I’ve wrestled with the definition of literature in previous posts. As well as trying to define creative nonfiction. 1966: A Journal of Creative Nonfiction, gives us this definition which, when broadened, could include literature as well:
The best definition we’ve heard so far for “creative nonfiction” comes from editor and writer Lee Gutkind: the word “creative” in “Creative Nonfiction” “refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner.” Instead of making things up, a creative nonfiction writer simply makes ideas, people, events, and places that already exist more compelling through the use of imagery, scene, form, dialogue, setting, characterization, plot, and detail.
Some people object to the term “creative nonfiction” and prefer the term “literary nonfiction,” or prefer to simply refer to various kinds of writing by their subgenre: narrative journalism, lyric essay, personal essay, nature writing, etc.
Literature, therefore, might be artistically done writing that employs “imagery, scene, form, dialogue, setting, characterization, plot, and detail” to their best use. What 1966 calls “literary craft.” It does all seem a bit fuzzy. But we can work on it, producing nonfiction and fiction that aspires to something more than mere reporting, something that produces not just writing, but fine writing.
In April 2014 I posted my first and only fully realized YouTube video. It was on dividing agapanthus, a popular ornamental of temperate climes. It took quite a bit of work to produce it, and its not especially meritorious, production wise, but people like it. Here’s the question: should I do more gardening videos?
For context, click throughs from the video to my blog have been few. Perhaps twenty clicks over three years. Making money from videos doesn’t appeal; I’d be chasing pennies. Yet the videos are ten times more popular than my blog site, if you count hits. Still, what would be the goal if I were to do more?
The video was an experiment, another skill for me to develop as a freelancer. Please take the poll if you would like to advise me.
For ten weeks I am going to try to learn basic steps in writing poetry and fiction. This is new to me. The online course I have signed up for is offered through the Writers Studio, which is based in Greenwich Village. This was a selling point, as New York City fields so many strong writers.
The cost for this first course if $450, which is about what other schools and studios charge, although you can spend double that if you enroll at Stanford. The other online program recommended to me was The Loft which is based in Minneapolis. Berkeley Extension offers a poetry program but only in person.
As a nonfiction writer I have had the barest glances with fiction and poetry. As a reader, like everyone else, I have experienced both but I have never approached them from the point of a creator. I am eager to learn something new. I am Alice, pursuing the rabbit.
Do you know about Open Yale Courses? I’m just finding out. They present a variety of subjects for anyone to view without fees or registration. It’s a marvelous resource. Consider the lectures on English modern poetry. Not only do you have the video of a learned professor, you have the transcripts of a course if you wish to read instead. It gets better.
Handouts in .pdf are provided for each lecture and the 55 minute videos are broken out as chapters, so you can skip ahead to what interests you. For example, in Lecture 10 on Modern Poetry, the introduction to T.S. Eliot is at 10:32, and the discussion of Prufrock begins at 25:00. Recommended readings are at the top right of every lecture page.
This is not an online class in the sense that you get graded and receive credit, it is instead a wonderful example of the best the internet can be: dedicated people communicating their knowledge free of charge to anyone wanting to listen.
There’s an interesting and illuminating article in today’s New York Times about one writer’s successful struggle to land a variety of high profile gigs. Key to his story is how many writing assignments he did not get.
In this blog, I try hard to be positive and I don’t bemoan my failures. But I could tell you story after story of articles and books I wanted to write but was never able to because no one was interested. Or, perhaps, because I didn’t know how to market myself better. You’ll never know, by the way, if your query letter stunk, or the magazine editor wasn’t looking for another talking dog story. I am melancholy for all my failures, orphans turned out into the street, homeless.
What’s not revealed in the Times’ article, and this is little discussed, is whether this semi-successful writer makes his living from writing. I don’t. Writing adds income but its not my total income. Many times I have had to go back to nursery and plant work to get by. And even now, in between pitching books and articles, I am blogging for trial lawyers and writing articles for very little money just to keep income flowing and writing credits current.
But I am still writing, just like most of you who read this blog. We are still writing because we have to. A bird must sing. And tomorrow might bring that acceptance letter and that assignment and that chance to continue this mad and exciting game. Would we want to do anything else?
