By Tracy Zollinger Turner
"All human beings should try to learn before they die, what they are running from, and to, and why.” – James Thurber
When it comes to the writing of true stories, the literary world appears to be the most comfortable with words like “journalism” and “memoir.” After all, if what one is writing about things that have actually happened, then how can one justifiably call the writing “creative”? But “creative nonfiction” appears on bookstore shelves (and in electronic readers) under many guises and classifications, be it essay, literary nonfiction, new journalism, memoir or current affairs. The National Endowment for the Arts has used it as a category for individual grants since 1984, but it has yet to take root as a go-to literary term.
Just ask Joe Oestreich, whose book Hitless Wonder chronicles his 25-year tenure in Columbus band Watershed, though major record label deals and disappointments, superstar opening slots and run-down tour vans. At 20, he came across Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, and dug into more of the writing touted most popularly as “new journalism.”
For several years, he chronicled his life as a musician informally, before running into an opportunity to make something more of those stories.
“My wife was a PhD student in the literature program at OSU, so I met some people in the creative writing MFA program that were writing nonfiction,” says Oestreich. “I thought: ‘you can do that? You can actually go to school to write like Norman Mailer or Tom Wolfe or Joan Didion?"
So he applied and was accepted into the program, where creative nonfiction was still a relatively fresh component compared to its counterparts of poetry and fiction. But its potential subject matter is every bit as vast. Whether the topic is travel or history, the important quality of creative nonfiction is that it weaves a story with literary prowess and illuminates its subjects more than the facts – presented without storytelling or interpretation - might. As Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction, the genre is simply “factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner.”
Hitless Wonder, which began as Oestreich’s MFA thesis, was released in the spring of this year and has been well-received by national and local media, earning positive reviews in Publisher’s Weekly and the Washington Post, as well as a lengthy radio feature about both the band and the book on NPR’s Weekend Edition. But finding the right publisher wasn’t easy for him.
“What I heard from a lot of publishers was ‘if your band didn’t sell many records, what makes you think you can sell any books?’” he says. “It took a long time to find my agent and publisher, but once I did, everything worked out perfectly. I ended up with people who really did understand that the success of the book was not dependent on the success of the band.”
He now teaches creative writing at Coastal Carolina University in Conway, South Carolina, but was able to come together with band mates for a new Watershed record called “Brick & Mortar,” then promote both products on a double-duty tour this summer.
“It was a rare case of marketing synergy to have a book and CD out at the same time,” says Oestreich. “The book got more attention because the band was on the road and vice-versa. For the people who hadn’t heard of Watershed before, I think it was fun for people to see the band they had been reading about play live.”
“It was exhausting, though. We’d be up until two or three in the morning after playing, then I would have to appear at bookstores. The literature world and the rock and roll world are on diametrically opposed time schedules.”
The rooms of Denney Hall at Ohio State where Oestreich laid his work on the table for peers and professors are hardly the only ones hosting groups of nonfiction writers as they work to perfect the telling of their stories. Many local writers, professional and amateur, meet frequently over coffee, spirits or soft drinks to do the same thing as their academic counterparts.
In a publishing landscape where there are fewer independent bookstores and so much new electronic terrain, unusual approaches to the publishing business are common these days. The old-fashioned writing workshop has been embellished with shared experiences about publishing for a Nook vs. iBooks, marketing directly to readers and whether or not creating an audio book is necessary.
Take the Columbus Creative Cooperative, where members meet over pizza twice a month. Open to writers of fiction and nonfiction, “the group will take an average writer and make them a good one, a good one and make them a great one,” says Birney Reed, a member who has had short pieces published in two of the collective’s five independently-published collections.
“There are only two rules – number one, you can’t defend your own work, and number two, see rule number one,” he says. “The criticism has to be constructive.”
There is also the Ohio Writers’ Guild, which has roughly 40 members that regularly attend weekly meetings at the Cultural Arts Center downtown. A number of them have self-published books that were workshopped by the group – five in the last year.
One of the self-published authors is Rosalie Linver Ungar, who took six years, with the critiques and support of Ohio Writers Guild members, to complete a memoir titled No Sex in St. Tropez. Originally from Newark, Ohio, Ungar, at the age of 36, in 1974, left the states on a quest for a broader experience of the world. After divorcing the father of her two teenage boys, she took a job abroad as an au pair in the luxury resort town on France’s Cote D’Azur.
