Creative Writing, narrative nonfiction, Master of Fine Arts : is it necessary to attend classes to become a writer ?

During these last years, classes of creative writing have been multiplied in Europe. These classes come mainly from the US: are they the future of writing ?

(This article is also available here in french.)


What is creative writing ?

We need to define all the expressions used when referring to “creative writing, “MFA”, “nonfiction” or “new journalism”.

You can find these creative writing courses in universities. Their purpose is to learn how to write. It can be focused on fiction or nonfiction but also on poetry, theater, screen movie writing. There are plenty of courses like that in the American universities (see the list below) but their number is growing in Europe as well.

MFA means Master of Fine Arts, which is the name of the fine arts masters in US but also, step by step, it is becoming the label for all creative masters, including film or writings. It is like a MBA but for artists. You can also have teachings in creative writing during your BA.

Narrative nonfiction is a way to write nonfiction with a story (it includes only factual elements). New Yorkers’ papers are often a model of narrative nonfiction. Facts are sacred but a specific way of narration is used by the writer. You will find characters and quotations like there is in a fiction story but it’s only about facts and all of them have been fact checked.

How to learn writing ?

For a long time, we have wondered if one can learn to be a writer or if one just has to live it. The problem has been taken up in this excellent paper from the New York Times: “Creative Writing, via a Workshop or the Big City”.

A lot of people that I interviewed for this research told me that there are not only good curriculum or good programs but mainly “good” and “bad” writers! In this article Toby Litt wonders “What makes bad writing bad?”


Narrative nonfiction

Narrative nonfiction is the act of telling a story as if it was a fiction but with real facts. There is often a link between narrative nonfiction and journalism and for a time, in the US, we called that genre “new journalism”.

One of the first writer to make narrative nonfiction was George Orwell with two nonfiction books Down and Out in Paris and London (inquiry on poverty, published in 1936) and the wonderful, first person narrative, book about his fights during the Spanish War : Homage to Catalonia (1938).

One of the best examples of narrative nonfiction is the famous In Cold Blood by Truman Capote (1966). Capote have done hundreds of interviews to recount the story of a quadruple murder which happened in 1959. When you read his book, it seems to be a crime novel at first sight but it is actually real facts and real people. It is a factual report written like a novel.

In another category Joseph Kessel is a narrative nonfiction writer who transposed the exact quotations of talks in his books, for example in his books about Israel or Hong Kong and Macao.

The main difference between narrative nonfiction and the academic writing is the use of first person narrative. It is because the writer has been himself on the field.


“New Journalism”

The expression comes from the eponym book of Tom Wolfe (1975) and his article : “The Last American Hero Is Junior Johnson. Yes !”. But further back in time, there are other examples such as “Depression Journalism” in the 1930s. Concerning this topic, see this great article from George Packer. More recently there is Norman Mailer (see this paper : “Superman comes to the Supermarket”).

I also like this article by Gay Talese in Esquire : “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold and Other Essays”. He published a book entitled Origins of a Nonfiction writer.


Cover of the New Yorker, after Sept 11, 2001.

The New Yorker model

The New Yorker is a model of American writing in both fiction and nonfiction.

Here you can find my recent interviews with Tina Brown, former director of the New Yorker and Henry Finder editor-in-chief of the New Yorker.

One of my favourite writers from the New Yorker is George Packer who compiled his papers in a book The Unwinding, An Inner History of the New America, Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2013. For inquiry on media, see Ken Auletta or David Remnick and his book Reporting, Writings from the New Yorker (2006).

Gay Talese recently published an article on which he has worked for thirty years ! See the article here.


Fiction and nonfiction : the porous border between facts and fiction

Sometimes the border between fiction and nonfiction is obvious. And some people stand for keeping this border impenetrable. See for example the last book by Françoise Lavocat, Fait et Fiction, Pour une frontière. However, I think protecting that border is a conservative work.

A lot of recent developments in literature are mixing fiction and nonfiction. Especially in TV shows, documentaries, mockumentaries, podcasts (see the fascinating radio show by Sarah Koenig, Serial for The American Life in which the journalist is inquiring on a murder fifteen years after the facts). See also the “virtual-reality narratives” which are explained in this article “Studio 360” by Andrew Marantz.

Another interesting case is Roberto Saviano, author of the best-seller Gomorrah : he tries to explain is singularity (even accepting fiction in his nonfiction work) in the preface of his last book Zero Zero Zero (“The Non Fiction Novel”, Penguin Books, 2016).

Finally the border between facts and fiction is porous and that is a good thing ! Digital is speeding up the process and we can think “we are all artists now”. Even though we are not!


The best MFA

In the United-States, hundreds of creative writing classes exist. But they are often expensive. Are they necessary or at least useful ? That is the question.

Some of the best teachings on creative writing : University of Michigan, Cornell University, Columbia University, Brown University, New York University, University of Texas, University of Virginia, University of Pennsylvania.


To go further

In my opinion, it might be better to read these books, travel and have an interesting life — the Big City instead of the good Workshop (to quote again this good paper from the New York Times) — rather than to attend a creative writing class because it is less costly and probably more efficient.

  • John Darnton (dir.), Writers on Writing, Collected Essays from the New York Times, Times Books, 2001
  • Mark Kramer & Wendy Call (dir.), Telling True Stories, A Non Fiction Writers’ Guide from Harvard University, Plume Book, 2007.
  • Kevin Kerrane, Ben Yagoda (dir.), The Art of Fact: A Historical Anthology of Literary Journalism, Scribner, 1988.

I have just recorded a radio show on creative writing for France Culture (French National Public Radio) so it is in french, you can listen to : Henry Finder, chief editor of the New Yorker, Jonathan Karp, managing editor of Simon & Schuster, Michael Denny, Tina Brown former director of Vanity Fair and New Yorker. And New York Time’s journalist Alissa Rubin, who received the Pulitzer Price in April for a series of articles on women in Afghanistan. (The radio show here).

Frédéric Martel

(This story is part of the research program I’m leading at ZHdk in Zurich. Thanks to David Lavaud who helped me for this paper.)

You can also read this article in french.

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