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Gutkind’s Engaging ‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’

Guide offers tips for writing creative nonfiction

Nov. 19, 2012
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 No one knows exactly who coined the term "creative nonfiction," though author and writing teacher Lee Gutkind staked his claim on the phrase when he founded a literary journal by the same name in 1993. In fact, Vanity Fair writer James Wolcott called Gutkind the “godfather behind creative nonfiction." In his new writing guide, You Can't Make This Stuff Up (Da Capo), Gutkind says the secret to creative nonfiction lies in a line alluding to one that made Bill Clinton a winning candidate in 1992: "It's the story, stupid!" 

Like many nonfiction writers, Gutkind knows it is stories, more than mere information, that move and engage readers. As such, his new book oozes anecdotes, including memories from his own life as a writer as well as his encounters with interesting characters along the way. He also shares plenty of stories from the lives of other creative nonfiction writers, including Ernest Hemingway, in this concise treatise on the craft of creative nonfiction writing.

According to Gutkind, creative nonfiction can be defined quite simply as "true stories well told." Creative nonfiction writers rely on "the techniques of fiction writers, playwrights and poets to present nonfiction in…compelling, vivid, dramatic manner." Though use of the word “creative” might imply that an author has taken poetic license, stretching true stories for dramatic effect, Gutkind asserts that out of respect for one's readers, a writer must honor the word "nonfiction" and avoid violating the truth at all costs. 

Gutkind returns throughout the book to themes of accuracy and truth. "Honesty and credibility are the bone and sinew, the essential irrefutable anchoring elements of nonfiction," he writes. In fact, the book's title is more than a clever turn of phrase—it can almost be viewed as an admonishment to nonfiction writers to be truthful in what has been called the "age of plagiarism." He says there is a "danger inherent in the form": Creative nonfiction writers, when reconstructing past events and conversations in story form, can be tempted to "round the corners" for the sake of story. While Gutkind says truth is personal and subjective, modifying facts and distorting characters' views of the truth to make a story more compelling are plain wrong. "You must attempt to achieve a chain of truths,” he says. “Be true to your story, true to your characters, true to yourself."

He refers to the work of John D’Agata, who, in order to make the story more lyrical, fudged facts in a true suicide story eventually published in The Believer. Gutkind also visits the work of memoirist David Sedaris, who has admitted to stretching the truth in his stories in the name of humor. 

Students and teachers of writing will find You Can't Make This Stuff Up instructive and inspiring. The book is peppered with advice and writing exercises, as well as sample essays from famed literary journalist Gay Talese, best-selling author Rebecca Skloot and others, including Gutkind himself. Those leery of yet another writer's manual will likely find they enjoy reading this engaging book for the way the author weaves together true stories well told.


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