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Creative Nonfiction Is Not All About Make-Believe

Posted on Wednesday, April 29, 2015 at 4:46 PM

A publication that offers lessons about writing and process and depth of coverage.

By Peter P. Jacobi

"The time I remember is when I'm about 8 years old," writes Victoria Blake in a recent issue of Creative Nonfiction. "My mother is serving pork chops 1950s style -- bone in, with a little bit of applesauce. In my family, I'm known as a 'picky eater.' For example, I eat only the very outside of the meat because the bone terrifies me. There's a chalky spot in the center which -- I know now but didn't know then -- is marrow.

"The bone is unyielding and hard," Blake continues, "under the tines of my fork -- a hardness that, in an instant, conjures the image of a whole skeleton, then an animal walking, an animal eating, an animal living. And that's when my mother says it: "You should know where your food comes from, Tory. If you don't eat it, you won't get any dessert."

A Different Approach to Solve Issues

Creative Nonfiction may not be a publication you turn to with regularity; indeed, you may not refer to it at all. "Creative," after all, suggests using your imagination, stretching reality, perhaps making things up, and not sticking to the facts as good journalists are pledged to do.

But believe you me, Creative Nonfiction is not about make-believe. There are lessons to be learned from this publication, lessons about writing and process and depth of coverage and offering readers a product that attracts, that provokes attention. If very well planned and executed, it can be another weapon in your arsenal for use in that constant struggle to give your readers the best. I'm not suggesting you make Creative Nonfiction central on your reading list, but benefits can be gained: from stories by the likes of Victoria Blake (and, yes, I'll get back to her shortly), in essays that explore issues of professional consequence for us, in columns like "Writer at Work" that show us how our creative nonfiction colleagues approach and solve issues.

Interviews and Passion

In one "Writer at Work" column, for instance, written by Kase Johnstun, a teacher at Kansas State University, the discourse moves in the direction of interviewing and how an interviewer's passion might lead to bias, "either on the part of the interviewer, who might inadvertently lead the interviewee with his or her own emotional connection, or on the part of the interviewee, who might try to feed the interviewer the answers he or she wants, hoping to create the best story -- not always the true story."

Johnstun then turns to Mike Magnuson, an author currently working on a nonfiction book about political struggles in Wisconsin. He's all for using passion. "If you don't have a deep connection with a person you're interviewing for a piece and for the subject matter of a piece," he argues, "you need to develop one in a hurry. Without passion, without intensity, without putting everything on the line, every time, you will never make art. Art is key to the process, and the best thing about this, really, is that if we'd happen to interview somebody famous, someone we have admired for a long time, we are under no obligation to be objective. Why would we be? We're making art, and we're using art to prove a point.... I don't know about you, but I'm not keeping my emotions away from all that."

That's not an acceptable answer for all of us and leads us into the very nature of art, but what Magnuson preaches should, in my view, certainly be part of the discussion.

Depth of Coverage

Now let's get back to Victoria Blake. From what I've quoted to you so far and from the title of her article, "From Pig to Pork Chop," you can get a clear notion of what's to come: coverage and writing that begs no compromise.

"That pork chop," Blake shares, "started where all pork chops start: in the pig barn. There is only one smell in a pig barn, and it's not a good one. From a distance, the smell is sweet, not as grassy as in a cow pasture, not as tangy as near a horse barn. But inside the pig nursery, where 50 or so healthy, hot pigs chug along like diesel trucks struggling up a climb, the smell cloys and sticks in the nostrils and the throat. Covering my nose doesn't do any good. The smell remains hours after I've left the farm."

We meet the "largest grower of natural pork in Oregon's Willamette Valley." We watch her snuggle a week-old piglet in the barn, "one of many structures strung along a central concrete path that leads the pigs from farrow to finish, or from the nursery to the rusted blue Chevy that will drive them to slaughter. A day after slaughter, they get loaded into a truck and driven to meat coolers in hundreds of restaurants along the I-5 corridor, from the Columbia River to Eugene. They get rubbed and cured and smoked and fried and ground and, finally, often with a bit of sauce, eaten."

Blake "will follow them the whole way, my mother's 'you should know where your food comes from' rattling around in my brain." Her writer's journey takes about six months. Blake's coverage is honest and intense, detailed and uncompromising: about shocks to stun the animals and "put them down," about carcasses hung on hooks, about carcasses bathed, about how every part of the pig is put to use. ("If we could figure out how to eat the squeal, we would," an employee says.)

As Blake leaves the plant, she expresses the wish "I was still a smoker so I'd have something to replace the kill room smell that's crawling down the back of my throat." Later, author Blake will go along as the meat is distributed and, then, prepared for consumption in a restaurant. I'll spare you from more of what's likely to destroy your taste for pork (or any other meat).

"After the meal at Simpatica," writes Blake, "I go home, wash the kitchen smells off me and crawl into bed. I wake up with a fuzz on my tongue and no taste at all for pork. I have a freezer full of sausages and bacon from Sweet Briar, but in the freezer they will stay."

Bacon, however, on the following Sunday, entices. "I take my first bite," she writes, "and then I take another."

The copy is compelling. This is first-rate journalism, creative nonfiction, work that brings us close to the subject and causes reaction. Creative Nonfiction offers samples issue after issue. You can learn from the examples supplied.

Peter P. Jacobi is a Professor Emeritus at Indiana University. He is a writing and editing consultant for numerous associations and magazines, speech coach, and workshop leader for various institutions and corporations. He can be reached at 812-334-0063.

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"As a 30-year veteran journalist (first in print, then blogging, now Web TV) I can report that it's ALL about creativity. The only thing you don't make up are the facts you're reporting, and the facts don't make a good story. What makes a good story is how you tell them, which is also the creative part." --C.G. Masi

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