For exactly one year of my life I lived in St. Paul, Minnesota, and I can still picture myself in those days sitting in the restaurants of the Twin Cities after work, reading from one of the many annual editions of The Best American Essays and losing myself in the authors’ imagery and the flow and swirl of their prose. Ian Frasier, Jo Anne Beard, Jane Brox, Charles Simic, Julie Baumgold, Dudley Clendinen: I had never heard of any of these writers before, but now I was meeting them all for the first time through their work, and the experience was intoxicating.
And while at one time I would not have guessed it possible, I was also discovering how, aesthetically, non-fiction writing could be every bit as satisfying as a novel, poem, or short story. It wasn’t simply information.
Not that I’ve ever had anything against information. Quite the opposite. Of all the fiction and nonfiction authors I’ve encountered in my life, I can safely claim to have read far more from the latter category. And some of them have captured my attention in very special ways. The late Herbert Gutman’s work, for example, sparked my interest in the largely-ignored social history of the working classes. But this is something of an understatement. In truth, his collection of scholarly essays, Work, Culture, and Society in Industrializing America, actually changed everything for me at the time that I read it, setting a course of focus that would inform and influence the bulk of my undergraduate and graduate study. And there have been so many other fine historians and biographers whose works have engendered similar, though less dramatic and far-reaching, effect: Barbara Tuchman, Ron Chernow, Phillip Ziegler, and Doris Kearns Goodwin are but a few of them.
There is an important distinction, however, regarding the manner in which these nonfiction authors, Gutman included, affected me. Their primary appeal was intellectual and topical, rather than personal and artistic. Naturally the writer’s craft skill did not go unnoticed: a well-written book is more pleasurable to read than one that is not, after all. But this was always a secondary consideration, subordinate to the level, depth, and significance of the information they provided.
Which brings me back (sort of) to those Twin Cities restaurants, and the Best American Essays series. During this time, I wasn’t reading much in the way of novels or short stories, and I certainly wasn’t writing any fiction or poems of note. Instead, I’d recently developed a preference for an unfamiliar genre, a mode of writing I’d later come to know by its proper tag: “creative nonfiction,” and which includes, among others, the subgenres of literary journalism, travel writing, memoir, and personal essay.
Of course, I had read authors whose works fell within the parameters of creative nonfiction before—Hunter S. Thompson; Frank McCourt; Ernest Hemingway’s, A Moveable Feast; F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “The Crack Up” essays; and many others—but for some reason it had never dawned on me that these disparate examples could be parts of a unified and specifically-defined body of literature. To me they simply fell into the catch-all category of “nonfiction.”
I first became aware of the distinction between this more artistic style of nonfiction writing and its comparatively formal, information-driven counterpart when I read The Art of the Personal Essay, a 1994 anthology edited by Phillip Lopate. Defining this subgenre—which has become my favorite form of creative nonfiction—Lopate writes in his introduction that “[at] the core of the personal essay is the supposition that there is a certain unity to human experience.” He goes on to describe the writer as seeming
…to be speaking directly into your ear, confiding everything from gossip to wisdom. Through shared thoughts, memories, desires, complaints, and whimsies, the personal essayist sets up a relationship with the reader, a dialogue—a friendship, if you will, based on identification, understanding, testiness, and companionship.
This sounds a lot like first-person fiction, doesn’t it? And with good reason, for the personal essay incorporates many of the same elements of delivery: the direct writer-to-reader mode of communication; the inherently biased and limited insight; and most enjoyably, the “come listen to what I have to say” narrative voice.
And also like fiction, especially that of the literary variety, personal essay and other forms of creative non-fiction are founded primarily on presentation, and secondarily on reportage. The necessary information and analyses are provided, of course—how could they not be?—but in the case of creative non-fiction, the writer’s foremost gift to the reader is an aesthetic experience.
Note, for example, the ethereal, evocative, and thoroughly inviting manner in which Julie Baumgold opens her Esquire feature on the rise and fall of the late Elvis Presley, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Elvis,” which also appears in the 1996 edition of The Best American Essays:
He flew. Belted into the blue velour King-size bed of the Lisa Marie, Elvis flew. With an ex-beauty queen, an alert young girl, strapped next to him, in a state somewhere between up and down, he flew between shows, ready to fall from the dark air onto the next stage in the next indoor stadium.
As we see, Baumgold’s work of literary journalism effectively begins near the story’s end—during the final stage of Presley’s legendary career and life. What is more, she provides upfront the basic information that we need for a better understanding of what follows, although she presents it in a unique and creative manner by casting her opening as a scenario packed with unmistakable allusions to Elvis’ situation and peculiar behaviors: the amplified sense of extravagance and megalomania, his sexual preoccupations, and, critically, the dependence on prescription drugs that brought about his death at the age of forty-two.
In the same edition of Best American Essays, Ian Frazier shares literary snapshots of Brooklyn, utilizing short scenes, palpable descriptions, and bits of dialogue to their greatest effect. His personal essay, “Take the F,” is part subway ride (hence the title) and part walking tour of the sights and characters that make up Frazier’s neighborhood and the borough that is his adopted home. The author lists with keen, loving attention the myriad varieties of humanity that ride the F train day after day: “Russian-speaking men with thick wrists and big wristwatches”; “female couples in porkpie hats”; “Orthodox Jews bent over Talmudic texts in which the footnotes have footnotes”; “large women in straw hats reading a newspaper called the Caribbean Sunrise”; and, in my favorite example, a “tall woman with long, straight hair who hums and closes her eyes and absently practices cello fingerings on the metal subway pole.”
Not since Fitzgerald presented Nick Carraway’s roster of summer guests to Gatsby’s parties has an author given us a more eccentric and entertaining rundown.
But Frazier does a great deal more here than compile lists. His personal sense of place and an appreciation for those precious, extraordinary elements of everyday life are manifest throughout “Take the F.” Consequently, readers cannot help but come away with a feeling that not only have they experienced a great narrative, but that they’d been right there alongside Ian Frazier the whole time:
The smells in Brooklyn: coffee, fingernail polish, eucalyptus, the breath from laundry rooms, pot roast, Tater Tots. A woman I know who grew up here says she moved away because she could not stand the smell of cooking food in the hallway of her parents’ building. I feel just the opposite. I used to live in a converted factory above an army-navy store, and I like being in a place that smells like people live there.
And how could I not include one more poignant observation from this masterwork of creative nonfiction? Near the end of the piece, Frazier reports:
There’s a guy I see on a beach along Prospect Park West all the time. Once I walked by carrying my year-old son, and the man said, “Someday, he be carrying you.”
What profound insight. And what a treat, too, that Ian Frazier thought to include this tiny anecdote in “Take the F.” For the quote embedded in it not only testifies to the wisdom of a single, unnamed Brooklynite on a local beach, but it also lends credence to Lopate’s assertion that the personal essay form, and arguably creative nonfiction as a whole, are at their very basic levels expressions of the “unity of human experience.”
And how much more personal can a piece of nonfiction be than that?