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The Essayist at Work: Profiles of Creative…

The Essayist at Work: Profiles of Creative Nonfiction Writers

by Lee Gutkind

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Amazon.com Amazon.com Review (ISBN 0435081519, Paperback)

As is typically the case with anthologies, the quality of the writing in The Essayist at Work varies significantly. But the many fine essays--by the likes of Annie Dillard, Gay Talese, and Tracy Kidder--far outweigh the few that seem to limp along. Lee Gutkind, the book's editor, is an English professor at the University of Pittsburgh and a seemingly tireless proponent of the burgeoning field of creative nonfiction; most of the essays included here are reprinted from the journal Creative Nonfiction, which he edits.

In the book's introduction, Gutkind addresses the differences between creative nonfiction and other types of writing. "In creative nonfiction," he says, "writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously." In journalistic prose, the writer is invisible; in creative nonfiction, says Gutkind, "a writer's feelings and responses about a subject are permitted and encouraged."

One of the more illuminating pieces in The Essayist at Work is Michael Pearson's interview with John McPhee, a master of the essay form. According to Gutkind, it is the use of the intimate detail that sets creative nonfiction apart, and McPhee, says Pearson, "is a lover of small details." He has also been described as having "total recall," which is partly why, perhaps, he discourages Pearson's use of a tape recorder during their interview. But the main reason he disdains the tape recorder, McPhee says, is that "you'll get a better story without [it].... Writing is selection. It's better to start choosing right here and right now."

While writing fiction is a process of invention, writing nonfiction is one of discovery, and part of its allure, as McPhee says, is that "nonfiction writers go out not knowing what to expect." McPhee likens the nonfiction writer to "a cook foraging for materials.... In many ways, like a cook, you're only as good as your materials." That may well be, but where one cook sees a funky fungus another may see a prized wild mushroom; and a mediocre cook with fabulous materials will still turn out a mediocre meal. It helps, as a nonfiction writer, to come upon a good story, and then it helps to be John McPhee to make it a compelling one. --Jane Steinberg

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:23:31 -0400)

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