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An Audience with the Don: Lee Gutkind

by Holly Vanderhaar

In 1997, Vanity Fair's James Wolcott pejoratively referred to Lee Gutkind as "the Godfather behind creative nonfiction." Though it wasn't Wolcott's intention, his dismissive remark brought Gutkind and the genre to the awareness of countless Vanity Fair readers, and as we all know, there's no such thing as bad publicity.

Gutkind started America's first MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh, and is the founder and editor of the literary journal Creative Nonfiction. He has written or edited twelve books, most recently Almost Human: Making Robots Think (2007).


I had the opportunity to work with him last spring at Arizona State University, where he was the Distinguished Writer in Residence at the Virginia G. Piper Center for Creative Writing. Thanks to Lee, I came away with a new awareness of the importance of structure, and a new mantra: "The building blocks of creative nonfiction are scenes." I recently chatted with him about immersion journalism, MFA programs, and the role of the internet in the genre of creative nonfiction.

When you're coming up with an idea for an immersion piece, is it something that you're actively looking for, or is it triggered by an article you might read, or is it a combination of both?

It's a combination, but I like to keep doing this kind of work. I don't think I serve myself well by only editing and teaching, or only writing personal memoir. I think that it's really good for me to keep my hand in this immersion aspect. And I decided that I'm not crazy about doing short pieces of immersion. So I'm always looking for opportunities to do longer immersion pieces.

It must be a huge commitment; didn't you research Almost Human for six years?

I researched Almost Human for six years off and on, so it's a big commitment, but some of these projects can be off and on projects, so I might have devoted a month or two to robots, and then I might have left for a month or two, and come back to it. You like to do the long story, so the reason it's six years for me is it really did take the roboticists six years to create and design a robot that I wanted to see happen. So you pick a narrative project that will allow you to move in and out and tell an elongated story.

So at the moment you have your antennae up looking for a new immersion project?

I've been spending some time looking into the future of medicine. I may go in that direction. Personalized medicine or diagnostic medicine, whatever you want to call it, that starts with a person's genome and gets doctors to look at a person's body individually, rather than the way they do medicine today, one drug for lots of folks who have lung cancer. That, and I'm also looking into the state of marriage in America.

Did the interest in medicine arise out of the organ transplant book that you did [Many Sleepless Nights] or is it something you've always been interested in?

The most memorable experience I ever had as a writer was doing that organ transplant book. To me it was much more important and much more engaging than writing about baseball, or writing about motorcycles, or writing about robots, for that matter. Life and death stories are always the best in a high-tension atmosphere that allows you to walk in and out of a series of dramatic moments.

Definitely a high-stakes subject.

Absolutely. And when you're at such high stakes with people, with their backs to the wall, they are much more likely, if they trust you, to talk to you about stuff that really matters.

You set up the first MFA program in creative nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh. What are MFA programs doing right, and what are they doing wrong?

Every MFA program's a little different, but the good part about it is that people come to MFA programs, initially anyway, in order to get advanced help writing. As long as we continue to help writers who are more advanced than undergraduates, and who also have more life experience and professional experience doing this kind of work, that's what MFA programs were first established for, and that's the thing I think many programs are doing right.

What we're doing wrong is that now the degree has become much more important in many respects than the writing itself. That's a problem; at least, it is to me. As I look at the job listings, say, in the AWP job list, so many people have MFA requirements; you know, you have to have an MFA to get a job. An MFA doesn't necessarily mean that you're a good teacher, and it certainly doesn't necessarily mean that you're even a good writer.

I would much rather see people wanting a writer who has published a book or two or three, not caring one way the another about the MFA. Hemingway didn't have an MFA. Fitzgerald didn't have an MFA. Gay Talese doesn't have an MFA, and I don't have an MFA, so the degree is not nearly as important as the writing itself, and I see students hunger for this degree. That disturbs me. And I'm very disturbed by the fact that the standards are so different at different institutions.

What issues do you think are going to prove central to the genre going forward? Obviously the James Frey [A Million Little Pieces] issue has people talking and thinking about the nature of truth in memoir and emotional truth versus factual truth. Do you think that will remain a central issue?

I think we're going to keep talking about it, and I think we're not going to come to any conclusion about how memoir ought to be written, and what truth really is, and the validity and accuracy of memory. It's going to just go on and on, and I think that's good that people are talking about it, and I think it's really good that we have different opinions and that we share opinions.

The more we share opinions and the more we see that nobody really knows, that there's no law, no rule, no guideline except for the fact that you're not supposed to knowingly make anything up, then I think that it will make people more aware of being careful, and trying to remain as close to the essence of the story that they're telling as they can. I think that's good. I do think that publishers and writers need to be much more careful about the other kind of truth, the truth in the facts that they use. I think that we have to be really careful to fact-check ourselves or to force a publisher [to fact-check], and I think that we also need to be much more careful about the innocent victims in our narratives.

Wasn't it Annie Dillard who said, "Memoir is an art, but it's not a martial art"?

Yes indeed.

Let's talk about the internet and the role you see that playing in the future of creative nonfiction. In the recent anthology The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. I, you included some blogs.

I think blogs are rather interesting. I think it gives us—all of us—the opportunity to exercise our writing abilities and also to say what we think and not feel so frustrated. For so many years, writers wrote in the dark. They're all alone and they're writing draft after draft of essay or story or novel, and if the writing wasn't particularly good or the subject didn't appeal to publishers or editors, then they were sitting in the dark all by themselves, isolated and alone. So blogs give writers the opportunity to find an audience, and reach out and touch other people. So in that respect, I really like that, and I appreciate the freedom that writers are getting, and the riches and rewards that readers are getting by the efforts made in blogs.

On the other hand, so often, blogs are done by people who are not yet ready for prime time as writers, and so you read a lot of pretty bad blogs. A lot of people who are not particularly schooled in the craft of writing, nor are willing to revise and work real hard like the working writer really does to write the best thing they can, so you get a lot of instantaneous stories that aren't particularly good.

So there's the good and the bad, but I chose to include blogs in The Best of Creative Nonfiction, and I'm hoping that I chose very good blogs, because it reflects what's happening, especially in the world of nonfiction today. When you're blogging, your work is available all across the world, to all kinds of different people, and I think it's really a fascinating thing that's happening, in allowing us to sit in our house and communicate with other cultures instantaneously in a universal way.

The hard part in finding good blogs is that they're not organized. So you literally have to surf and run into good pieces of narrative, and it's hard to find. In this particular case we found six blogs, and two of the six that we published had been noticed by major publishers and two of the bloggers were already the recipients of book contracts.

Is that how you found these pieces for the anthology, then? Just by surfing the web?

Exactly.

That's a daunting task.

Yeah. A couple of them were absolutely accidental. Only in one case was a blog site recommended.

Final question: Do the Godfather jokes ever get old?

No, they're fine. And they're fun. The Godfather label and the Godfather jokes kind of helped elevate the dialogue about creative nonfiction. And so I really appreciate it. When I first saw what James Wolcott did, I was annoyed and embarrassed. But immediately, instead of a few people talking about creative nonfiction, he attracted the attention of his four million readers. It was a port of entry into a discussion about the form. It delighted me in the end, and I don't think he meant to make it such a productive experience, but it certainly was. He made fun, but the readers didn't.