Two weeks ago, in our continued semester-long examination of Creative Nonfiction, we talked on this blog (and in my undergraduate college class) about “The Brave New World of Video Essays.” The week before that we enjoyed a guest blog post by Michael Steinberg about “The Role(s) of Memory and Imagination in Literary Memoir.” This week we’ll be discussing another sub-genre of Creative Nonfiction: Personal Reportage.
When most people think of Creative Nonfiction, they think of book-length memoirs or personal essays written about memories from the writer’s life. If you think about it, however, many personal essays, from some of the most popular works of E.B. White to travel pieces or essays that address political or social topics, aren’t about past life experiences. A wide variety of essays are derived from events or experiences the writer reports on in the “here” and “now” – at least whatever the “here” and “now” was when the piece was being written. These essays – and books, in fact – flirt around the border of journalism, because they explore and report the facts of a place, event, or experience. They share the goal, at least partially, of recording these things for posterity and/or to share something current with the reader.
You might ask, then, what makes this type of writing different from journalism? In fact, it grew out of a journalistic movement that is known as “literary journalism.” For our purposes in this class, personal reportage and literary journalism are essentially the same thing. Composition and grammar expert Richard Nordquist explains:
In his groundbreaking anthology The Literary Journalists (1984), Norman Sims observed that literary journalism “demands immersion in complex, difficult subjects. The voice of the writer surfaces to show that an author is at work.”
In other words, the “I” of the writer, or narrator, appears in literary journalism (whether as the actual “I” of the first person or as the more invisible “I” of subjectivity allowed in another point of view) in a way that it’s not supposed to in “regular” journalism. It is what literary journalists include beside the facts – that creative part of nonfiction nudging its way into the genre again – that distinguishes personal reportage from straight journalism. Literary journalists, whether they’re writing books about nursing homes as Tracy Kidder did with Old Friends or writing essays about the ruination of Atlantic City as John McPhee did in “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” immerse themselves in their subjects and then explore their topic subjectively in order to create a text that does far more than report the facts.
In each of the cases I’ve mentioned above, the writer finds something profound to examine based on his personal experience and interpretation of the place he is writing about. After spending time in the place and with the people who inhabit it, he discovers a revelation – a central message he wants to impart to his reader. He then transforms the place into a setting and the people into characters so he can artfully shape a text around that message, just as any writer of memoir does when developing a text out of personal memories.
In our textbook, we read a craft essay by Kidder called “Courting the Approval of the Dead,” in which he describes this process (as well as his own journey as a writer). We also read Vivian Gornick’s “A Narrator Leaps Past Journalism,” in which she talks about her own discovery of personal reportage and how she used the technique to write about the city of Cairo. Gornick’s piece also focuses on another aspect of Creative Nonfiction – the crafting of a narrative persona to tell the story (but that’s another topic that has filled books all on its own).
Personal reportage, or literary journalism, is yet another sub-genre that expands our definition of Creative Nonfiction and gives us, as writers, more opportunities to explore subjects through the lens of subjectivity. But what Creative Nonfiction writers all share, although they will argue about the levels at which they share or achieve it, is a desire to draw their interpretations from actual people and events reflected on the page as truthfully as possible. As Kidder says in a thinly veiled warning to writers who think permission for subjectivity gives them license to make up facts:
I’m afraid that if I started making up things in a story that purported to be about real events and people, I’d stop believing it myself. And I imagine that such a loss of conviction would infect every sentence and make each one unbelievable.
Now read “The Search for Marvin Gardens,” and let the arguments begin!
Note: For a nice overview of the fascinating essay “The Search for Marvin Gardens” by John McPhee, read this article by Ned Stuckey-French.
 Nordquist, R. “Literary Journalism.” Grammer.About.Com. Web. Accessed October 17, 2014.
 Kidder, T. “Courting the Approval of the Dead.” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers Of/On Creative Nonfiction. Eds. Robert L. Root, Michael Steinberg.