Sunday, May 23, 2010

Creative Commons

Here is Lee Gutkind on defining creative non-fiction:

Although it sounds a bit affected and presumptuous, “creative nonfiction” precisely describes what the form is all about. The word “creative” 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. To put it another way, creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.

His explanation rightly emphasizes three qualities of good writing: that it should be 1) compelling, 2) vivid, and 3) accessible. Another way of putting this is to say that creative non-fiction must 1) seduce and entertain the reader, 2) create a strong sense of the subject matter, and 3) be written in a style that is clear to all intelligent readers, not merely specialists.

Brisbane Paniyiri (2010)

1) Seducing the reader

Here, I think, we are really talking about the contribution of techniques drawn from fiction writing, especially story-telling devices such as a strong narrative voice; shifts in point of view; use of dialogue; temporal variation; and empathetic characterization.

I watched two men enter the lobby of the Hotel Mowafaq.
Most Afghans seemed to glide up the center of the lobby staircase with their shawls trailing behind them like Venetian cloaks. But these men wore Western jackets, walked quietly, and stayed close to the banister. I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was the hotel manager.
"Follow them." He had never spoken to me before.
"I'm sorry, no," I said. "I am busy."
"Now. They are from the government."
I followed him to a room on a floor I didn't know existed and he told me to take off my shoes and enter alone in my socks. The two men were seated on a heavy blackwood sofa, beside an aluminum spitoon. They were still wearing their shoes. I smiled. They did not. The lace curtains were drawn and there was no electricity in the city; the room was dark. (Rory Stewart, The Places In Between. Harcourt, 2004. p. 1.)


I had grown up dreaming of big-game shooting and exploration, and was determined, now that I was back in Africa, to get away into the wilds. I had brought a rifle out with me. One day, standing on the Legation steps during a lull in the [Ethiopian] coronation festivities, I asked Colonel Cheesman, the well-known explorer, if there was anywhere left in Abyssinia to explore. He told me that the one problem left unsolved was what happened to the Awash river, which, rising in the mountains west of Addis Ababa, flowed down into the Danakil desert and never reached the sea. The conversation turned my thoughts to the Danakil country, where the people were head-hunters who collected testicles instead of heads. I was expected back at Oxford in six weeks' time, but could at least get down to the edge of this country and have a look at it. Helped by Colonel Sandford, an old family friend, I collected my caravan. Just as I was ready to start, Sir Sydney Barton, the British Minister, said that he was unhappy about my travelling by myself in this completely unadministered and dangerous area, and suggested that, instead, I should join a shooting trip which he was arranging. I was grateful to him for this offer, but I knew that acceptance meant turning my back for ever on the realization of my boyhood dreams, and that then I should have failed even before I had started. I tried fumblingly to explain what was at stake; how I must go down there along and get the experience which I required. He understood at once and wished me well, and added as I left the room, 'Take care of yourself. It would be awkward if you got yourself cut up by the Danakil immediately after the coronation. It would rather spoil the effect of it all.' (William Thesiger, Arabian Sands. 1959. Penguin, 2007, p. 22.)


I met a young Swede at dinner, whose expensive jewellery and talk about his father's estate made me wonder why he was living in Tehran.
Swede: I am in the business of cases.
R. B.: Cases?
Swede: Cases for sausages.
R. B.: Tins do you mean?
Swede: No, cases for the sausages themselves made from sheep's intestines. Some people think it is not a nice business. I do not always talk about it.
R. B.: I thought those cases were made of rice-paper of some such material.
Swede: Not at all. Every sausage has a gut case.
R. B.: What happens, ha, ha, with a sausage six inches across?
Swede (seriously): We use not only sheep's guts, but also ox guts. The big intestine of the ox will hold the biggest sausage manufactured. (Robert Byron, The Road to Oxiana. 1937. Oxford University Press, 2007. pp. 191-92.)

Brisbane Paniyiri (2003)

2) Creating a sense of the subject matter

This aspect of creative non-fiction is indebted most to modern rhetoric and its study of description and exposition (as distinct from classical rhetoric's emphasis on logical argument). Writers like Bill Bryson and Malcolm Gladwell have made livings explaining things to their readers, while many of the great travel books achieve their effects through intense description and exposition, and the sense of place that results.

Sometimes for as much as three months at a time a slave ship would move from anchorage to anchorage on the West African coast, picking up its cargo. The Francisco Bobadilla would be only five days. It would go from St Kitts to Grenada to Trinidad to Barbados: one journey answering another: the climax and futility of the West Indian adventure. For nothing was created in the British West Indies, no civilization as in Spanish America, no great revolution as in Haiti or the American colonies. There were only plantations, prosperity, decline, neglect: the size of the islands called for nothing else. (V. S. Naipul, The Middle Passage. Penguin, 1962, p. 27.)


It is April and we have taken an old fisherman's house in the extreme north of the island - Kalamai. Ten sea-miles from the town, and some thirty kilometers by road, if offers all the charms of seclusion. A white house set like dice on a rock already venerable with the scars of wind and water. The hill runs clear up into the sky behind it, so that the cypresses and olives overhang this room in which I sit and write. We are upon a bare promontory with its beautiful clean surface of metamorphic stone covered in olive and ilex: in the shape of the mons pubis. This is become our unregretted home. A world. Corcyra. (Lawrence Durrell, Prospero's Cell. 1945. Axios, 2008. pp. 11-12.)


