“I would rather be well-versed about myself than about Cicero” Michel de Montaigne- ‘Of Experience’, 1588
Throughout my time studying creative writing, I have sensed a general undertone of distrust regarding the merits of creative nonfiction. Given the opportunity to write a creative piece, when the offer to present a work of nonfiction is presented, I dubiously look the other way.
My reading habits enforce the same unspoken ideal. Recently, I have been plagued by internal pressure to return to fiction after having read the memoirs Hunger Makes Me a Modern Girl by Carrie Brownstein and Just Kids by Patti Smith. (‘Fiction!’ my brain insists, ‘Enough dabbling in memoirs’.)
It’s difficult to pinpoint exactly why this industry hasn’t garnered the same prestige with prose writers as fiction. Perhaps because it’s considered easier to write about experience than to conjure whole worlds? But to recount an experience in the way that compels a reader to commit to 200 or more pages of well-crafted prose is a substantial and noble task. Think about the last time you sat across from a droll colleague who insisted on telling a long-winded story about their weekend… need I say more?
Another pervasive attitude may be in the consideration of influence: how can I write great prose unless I am inspired by the likes of Joyce or Kafka?
If Patti Smith’s memoir, Just Kids, is the state of current nonfiction, I can only conclude that this is a genre worth fighting for. I choose to hold her up as an example of what is, in my opinion, inspired creative nonfiction. I do so in the knowledge that, in the process, I fail to address the works of such great nonfiction writers as Primo Levi, Susan Sontag and Michel de Montaigne.
Great prose should influence our reading habits, not genre.
Photograph by Jade Thrupp, taken 10 April 2016