Sunday, December 16, 2012

Book review: You Can't Make This Stuff Up

Today, Dennis Rizzo reviews You Cant Make This Stuff Up for us. Thanks, Dennis!

You Can't Make This Stuff Up:
The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction
By Lee Gutkind
270 pp. Da Capo

Reviewed by Dennis C. Rizzo

Lee Gutkind is founding editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine and Writer in Residence at Arizona State University. It follows, then, that he has some experience with the genre.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up brings his cumulative insights to the public in an easy-to-digest and well-structured presentation. Gutkind's narrative style embodies his experience with storytelling. It offers you a seat in a cozy parlour, where you sip wine or tea while listening to the author's casual remarks and anecdotes; not at all like the authoritative text on writing it is.

Creative non-fiction may sound like an oxymoron, but it is reflected in the pieces we read almost every day. Journalism, magazine articles, memoirs, autobiographies; all are non-fiction pieces which can be massaged to read like fiction.

Despite the controversy over its name – or perhaps because of it – creative non-fiction has become the most popular genre in the literary and publishing communities. In the academic community generally, creative non-fiction has become the popular way to write.

Gutkind tells us it is the 'story' that is paramount in all writing, including non-fiction. You Can't Make This Stuff Up is true to his philosophy. In it, he develops our view of creativity within the framework of honest non-fiction writing and skewers those who manufacture or avoid the facts in an effort to build a better story. He speaks of creative non-fiction as a process which one must acquire through practice, and provides examples both from renowned authors and scalawags to illustrate his points. He consistently points to the push and pull between getting a good story and telling the facts.

Truth is personal – it is what we see, assume, and believe, filtered through our own lens and orientation. Although it may revolve around the same subject or issue, the truth as one person perceives it may not be the same truth another person sees. – Because a blurry line exists between fact and truth, readers will usually make a judgement about the veracity of the stories being told and ideas presented based on their faith in the narrator. – Making stuff up, no matter how minor or unimportant, or not being diligent in certifying the accuracy of available information, endangers the bond between writer and reader. must be trustworthy and your facts must be right if you're going to be a credible writer of non-fiction.

The book is divided into two sections. The first deals with defining and explaining “creative” non-fiction, as the author sees it. The definition is certainly definitive, since Gutkind was one of those who defined the genre. The second section provides a series of “how to” exercises and explanations. It offers insight into writing phenomenons, such as the “creative non-fiction dance”; seductive juxtaposition of story and fact.

You Can't Make This Stuff Up provides key elements of the craft of writing creative non-fiction for the professional and amateur writer alike. Professionals may see some of their traditions and sacred cows skewered – or not. Newcomers will find a series of exercises of graduated difficulty which offer a path to honing their craft. Either way, Lee Gutkind gives us the material with which to build our reputations as serious, writers of creative non-fiction.

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