“I was taking care of children, hence there really was no sex in St. Tropez,” she says, before leaning in and tilting her head knowingly. “But that doesn’t mean there isn’t any sex in the book by any means. I also traveled to England, Portugal – where I ended up in the middle of a coup d’etat – and Italy.”
Ungar isn’t a stranger to professional writing or the art world. She has worked as a broadcast writer and columnist, and is currently a trustee on the board of CATCO.
Another guild member, Carmen Ambrosio, published Life Continues, a memoir about her experience dealing with Multiple Sclerosis for 20 years, going through menopause and other mid-life changes. She experimented with the non-fiction genre, mixing essays and poetry with other elements, like fake news stories.
“I thought I would try and make the book as unpredictable as MS,” she says.
Guild authors support each other with shared information about book festivals, web site building tools, book clubs and other means of author-driven marketing.
“I’ve sold a lot of books out of my car,” says Ungar.
Sandra Gurvis has published 15 books – some with a traditional publisher, some on her own. A stalwart of Columbus’ writing community, she has published several books on Ohio day trips and oddities, two novels and a manual on careers. She has also ghost written, penned magazine articles, doctored other people’s work and written for medical publications. For her next project, a memoir about her son’s substance abuse, she will seek the resources to do a residency in Venice, Italy using crowdfunding platform IndieGoGo (similar to Kickstarter).
“Welcome to the new world of writing,” says Gurvis. “Indie writers often worry about being accepted by the mainstream. My feeling is ‘don’t worry about it. You will be accepted. Just create the best work you can.”
Rather than frustrate over the vast changes in the field, Gurvis has decided to embrace them.
“It’s an exciting time to be in this business, honestly,” she says. “It’s like someone has played a game of 52-pickup with the publishing industry.”
“The wit makes fun of other persons; the satirist makes fun of the world; the humorist makes fun of himself, but in so doing, he identifies himself with people--that is, people everywhere, not for the purpose of taking them apart, but simply revealing their true nature.” – James Thurber
James Thurber’s 1933 My Life and Hard Times, which weaves the hilarious stories of the author, humorist and cartoonist’s Columbus childhood is arguably one of the pioneering works of creative nonfiction in American literature. And Thurber House continues to support journalists and other writers who create work that tells truthful tales artfully.
Thurber House’s new John E. Nance Adult Writer-in-Residence is named after the journalist, photographer, author (and two-time Thurber House Writer-in-Residence). Its first recipient is Liza Monroy, who came to Columbus from Brooklyn for four weeks of September to work on her book, The Marriage Act, “a look at gender, marriage, and immigration issues through a personal narrative."
The landscape of Columbus’ memoirists and non-fiction writers may or may not ever yield new contributions that parallel James Thurber’s. But Ohio State’s MFA program continues to employ strong purveyors of the genre, like director Michelle Heman, who wrote a memoir about motherhood titled The Middle of Everything and will publish a personal narrative through two long-form essays in a book called Stories We Tell Ourselves, due out in 2013. Lee Martin, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his fictional work, Break the Skin, is also on the faculty, and has written three works of memoir, including this year’s Such a Life.
Oestreich is sticking with nonfiction for his next project, but turning away from memoir for the time being. He will be writing a book about an incident in Conway, South Carolina at the end of 1980s, when 32 of the Conway High School’s African American football players boycotted the team because the returning starting black quarterback was benched and replaced with a white quarterback.
“I’ve lived here about 3-4 years and once I started asking people about it, everybody had a story. It’s one of things that really is still salient.”
Employing plenty of old-fashioned journalistic techniques and his status as a resident outsider to get the story, Oestreich hopes to complete the book within a year.
“I’ve lived here long enough that I can get people on the phone, but I’m approaching it with the eyes of someone from the outside,” he says. “I’m also just tired of writing about myself and want to take a little bit of a break.”
In teaching his students, Oestreich stresses that nonfiction - particularly if it involves tales of one’s own life – might hold some of the richest detail, but that doesn’t automatically make it interesting.
“It absolutely can be self-indulgent,” he says, noting all of the times and ways he wrote and rewrote Hitless Wonder to make sure it held broad appeal before it was published. “Although you might get something out of the writing of a project, the thing you are writing is not ultimately for you, it’s for the reader.”
Joe Oestreich – Hitless Wonder
Rosalie Linver Ungar – No Sex in St. Tropez
Carmen Ambrosio - Life Continues: Facing the Challenges of MS, Menopause and Midlife with Hope Courage and Humor