Advice from the Faculty: Thomas E. Kennedy on CNF
WHAT MAKES A MEMORABLE PIECE OF CNF?
Thomas E. Kennedy
To my mind, what makes a memorable CNF piece is that it is very much like a good piece of fiction — narrative coherence and interest and drive and rhythm, scenes, dialogue, sensory evocation, characters, details — but the CNF piece actually happened, inasmuch as the writer can actually convey something that happened and inasmuch as the writer can convey actuality… But you try. You try like hell not to falsify. But as soon as you set pen to page or begin keying in events, you begin to lie, which is to say you begin to select, organize, remember, and memory is something that by nature is imperfect and subjective, but you remember as well as you can and relate the matter at hand.
And what is the matter at hand? It might rise from a piece of language, a look in someone’s eye, a feeling or a feeling-infused thought you had when you looked at your father that time, or your mother, or your spouse, sibling, or your best friend or your favorite enemy… And you don’t know it in before hand, you discover it in the writing. You only know the “facts” before hand– some of the facts, or the central fact or maybe the fact that you remember is masking the central fact(s), as it or they happened to you or to someone else, but you don’t necessarily know what you want to say about them. As Wright Morris said about writing, “How do I know what I want to say until I’ve said it?”
You discover what you want to say in saying it and then sculpt it into the truth. Because even if something happened to you, you don’t necessarily know the truth of that happening. Which is why eye-witnesses to an event are so useless to the police. You’ve got to root out the circumstantial evidence of what you’re writing about — the circumstantial evidence is much more solid, and it might have to be gathered and interpreted.
A piece of journalism or academic writing probably pretends to be objective, but a piece of creative nonfiction will be subjective in the best sense of the word. The reader will experience it in his senses, will hear the characters experiencing it, will see them.
This is sort of what makes a piece of creative nonfiction creative. Maybe what you create is the meaning of it — insofar as meaning can be created or can be dissected — when you create the meaning of a living event, it is like applying the killing jar to a butterfly. You might preserve the beauty, but it no longer has life in it; how to preserve the life — how to enhance and convey the life — while still relating it, so that the reader might experience it in the sense of life and a sense of meaning?.
Probably the most important thing is that, as Flannery O’Connor said about fiction and is equally true about CNF, the reality of it comes as all human knowledge comes — through the senses. You can hear, smell, taste, feel, and see the circumstances and events with which CNF occurs and the people to whom it occurs (the way they dress, speak, walk, gesticulate, the way their teeth are arranged and the meaning of that, the way their eyes are composed…), and it occurs just like human life does through scenes, dialogue, narrative drive, action, the senses….
The difference between a story and a CNF is that a story seeks to discover the truth of events that are, probably but not necessarily, made up, a CNF seeks to discover the truth of events or an event that really, as far as you comprehend, happened.
Moreover, it is important never to leave your domicile without a notebook and pen and to write things down as soon as you see them, hear them, smell them, taste them, and feel them. Otherwise you tend to forget.
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