This summer the U.S. National Park Service is holding a BioBlitz at Great Basin National Park in northeastern Nevada. This three day event this year will focus on lichens. What is a BioBlitz? As they put it,
A Bioblitz is a short term event to learn about the biodiversity of an area. In Great Basin National Park, we are focusing on one order of invertebrates each year over a 24-48 hour period. This snapshot view helps us look at many different habitats over the same time period time period and helps us to better understand what lives in the park.
Within its boundaries, Great Basin National Park encompasses an eight thousand foot elevation change, giving rise to a wide variety of habitats and ecological zones. Great Basin tops out at 13,000 foot tall Wheeler Peak.
This blitz will consist of classes and then hikes to survey and inventory lichen. In a previous post I wrote about how I got interested in them. (See the link below.) I’m looking forward to learning and the summer camping. I’m also thinking about what magazines might be interested in an article about the event. I’m not an expert, but I could write from the perspective of an enthusiastic beginner, just I have done with all my Rock&Gem articles.
There’s a deeply disturbing trend to remove Civil War monuments and to rename parks, schools, and streets whose subjects are no longer in favor. Librarians and scholars, on the other hand, celebrate banned books, publications so controversial in their time that people weren’t allowed to read them.
Texts like Mein Kampf and Lolita populate book shelves. Do we approve of Nazism or pedophilia? Of course not. Yet those titles remain. We are in fact considered enlightened if we permit their distribution.
What if monuments were books? Would we be removing them from bookshelves and prohibiting people from reading them? With statuary, we are banning people from reading their stone wrought pages and erasing our history. It is an affront to everything scholarly and the freedom of speech and ideas we so earnestly espouse.
“Every record has been destroyed or falsified, every book rewritten, every picture has been repainted, every statue and street building has been renamed, every date has been altered. And the process is continuing day by day and minute by minute. History has stopped. Nothing exists except an endless present in which the Party is always right.” George Orwell
It might be said that literature aspires to something higher, art perhaps. Artistic merit. Perhaps.
None of the reporting I’ve done, the blogs for trial lawyers that I write, none of the magazine articles I’ve ever worked on could be considered literature or art. Instead, they are workman like writing bent solely on communicating clearly. Unvarnished and without nuance, they provide a standard meal without dessert. Given the deadlines they were written under, and the requirements set by editors, that may be enough. Solid food. Perhaps literature provides the apple pie.
My one brush with the literary world is coming up with the publication of my first creative nonfiction essay. It is in a literary journal so is it not literature? Maybe. I think it is simply strong storytelling without the need for a label. It took no longer to write than one of my Rock&Gem articles. But within its 2,500 words I got to explore ideas, even in my own limited way. I’ll never provide scholarly insights like Huxley but I am not trying to.
The visual art world has an easier time deciding what kind of art exists, although they wrestle with the more fundamental question at every moment. What is art? is as difficult as asking what is literature. But back to their distinctions. Chiefly, fine art is produced by an artist on their own, according to their own lights, without an employer or boss telling them what to create. A graphic artist, by comparison, works on projects assigned to them by someone else. Norman Rockwell was the epitome of a graphic artist. Perhaps literature is only written by those selecting their own stories.
I’ll leave with some enlightening quotations. Again, I may not know how to define literature, but I know it when I see it.
“That is part of the beauty of all literature. You discover that your longings are universal longings, that you’re not lonely and isolated from anyone. You belong.”
― F. Scott Fitzgerald
“Literature is a luxury; fiction is a necessity.”
― G.K. Chesterton
“Literature is news that stays news.”
― Ezra Pound, ABC of Reading
“Life is not a PG feel-good movie. Real life often ends badly. Literature tries to document this reality, while showing us it is still possible for us to endure nobly.”
― Matthew Quick, The Silver Linings Playbook
“Serious literature does not exist to make life easy but to complicate it.”
― Witold Gombrowicz
Literature, at first thought, explores the meaning beyond basic facts required by a story. Reportage demands the who, what, when, where, how, and why; literature demands the meaning behind them. Why, then, isn’t news analysis literature? Is Time magazine literature?
Supreme Court Justice Potter Stewart once wrote, essentially, that while he couldn’t define pornography, he knew it when he saw it. Perhaps that standard is aplicable to literature. Why don’t we compare two examples?
