the best books I have ever read about anything ever was written by a journalist and professor named Alan Weisman. The book is called “The World Without Us” and it’s a fascinating thought experiment about what would happen in the world if the planet suddenly had no humans on it. How long would the lights stay on? What would happen to my cat? How long would it take for Manhattan to flood? How long would it take for the Amazon to grow back? For the desert to reclaim Phoenix? For the Hoover Dam to crumble? It is a fascinating book and it stays with you long after you’ve finished reading it. It is not just a startling book because of its subject matter, it is also so well written that it seeps into you the way that good fiction does.

Antithetically, if you have ever attempted to read “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by the inimitable and weirdly bearded Jared Diamond, then you know the importance of what I am talking about. It is probably one of the most profound and important books that will be written during my time on this planet, but holyfuckingshit is it dry. And I am a grad student in English, so I have suffered through Walter Benjamin and I am telling you that the genius of Jared Diamond is equalled only by how unentertaining his writing style is. (I say that with all due respect, of course, but he is not a guy who would throw smoke grenade jokes into the middle of his blog posts.) Better you should just watch the 3-part “Guns, Germs, and Steel” National Geographic documentary on Netflix.

The polar opposite of “GGS” (which is how we dorks refer to “Guns, Germs, and Steel” on our sudreddit about how we’re all still virgins) is a book called “The Devil in the White City” and at some point in your life you have seen someone reading it on an airplane.

If anyone ever asks you what creative nonfiction is, you should just be all like, “Psh! Clearly you have never read TDITWC.” (which is how we dorks refer to “The Devil in the White City” on our subreddit about how the D&D episode of “Community” was wildly inaccurate). It was written by the also journalist and also beardy Erik Larson. In a nutshell it has two narrative threads, both of them true. Half the book follows architect and control freak Daniel Burnham (known for designing the Flatiron building in New York) as he organizes the 1893 World’s Fair in Chicago. The other half of the book follows a guy no one had ever heard of called H. H. Holmes who just happened to be a serial killer living in Chicago at the time. Larson twists these threads together like strands of DNA and you can see the way that Holmes was exploiting the fair to murder people. What’s most amazing is that as you’re reading the book, Larson somehow does this magic trick of writing in such a way that makes the planning of the fair and the invention of the Ferris Wheel JUST AS INTERESTING AND EXCITING as the stuff about how Holmes was burning people alive in his basement. It really is an amazing book and if ‘creative nonfiction’ was previously a literary bastard child of a genre, Erik Larson married its mother and gave it his name.

For my money though, it doesn’t get any better than a Brit named Ben Macintyre. He is pleasantly beardless and I love his books. To be honest, I might love him a little bit too. He writes a lot about British Intelligence during World War II. He manages to find the strange, brilliant, and hilarious stories that no self-respecting history book would ever tell you about, like how the British convinced the Nazis that the Allies were not going to invade Sicily by using a dead body to deliver some secret documents. Or how the double agent Eddie Chapman used to practice his morse code by transmitting songs about his pet pig. Or that time that a team of magicians figured out how to “move” the Suez Canal. What’s most striking about his books though is the fact you can read them like novels. He manages to allow you to know the people involved and to suffer with them and to celebrate with them and he has damn near made me cry a couple of times.

That’s the ‘creative’ part of creative nonfiction. It is the part that tricks you into forgetting that you’re reading a history book or an anthropology book. It is the part that cracks open the door of the world and allows you inside. That’s why I am looking forward to my class in the Fall. I am excited to take a shot at cracking the world open, if only a little bit. I have no earthly idea what I am going to write about. Luckily I find just about everything fascinating.

Between you and me, I am thinking that someone needs to write the illustrated history of trashy French-inspired lingerie (I’m looking at you Victoria’s Secret). I also find the American Interstate Freeway system to be interesting.

Just no memoirs.

And now is when you’re all like, “Don’t you think it is a little bit hypocritical to bitch so much about memoirs on the blog you write about yourself and how interesting you think you are?”

And then I’m all like, “Well yes, that is an valid point, but in my defense …” SMOKE GRENADE!


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