Through the Looking Glass


Creative Nonfiction, Fall 2013/Winter 2014 Issue

 This is the fiftieth issue put out by CNF editor Lee Gutkind, and the essays and interview here speak more about the magazine and its struggles, about publishing and writing than about any external thing. It’s as if (and retrospection can be and is a good thing occasionally) the magazine, in hoping to see through the looking glass, sees only its own reflection.

If you’re a newbie to creative nonfiction writing, or still feel you aren’t competitive, Gutkind has some stories for you to peruse, more for structure and tone than content. All quite well written, of course. 

Gutkind likes certain types of CNF, so if you’re hoping to be published there, read and evaluate closely.



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Braiding ‘Em

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Some years ago I was a writer in residence at a college in eastern North Carolina – there were a group of us, it turned out – with one outlier. I don't mean someone who was a terrible writer, nor a ringer. Instead, she was a non-fiction writer among liars (fiction writers). Somewhere in the course of our time together, the woman, Susan, mentioned braided essays several times. I'm usually good at picking up such things contextually, but I wasn't able to in that case, so I had to humble myself and ask her. 

Her explanation was slightly different from what you'll find on the Net, but this is the idea: You tell several stories, often three, which are disparate, but woven together by a common idea or theme. Or some such. You get the idea. In fact, if you read Creative NonFiction magazine, you'll see quite a few of these.

I've always been fascinated by the various structures of creative writing, so I set my fiction aside later on that year, and tried on the braided essay for size. I wrote three of 'em in short order, on different aspects of my life, on different times in my life, phases, if you will. Happy at conquering this nonfiction form, I proudly put them in the mail to various litmags. No one wanted them; in fact no one even gave me an encouraging word. So I trudged back to fiction, and whenever I came across a publication that sounded right for my essays, I'd slip one in the mail. Still no takers. I edited the pieces and re-edited 'em, as my writing (and editorial) skills grew. Years went by.

Finally, this week I had a taker, and I received a nice word of praise, to boot. The word "exquisite" was used. 

The lesson in this? Well, there are several; among them, these well-traveled homilies:  Experiment with new forms. A great idea deserves great editing, once committed to the page (or screen). Don't give up on a piece you believe in. Somewhere there's a home for any well-written piece.

Bowing To Anger

 Creative Nonfiction Magazine – Issue 43 – Fall/Winter 2011





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On the whole, I like what editor Lee Gutkind does with this magazine. It’s a good forum for beginning nonfiction writers as well as the more experienced, and Gutkind’s staff selects well.

With this issue, however, an issue devoted largely to anger, hate, and revenge, I found myself skimming. Most of these well-written, inventive essays have to do with personal anger and hate, particularly ire at the most obvious objects: a divorced mate, a politician of an opposite persuasion, and the like. This sort of self-absorptive writing has been a broadly running theme in memoirs and other forms on nonfiction for at least a decade, and have rightly begun to be decried in recent years.

I could excuse it here as an editor floundering for theme had not Gutkind himself decided to grind an axe in his lead column, an axe the bared personal affront at an action taken by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) that is essentially one more shot fired in an ongoing tug of war between the academic perspective on creative writing and the academically-related business end of the publishing industry.

Gutkind’s sniping here serves no purpose other than to make this literary divide more hostile. And this is essentially the problem I have with the essays published here. You can hate your ex-spouse, but does that resolve anything in your personal life? You can remain angry at Dick Cheney, but does that help create an environment for national political healing?

The closest to a constructive essay regarding anger and hate here is one by Chester F. Philips entitled, “Heroes and Consequences: On Masculinity and Redemptive Violence in American Culture.” Philips ends his essay depicting a poignant scene from the Bosnian war – preceded by this:

            “In turning from vengeance to care, I could connect with the real source of my hurt…”

We live in a time of challenging problems worldwide, and many among us wish to take various advantages from this state by causing more confusion and division. Our indulging in anger and hate, even in the face of such leveraging and fear-mongering, only serves to throw another log on that fire. We have to be big enough to see beyond our personal needs, preferences, and ideologies, our mistakes and limitations, to appreciate the situations of those whose life perspective is different from ours.

