KYSO Flash
Knock-Your-Socks-Off Art and Literature
Issue 2: Winter 2015
Craft Essay: 678 words [R]

What Makes a Memorable Piece of CNF?

by Thomas E. Kennedy

To my mind, what makes a memorable CNF piece is that it is very much like a good piece of fiction—narrative coherence and interest and drive and rhythm, scenes, dialogue, sensory evocation, characters, details—but the CNF piece actually happened, inasmuch as the writer can actually convey something that happened and inasmuch as the writer can convey actuality... But you try. You try like hell not to falsify. But as soon as you set pen to page or begin keying in events, you begin to lie, which is to say you begin to select, organize, remember; and memory is something that by nature is imperfect and subjective, but you remember as well as you can and relate the matter at hand.

And what is the matter at hand? It might rise from a piece of language, a look in someone’s eye, a feeling or a feeling-infused thought you had when you looked at your father that time, or your mother, or your spouse, sibling, or your best friend or your favorite enemy... And you don’t know it beforehand, you discover it in the writing. You only know the “facts” beforehand—some of the facts, or the central fact or maybe the fact that you remember is masking the central fact(s), as it or they happened to you or to someone else, but you don’t necessarily know what you want to say about them. As Wright Morris said about writing, “How do I know what I want to say until I’ve said it?”

You discover what you want to say in saying it and then sculpt it into the truth. Because even if something happened to you, you don’t necessarily know the truth of that happening. Which is why eye-witnesses to an event are so useless to the police. You’ve got to root out the circumstantial evidence of what you’re writing about—the circumstantial evidence is much more solid, and it might have to be gathered and interpreted.

A piece of journalism or academic writing probably pretends to be objective, but a piece of creative nonfiction will be subjective in the best sense of the word. The reader will experience it in his senses, will hear the characters experiencing it, will see them.

This is sort of what makes a piece of creative nonfiction creative. Maybe what you create is the meaning of it—insofar as meaning can be created or can be dissected—when you create the meaning of a living event, it is like applying the killing jar to a butterfly. You might preserve the beauty, but it no longer has life in it; how to preserve the life—how to enhance and convey the life—while still relating it, so that the reader might experience it in the sense of life and a sense of meaning?

Probably the most important thing is that, as Flannery O’Connor said about fiction and is equally true about CNF, the reality of it comes as all human knowledge comes—through the senses. You can hear, smell, taste, feel, and see the circumstances and events with which CNF occurs and the people to whom it occurs (the way they dress, speak, walk, gesticulate, the way their teeth are arranged and the meaning of that, the way their eyes are composed...), and it occurs just like human life does through scenes, dialogue, narrative drive, action, the senses....

The difference between a story and a CNF is that a story seeks to discover the truth of events that are, probably but not necessarily, made up, while a CNF seeks to discover the truth of events or an event that really, as far as you comprehend, happened.

Moreover, it is important never to leave your domicile without a notebook and pen and to write things down as soon as you see them, hear them, smell them, taste them, and feel them. Otherwise, you tend to forget.

—Previously appeared on Facebook (26 August 2014) and at the Fairleigh Dickinson University Creative Writing MFA blog (4 September 2014); republished here by author’s permission

Thomas E. Kennedy
Issue 2, Winter 2015

The author of more than 30 books, including novels, story and essay collections, literary criticism, translation, anthologies, and most recently the four novels of the Copenhagen Quartet: In the Company of Angels (2010), Falling Sideways (2011), Kerrigan in Copenhagen, A Love Story (2013), and Beneath the Neon Egg (released the summer of 2014). All four are from Bloomsbury Publishing worldwide.

In 2013, Kennedy also published Getting Lucky: New & Selected Stories, 1982-2012 from New American Press. His books have been highly praised in the Washington Post, The New Yorker, The Guardian, and other prominent newspapers and magazines; and his latest novel was a recent Editors Choice in The New York Times Book Review.

His stories, essays, and translations from the Danish appear regularly in such venues as The New Yorker Blog, The Independent in London, Esquire Weekly, Boston Review, The Southern Review, Epoch, Ecotone, New Letters, Glimmer Train, Broad Street, Writer’s Chronicle, The Literary Review, American Poetry Review, Serving House Journal, Poet Lore, and many others. His work has won the O. Henry Prize, two Pushcart Prizes, and a National Magazine Award as well.

Kennedy has also won two Eric Hoffer Awards for novels, multiple grants from the Danish Arts Council, and other prizes and distinctions. He teaches fiction and creative nonfiction in the low-residency MFA program of Fairleigh Dickinson University and lives in Copenhagen. +

More on the Web: By, About, and Beyond

Revising the Muse: An Interview with Thomas E. Kennedy
by Cynthia Pike Gaylord in Brevity (1 January 2011)

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