Share / Discuss

A Creative Slice of the Real World

Essay collection showcases the range of the literary nonfiction genre

In the Finnish version of baseball, after you hit, you run to the left, as if toward third base, not first. Even stranger, in their version of baseball (brannboll), the Swedes allow whole huddles of players to congregate on a single base. 

These are facts that all but avid travelers to Scandinavia might never otherwise know, but such is one of the most basic joys of reading nonfiction: You learn these kinds of things. Though good nonfiction—the type that gets the adjective “creative” appended to it—does much more than just instruct; it refracts a slice of the world, however obscure or universal, through the unique lens of the author who holds his or her magnifying glass to it. The result is a piece of writing that feels full of life and, well, true—and not just when it comes to questions of verifiable fact.

In the essay “Pesäpallo: Playing at the Edge of the World” (pesäpallo being the name for Finnish baseball), author Caitlin Horrocks tells a story about Finnish baseball and how it is played, at least as it is by a team of sixth-graders batting against their teachers, but the piece is not just about baseball: No, it is about patriotism, and it’s about being an American after the invasion of Iraq, and it’s about fathers and daughters playing ball, and it’s about being just out of college and trying to find one’s place in the world, and it’s about that feeling of how “it is only here on this May morning in Mikkeli, Finland, an hour from the Russian border, three hours from Helsinki, five hours south of the Arctic Circle, running left towards third base, that I am finally the grateful citizen of a baseball nation.”

Horrocks’ piece is among those included in True Stories, Well Told, a best-hits collection of essays from the first 20 years of Creative Nonfiction magazine edited by Lee Gutkind and Hattie Fletcher ’95. “One of our goals was to pick pieces that illustrated the range of the genre,” says Fletcher, who has been managing editor of Creative Nonfiction since 2004 (before that, she was a middle school Latin teacher). There’s not much by way of experimental writing or immersive journalism, “but there are some medical narratives, there’s some nature writing, there’s some intense memoir.”  

The subjects of the essays in True Stories, Well Told range from the cultivation of compassion (the author of “Breastfeeding Dick Cheney,” Sonya Huber, describes a Buddhist visualization technique in which the mediator imagines her worst enemy as her child), to the disappearing habitat for monarch butterflies, to the dreams of the deaf residents of the tiny island of Providencia. A doctor describes a missed judgment call that results in a patient’s death; a father describes in excruciating detail the last minutes of his son’s life before he drowned.

Overall, the collection offers a fine introduction to the genre of creative nonfiction, though personally I prefer the term “literary nonfiction” with all the pretension it entails if only because I worry that the word “creative” causes confusion among readers who are unfamiliar with the craft. “It’s a complicated term because the ‘creative’ doesn’t really modify the ‘nonfiction’; it modifies the writing,” Fletcher says. “So it’s not like creative truth-telling. It’s creatively written true things.” 

—ELIZABETH REDDEN ’05, who has a master of fine arts in nonfiction writing from Columbia University, is a freelance writer who lives in Delaware.