My articles for Rock&Gem are travel pieces. I go to certain locales, collect rocks or gemstones, and report on them. As the editor mandates, it’s all about the rocks. I never stray far from that edict as doing so would be a disservice to my editor and my readers. Here are a few sample paragraphs:
I returned to Sharon Artlip’s store for directions to Hidden Treasures. Her place is, again, Goldfield Art & Business Services, sometimes called Goldfield Art & BS. It’s one of four businesses you check in before visiting the Gemfield claims. The store is right on Highway 95 at Fifth Avenue, the actual address 306 Crook Avenue. You’ll see a large wooden sign out front that proclaims “Official Gemfield Headquarters.”
Outside, Artlip has plenty of rock from the claims. Inside, if you ask, she’ll pull out a tray of polished stones which have been worked up from Gemfield rocks. Sharon now directed me to Bryan’s shop which is several blocks off Highway 95, at 489 Bellvue, near Bellvue and Oasis. Pick up a map at the City’s Chamber of Commerce to guide you. Or just ask someone walking around. Goldfield’s 200 souls all know each other.
Goldfield is a sprawling ramshackle of a town, its size befitting a place that once claimed 20,000 citizens. Grand stone buildings remain, along with rough hewn houses, traditional homes, and singlewide trailers. Make sure to slow down as you look, you’ll find something interesting on every corner. Art cars worthy of Burning Man? An aluminum giraffe named Cosmo? It’s all in Gemfield.
Now we turn to completely different travel writing. In 1934 Aldous Huxley wrote about his extended trip to the Caribbean, Central America, and Mexico, in Beyond The Mexique Bay. But it wasn’t a mere travel book. It explored ideas as well as the countryside. After a difficult journey to another remote village, Huxley contemplates Esquipulas, in eastern Nicaragua:
Esquipulas is the home of a Black Christ of such extraordinary sanctity that every January pilgrims came, and still come, from enormous distances to worship at his shrine. It seems that in the eyes of all the aboriginal American races, black is traditionally a sacred colour; so that what draws the worshippers from as far as Mexico in the north, and as Ecuador in the south, and even as Peru, is probably less the saintliness of the historic Jesus than the magical sootiness of his image.
With us, black is symbolical only of grief. The black uniform of our clergy is a kind of chronic mourning that is meant, I suppose, to testify to the essential sirieux of their official character. It has no magical significance; for on all ceremonial occasions it is discarded for a praying costume of white linen, or of cloth of gold, or of gaudily embroidered silk.
But though black is not with us a sacred colour, black images of exceeding holiness are none the less fairly common in Europe. The reason, I suspect, is that such statues have a somewhat sinister appearance. (The Holy Face of Lucca is very nearly black and, with its glittering jewelled eyes, is one of the strangest and most terrifying sculptures ever made.) In Otto’s terminology, black idols are intrinsically more ‘numinous’ than white. Numinosity is in inverse ratio to luminosity.
Numinosity is in inverse ratio to luminosity? I understand that after several readings. Several. Each of those paragraphs deserve rereading. I may not be able to define literature but I know what it is. And that is literature.
Not all writing can be literature, of course. A 650 word newspaper article barely allows basic facts to be presented, let alone anything beyond. Exceptions exist. Mark Twain bordered on literature with almost everything he wrote, including newspaper columns. And Hemmingway’s dispatches in World War II, when he drove with Allied troops through France, show literature can surface in only a few words in the hands of great masters. We should be as talented.
My creative nonfiction essay entitled “Describing The Elephant” is moving toward publication. Temenos (internal link) will carry it in their Spring 2017 edition. I received a manuscript with suggested corrections and I approved all of them. This is no time for ego.
I’ve said many times before that every writer needs an editor. And the editor, sometimes several of them, knows their publication best and what works well for their magazine’s style. The edits I approved today did not require any major revisions, which is often what you will have to do. My two articles for American Heritage publications required three substantial rewrites.
In the end, do you really want to contest things like this?
Original: Everyone thought him crazy.
Corrected: Everyone thought he was crazy.
I like a terse writing style with little punctuation. But I won’t battle for that in every line of my writing. Putting out an article or essay is a collaborative exercise. Tememos has 17 years of publishing behind them. I greatly respect that. They accepted my article with enthusiasm and took it upon themselves to improve it. With both our efforts, we’ll have a winning story.