The shrine of Khajeh Shamsuddin Mohammed Hafez Shirazi, better known as Hafez, lies in a small and carefully tended park north of the river in a quiet portion of Shiraz. It is called the Arãmgãh, meaning place of rest, and of all the city's shrines and monuments it is the most frequently visited. Among Iranians themselves, it is probably the most celebrated shrine in the entire country. Exactly why this is so is hard to say: there are other Persian poets whose works are far more widely read. Sa'di, who lived for most of the thirteenth century and was a fellow citizen of Shiraz, is probably the most widely read author in Iran, India, and Turkey put together; and Jelalludin Balkhi, known as Rumi, is even today known and revered the world over. But no other poetry reaches into the Iranian soul quite so intimately as the ghazals - the short, sonnet-like poems - of Hafez. None is so loved or so cherished, or has decided the fate of so many dynasties, kings, and ordinary people. (Jason Elliot, Mirrors of the Unssen: Journeys in Iran. Picador, 2006, p. 249.)


A number of years ago, the H. J. Heinz Company did an extensive market-research project in which researchers went into people's homes and watched the way they used ketchup. "I remember sitting in one of those households," Casey Keller, who was until recently the chief growth officer for Heinz, says. "There was a three-year-old and a six-year-old, and what happened was that the kids asked fir ketchup and Mom brought it out. It was a forty-ounce bottle. And the three-year-old went to grab it himself, and Mom intercepted the bottle and said, 'No, you're not going to do that.' She physically took the bottle away and doled out a little dollop. You could see that the whole thing was a bummer." For Heinz, Keller says, that moment was an epiphany. A typical five-year-old consumes about 60 percent more ketchup than a typical forty-year-old, and the company realized that it needed to put ketchup in a bottle that a toddler could control. (Malcolm Gladwell, "The Ketchup Conundrum." What The Dog Saw. Allen Lane, 2009. p. 45.)

3) Clarity

It's hard to go past George Orwell's rules of effective writing: 1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print; 2. Never use a long word where a short one will do; 3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out; 4. Never use the passive where you can use the active; 5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent; 6. Break any of these rules sooner than saying anything outright barbarous.

Dame Freya [Stark] was a woman of formidable intellect, indefatigable energy, and zest for life. Born in Basingstoke, England, in 1892, she lived for one hundred and one years, lauded as an explorer, ethnologist, cartographer, photographer, belletrist, and, most lastingly, author of thirty books, including four volumes of autobiography and eight of collected letters. From the beginning, her venue was the Islamic world, and she continued to journey through it by foot, camel, donkey, or car into her late eighties. When she died in 1993, The Times (London) pronounced her "the last of the Romantic Travellers," while The New York Times called her "a consummate traveler." She relished her solitary wanderings through remote and little-known regions, putting herself again and again in the way of danger, claiming that this was her way of "passing through fear to the absence of fear."
A complex personality, regarded as both a brilliant conversationalist as well as deft exploiter of her many friends and loyal supporters, Freya may or may not have known that she was born illegitimately. Only recently was it revealed that her real father was an American from New Orleans, Obediah Dyer, who apparently had an affair with Freya's mother in southern Italy in 1891. Possibly she never knew her true origins, as it was assumed that her parents were Flora and Robert Stark, first cousins and talented artists whose unhappy marriage and deep differences were expressed by long absences from each other as they moved restlessly back and forth from Devon, England, where Robert's parents lived, to Italy, where Flora had been raised. (Janes Fletcher Geniesse, Introduction to Freya Stark, The Valleys of the Assassins. 1934. The Modern Library, 2001. pp. ix-x.)


For many plays all we can confidently adduce is a terminus as quem - a date beyond which they could not have been written. Sometimes evidence of timing is seen in allusions to external events, as in A Midsummer Night's Dream, in which seemingly pointed references are made to unseasonable weather and bad harvests (and England had very bad harvests in 1594 and 1595), or in Romeo and Juliet, when Nurse speaks of an earthquake of eleven years before (London had a brief but startling one in 1580); but such hints are rare, and often doubtful anyway. Many other judgments are made on little more than style. Thus The Comedy of Errors and Titus Andronicus 'convey an aroma of youth', in the words of Samuel Schoenbaum, while Barnet can, without blushing, suggest that Romeo and Juliet came before Othello simply because 'one feels Othello is later'. (Bill Bryson, Shakespeare. HarperPress, 2007. p. 96.)


Still, statistically the probability that there are other thinking beings out there is good. Nobody knows how many stars there are in the Milky Way - estimates range from a hundred billion or so to perhaps four hundred billion - and the Milky Way is just one of a hundred and forty billion or so other galaxies, many of them even larger than ours. In the 1960s, a professor at Cornell named Frank Drake, excited by such whopping numbers, worked out a famous equation designed to calculate the chances of advanced life existing in the cosmos, based on a series of diminishing probabilities.
Under Drake's equation you divide the number of stars in a selected portion of the universe by the number of stars that are likely to have planetary systems; divide that by the number of planetary systems that could theoretically support life; divide that by the number on which life, having arisen, advances to a state of intelligence; and so on. At each such division, the number shrinks colossally - yet even with the most conservative inputs the number of advanced civilizations just in the Milky Way always works out to be somewhere in the millions. (Bill Bryson, A Short History of Nearly Everything. Doubleday, 2003. p. 25.)