Saturday, March 19, 2005

Blogging as Creative Nonfiction

Creative nonfiction is one of those genres that is as self-apparent as it is difficult to pin down. It encompasses so many diverse styles and forms that many of its practitioners don't care to wear the label. Blogging, likewise, is so easy to define that the people who do it seem obsessed with continued attempts to explain what it is they do and why. Thus, to say that blogging is creative nonfiction is as much stating the obvious as it is courting trouble.

However, I've been flipping through a book called The Fourth Genre, a collection of essays on essay writing put together by Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg, and I'm intrigued by the connections. My copy of the book is the 2nd edition, and it looks like there is a 3rd edition out now, so this has been sitting around my office longer than I realized, but I'll roll with it anyway. (To the Longman book rep that gave me this book, I'd sure love to see the new edition, wink, wink.)

Some snippets:

From the introduction, Root and Steinberg--

The most pronounced common elements of creative nonfiction are personal presence, self-discovery and self-exploration, veracity, flexibility of form, and literary approaches to nonfiction. (xxiv)

Including this personal voice in cultural criticism surrenders some of the authority--or the pretense of authority--generally found in academic writing, but substitutes for it the authority of apparent candor or personal honesty. (xxv)

The great challenge of memoir writing is knowing how much we remember is reliable and accepting the likelihood that we are "inventing the truth." (xxvii)

From Nancy Sommers, "I Stand Here Writing"--

If I could teach my students one lesson about writing it would be to see themselves as sources, as places from which ideas originate, to see themselves as Emerson's transparent eyeball, all that they have read and experienced--the dictionaries of their lives--circulating through them. I want them to learn how sources thicken, complicate, enlarge writing, but I want them to know too how it is always the writer's voice, vision, and argument that create the new source. (181)

Being personal, I want to show my students, does not mean being autobiographical. Being academic does not mean being remote, distant, imponderable. Being personal means bringing their judgments and interpretation to bear on what they read and write, learning that they never leave themselves behind even when they write academic essays. (182)

From Rebecca Blevins Faery, "On the Possibilities of the Essay: A Meditation"--

The essay has, then, the potential for being at least an inroad, if not indeed an attack, on monumental discourse because as a form it negotiates the split between public discourse--formal, ordered, impersonal, knowing, with pretensions to universality and fixity, and private utterance--tentative, personal, questing, provisional. (249)

Carl Klaus has aptly termed the essay an "antigenre, a rogue form of writing in the universe of discourse." I would elaborate only to observe that he essay can be, has been, rogue or heretical not only in form but in effect. As "antigenre," it has the capacity to work against, even to undo, the presumptions that have structured western discourse. (249)

From Marianna Torgovnick, "Experimental Critical Writing"--

But when critics want to be read, and especially when they want to be read by a large audience, they have to court their readers. And the courtship begins when the critic begins to think of himself or herself as a writer as well, a process that for me, as for some other critics of my generation, means writing as a person with feelings, histories, and desires--as well as information and knowledge. (368)

From Bret Lott, "Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction"--

For self, however at the center of what you are writing or however tangential, must inform the heart of the tale you are telling. It is indeed self that is the creative element of creative nonfiction. (311)

I have many more little snippets marked to think about, but I'll stop here for now. The way I see it, no matter what the style or agenda, blogs are a way of organizing the world through a personal filter. We all experience information overload in one form or another, and blogs give us a way to distill down to smaller chunks of information that are suited to our reduced attention spans and busy lives in a technological age. They are usually comprised of a series of short, ad libbed essays that are quite personal in nature. And sustaining these personal chronicles requires the creation of a persona that is both the self and the created voice that we choose to make public.

For academic bloggers, I think what the blog offers is a venue in which to be academic without the pressure of having to produce at the "publishable" level. I know I have very little time for working on real academic articles, but that doesn't turn off the interest in academic ideas nor does it negate the desire to express a response to those ideas. Like Poe's definition of the short story as something that could be read in one sitting, the blog posting is something that can be composed in one sitting. The popularity of academic blogging I think lies in that aspect more than any other. It's a way of applying what we know to what we do. It's also a way of sharing that connection with others via an act that easily fits into our busy lifestyles. As such, personal honesty, as Root and Steinberg have said about creative nonfiction, provides the real authority in what we do.

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