Notes on the Creative Nonfiction Selections

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September 23, 2019 by The Citron Review

As a creative nonfiction editor I have a very definite idea of what I’m looking for when I’m reading through submissions. Something that . . . um, well. Something that . . . well. Something that works, you know?


Reading through autumn 2019’s selections I was reminded yet again of why I find it so difficult to say what it is that I am looking for in a successful submission; I don’t know what I’m looking for, except the joy of finding myself in a different headspace, a different place in time, carried away by the story. My own reading can be alarmingly eclectic. I like St. Augustine and Lucia Berlin. Tolstoy and Asterix comics. Graham Greene and Hunter S. Thompson. I did a Ph.D in Victorian novels; one of the best novels I read this past year was the one I read to my son out loud at bedtime, a delightfully odd parable about being a non-traditional family, The Wild Robot.

It’s tempting to launch a bromide along the lines of “the only rule is there are no rules” and have the reader imagine that I’m saying that canard in my best imitation of Jack Nicholson in The Shining. Picture me hacking down some door of dogma with a leering grin and a busted-up typewriter that I’ve repurposed as an ax.

But that kind of tough guy writer/editor act is neither fair nor true. Of course there are rules, and, as I read through past Citron issues for this anniversary effort, I can see where past editors were trying to follow rules that many of us in this line of creative production try to follow: (a) watch the sentimentality, it can be manipulative (b) show more than you tell (c) avoid being drunk when attempting to use a semicolon, and use semicolons rarely even when sober (d) the form your writing takes should, in one way or another, be consistent, and introduce us to a consistent world for the duration of the piece and (e) avoid starting a piece with direct dialogue, as the reader has no idea who this person is yet.

Trouble is, following these rules will not automatically render a beautiful piece of writing. Following them might get you published, but the standard of ‘who gets published’ strikes me as roughly analogous to ‘who gets elected to high office’ these days; the first is a lousy guide to good writing, the second an even lousier guide to decent human beings.

And I can think of any number of writers who broke one or all of these rules. Read a Jane Austen novel and that word-witch will have you positively convinced that the semicolon is the epitome of cool, the peak of hip, more than two centuries after she was hastily hiding in-progress manuscripts when the servants announced a visitor. If we’re not supposed to have characters crying (show, don’t tell! let the reader cry, not the character!) Lucia Berlin seems to have said “Fuck all that,” and let herself and others burst into tears on every other page of A Manual for Cleaning Women. And those tear-stained pages, well, they just work for me. And did Hunter S. Thompson ever meet a rule he didn’t marinate in hard drugs before lighting them on fire? His writing is many things, but it is certainly never dull. Joan Didion’s sentences are elegant, simple, direct, and clear: a composition teacher’s dream. And she uses them to fantastic effect in essays that have no clear organization. Well some do. Some don’t. When it came to consistency, Joan was not going be weighed down by Emerson’s hobgoblin of little minds if it got in the way of what she needed to do on the page. Iris Murdoch started any number of her bizarrely beautiful novels with an un-introduced character giving us a perfectly banal piece of dialogue. Maybe she gets away with it because she was Irish. But that reminds me: don’t even get me started on what Roddy Doyle gets away with and makes work when it comes to dialogue.

To quote another one of my favorite sages from California, the Coen brothers’ Walter Sobchak, “This is not ‘Nam, this is bowling, there are rules.” It’s just that the rules are set by each individual artist. The pieces that we’ve published, the ones that I really love, are following rules. The rules that the writer set for us when she wrote the piece. The rules that created a different world, a different voice, let me see something new. The rules that made me feel something in a new way, in a new place in my body. The rules that worked. Worked for that piece, for that story, for those emotions.

In that spirit, enjoy reading our selections for Fall 2019. One is all the heartbreak in the world crammed into a series of footnotes. Yet another is a series of traffic signals trying to help the writer and the reader navigate a profoundly unanticipated transition. The next is the emotional road map for the inside of a refrigerator. And then we have a very simply told story about a girl failing an exam, and a teacher confronting that failure with his own history, the collision of two very different narratives and perspectives.

Each one of these pieces sets its own rules and follows those rules brilliantly; in doing so, each one of these pieces brought me joy.


Nathan R. Elliott
Creative Nonfiction Editor
The Citron Review


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