Creative writing can have a hand in oiling such troubled waters. It’s true that creative writing is best when it simply asks the right questions, not when it attempts to provide answers. We readers have to be able to arrive at a composite answer to such questions from different and sometimes opposing viewpoints.  But promoting essays what wallow in one’s own emotional responses without looking for that broader perspective only inflame, not heal.


Not rated





Smiling at the Reporting


I continue to be fascinated by Harper's Magazine's reportage. While the newsweeklies and even some monthlies skim the froth from relevant national and international issues, Harper's seems to settle for nothing less than on-the-scene reporting. 

Two memorable articles from the March 2012 issue:

"Ivan the Recumbent, or Demjanjuk in Munich," by Lawrence Douglas – The author, who has previously lived in Germany, attended the final days of the trial of this Ukranian/German prison guard, who was deported from the U.S. to stand trial for war crimes. This case abounds with ironies – the lax laws on trying Nazi war crimes, the protracted trial of Demjanjuk, and the case's odd resolution.

"A Civil Tongue," by Janine di Giovanni – Internationalism seems to be making things more complex, hopefully on its way to a simpler world. In this case, the newly minted nation of South Sudan is at loggerheads over teaching English. Those wiser heads there realize English is the gateway to international dealings, but they don't want to lose their native languages in the process. Brian Sokol's pithy black-and-white photos help bring this article to visual life.

For once, I'm not happy with this issue's fiction. Jess Walter's story "Thief," has its well orchestrated moments of readerly suspense, but the story's ending seems all to amateurish for such a savvy mag as Harper's.

Atlantic Monthly Gets It Right This Time

I've commented infrequently on Atlantic Monthly, a magazine I've read for many more years than I wish to countI've had my problems with Atlantic; the editors have often tackled important subjects in the magazine, but all too often they've done so with provocative articles that did too little to inform. But the March 2012 issue deserves mention.


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James Fallows presents a very balanced and insightful view of President Obama's first 3+ years as president. Christopher Hitchens in his final essay presents an equally insightful review of a pair of books on the complex life of G.K. Chesterton. And Megan McArdle, with whom I rarely agree, writes astutely on the difficulties inherent in changing organizational culture within corporations such as GM. 

One can hope that this isn't an anomaly; magazines such as Atlantic Monthly can do much to inform in an environment in which much that's written is inflammatory and just plain destructive.

What a Strange World

Pulphead, by John Jeremiah Sullivan 


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Thematic strength isn’t something you usually find in a book of journalistic essays, but apparently Sullivan is drawn to strangeness wherever it rears its head. And in this world, strangeness is de rigueur.  These essays wander from a Christian rock festival to a brother of Sullivan, who exhibits all sorts of odd behavior after a near-electrocution. Then there’s a near-encounter with Guns n’ Roses’ Axl Rose, a fey old gay man, then America’s ancient cave dwellers and those who find and sell their artifacts. Perhaps the oddest two are one on Jamaica’s Rastafarians and another on a naturalist’s theory of why animals – worldwide – seem to be increasingly attacking humans. Two pieces on reality shows could very well have been left out – their oddness speaks for itself.

It would be easy to treat each of these subjects as caricatures, but that isn’t Sullivan’s angle. There’s something a bit confessional in his work; he’s very rarely cynical, and he seems to be at least a little invested in each subject he approaches. As such, his writing is both expository and personal, and there’s not a little bit of charm to each. It’s as if Sullivan wants us to admit to a lot of this strangeness in each of us. And that’s a refreshing point of view in a literary world replete with postmodern cynicism.


My rating 17 of 20 stars




A Poetic Addendum

I wanted, after thinking about it, to add this to my previous post about my somewhat pragmatic use of poetry:


I do like poetry, and I do like writing it. I'm reading a book of essays by T.S. Eliot at the moment, as I contend with trying to write coherent poetry. His essays are largely about poetry in drama (i.e., Shakespeare) and the older European poets of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. But one can't help being who and what one is in such a venture, so these essays have a lot to say about Eliot the poet and his thoughts about the craft of writing poetry.

I'll have more to say in a later post about this book, but I'm bringing it up now to say that I try to approach creative writing – whether poetry or prose – with the highest sense of honesty and integrity I can muster. So I'm learning a lot about poetry from Eliot as I read – and as I write. Always good to have the master whispering in your ear as you write.