Experimental Nonfiction: Is It New?

Last week on Sunbreak Press Facebook page I posted a call for submissions to a publication wanting “experimental nonfiction.”

A few people have since asked, “What is ‘experimental’ nonfiction?”

The answer lies in another question: What is traditional nonfiction? That is, what do you expect in a piece of nonfiction? A number of answers jump to mind, some focusing on the goal of the genre and some on the craft.

To start with the goal of nonfiction, one answer may be truth. Well, as we know, writers have been debating the differences between fact, memory, opinion and, therefore, truth for eons. Because that concept is abstract (elusive), some authors use the term essential truth, which means, most closely, truth as perceived by the author. Consequently, most nonfiction relies on personal memories–either those of the writer or other voices in the essay. This is a truth for the individual that may become a universal truth to which readers can relate.

With that answer in place, the idea of experimental nonfiction may be to use sources other than memories to come to an essential truth. That can be done through need (memories are missing) or choice; this gets into craft.

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For instance, to take the first reason for using other sources–need: suppose you’re writing an essay that comes from the events of your sixth birthday party where, according to family stories, your discovery of your mother and the neighbor kissing created havoc, which led to the family home burning to the ground. That has been the simple version of a family truth for decades and maybe you’ve always felt a little guilty about being party to the disaster, so you’re going to write about the event. However, in the family library, you’ve recently found pictures of that kissing neighbor, who was a different race than your family; this happened when racial tensions were high in your town. Then you find a newspaper article about that neighbor’s murder, which took place two days after your birthday.

You have no memories of your own, and writing with “perhaps” and “if I connect the pieces” throughout the manuscript becomes tedious. Suppose you drop standard chronological details and instead use a collage of newspaper articles, song lyrics of the time period, and quotes; with these, you may juxtapose birthday cake candle images with various other fires: burning crosses, passion, hell. You’re dealing with an essential truth that has emerged through juxtaposition. The story morphs. This is still nonfiction, but it’s not within what we think of as traditional nonfiction today.

This technique can also be used for the latter reason (choice), which is based on choosing technique to help you discover your own message. You let an essential truth build in your reader’s mind and even in your own (with, of course, your guidance).

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When this sort of genre mixing and chronological omission is practiced, first person often is abandoned for third person. We expect memoir, for instance, to be written from first person (with the author being the speaker). To shift person is another way to experiment with the genre. This sort of approach can change the voice, the tone, and the style of the work.

Another technique that often involves person switches or omission of first person is to use multiple story lines, weaving them together, to create an essential truth that none of them would have on their own. In a beautifully written essay on writing essay, “The Art of Memoir,” in Michael Steinberg The Fourth Generation, first edition, Mary Clearman Blew compares this sort of writing to that of creating quilts from scraps of material, each with its own story:

But any story depends upon its shape. In arranging the scraps that have been passed down to me, which are to be selected, which discarded? The boundaries of creative nonfiction will always be as fluid as water.

Although this was written in 1993 and deals with selection of details, the concept of experimental is at its heart; these writers were just not using the term experimental.

Whenever you’re using multiple genres to create your work, you are using experimentation. Although writers often wrote in boxes in the past, cross-genre work and genre bending have become increasingly popular. As mentioned above, you may well include articles, songs, and poetry in nonfiction to give it added depth and interest. Check out an interview with Margot Singer and Nicole Walker in TriQuarterly for some more thoughts along these lines.

Another aspect of essay that is usually expected is that it will be personal, focused on the self; after all, the word essai to Montaigne was his effort to provide thoughtful, personal honesty with his “little thoughts” (as a side note, the tradition for years was that only men could write essays, for only men could think).

Any essay that uses second or third person, of course is drifting from that idea of personal honesty, but that can drift even farther. In the 1990s, the term literary journalism was used to separate the personal essay from the rich essays that strove to avoid pitfalls of fiction (including telescoping time and creating composite characters) used by some creative nonfiction writing. According to John McPhee, artistry did not need to correlate with “made up” (Literary Journalism). McPhee and other literary journalists often objected to the term creative when correlated with nonfiction.

Literary journalism is often about situations, places or people other than the author or even anyone well known by the author (such as family).

Essays have, of course, been changing constantly over the decades. Perhaps these changes are all experimental, but over time we have fallen into thinking of essays in traditional ways (first person, chronological, memory-based reality). Perhaps thinking in terms of “experimental” is just one way of putting the creative freedom back into how we write nonfiction (or artistry if you prefer).

In essence then, experimental nonfiction is neither new nor particularly experimental; it remains, however, writing that seeks truth.

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