Over the past few weeks in my creative writing course we’ve been examining the genre of creative nonfiction. I became interested in the genre when I took an intro level course my senior year in college. We read books like Cherry by Mary Karr, The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston, The Black Notebooks by Toi Derricote and The Invention of Solitude by Paul Auster. I really loved the class and I quickly became enamored with the idea of creative nonfiction. When I was a graduate student, I signed up to take a creative nonfiction workshop and in addition to trying to write some of my own pieces (not quite sure where all that work went) I was discovered Annie Dillard, David Sedaris and Patricia Hampl. When I continued on with my MFA, I sat in on a discussion surrounding James Frey’s controversial book A Million Little Pieces and later the discussion turned to Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace.
Flash forward several years, and I find myself standing in front of a creative writing class trying to explain to my students what creative nonfiction is exactly. It’s not the easiest genre to discuss with new writers. The line between “creative” and “nonfiction” is blurry and it causes, understandably, some anxiety among my students in terms of trying to find a subject.
One of the pieces we discuss is David Sedaris’s essay “What I Learned,” the commencement address he shared with a captive audience of Princeton grads. The essay details his admission to Princeton and his parents, especially his father’s, sheer joy at the prospect of their son’s admission into a prestigious university. The essay also describes their disappointment when he eventually settles on a major in comparative literature. That disappointment turns to despair and embarrassment when he eventually gives them a first edition of his first book of essays and they realize they are the main characters.
My students love Sedaris. It’s hard not to. He’s witty and smart and astute. His stories are hilarious and endearing and easy to relate to. However, because he writes so much about his family, there are inevitably certain questions that arise about his choice of subject matter. There are not easy answers to these questions. Does his family mind that he’s constantly writing about them? Some of his work suggests that they do. Does that keep him from writing about them? Not at all.
I was reminded of this conversation again this week when my new issue of The New Yorker arrived with a piece written by Sedaris. The essay, “Now We Are Five”, deals with death of Sedaris’s youngest sister, Tiffany, who committed suicide in May. He reveals in the essay that at the time of her death he and Tiffany had not spoken in eight years and that when his sister, Amy, had gone to Tiffany’s home in Massachusetts, among the few things found were some shredded family photographs. It is a sad piece, poignant in its loss but also injected with Sedaris’s quick wit. However, it returns to the same initial question: When do you draw the line? Is anything off limits?