Isn’t all nonfiction reported?

reportI’ve been progressing through the semester but have kind of come to a point of confusion about my thesis.  I know what I want to do; my instincts are telling me what to write about and in what genre, but I feel like I’m trying to force myself into a framework or paradigm or template of what I should be doing.  And that feels crappy.

I see my MFA as an opportunity to work on craft, on writing skills and techniques, on learning to tell stories, on challenging myself to write something other than standard journalism.  (Ironic because before I started at Goucher I used to use “craft” disparagingly – you know, I’m an artiste and need to spend two years honing my craaaft…) I know a masters degree requires a capstone or thesis (this is, after all, my second masters); I want my thesis to be meaningful, not something I’m doing because it’s required.

I was told at the end of last semester that Goucher’s program is “thesis-intensive,” and I was urged to be certain this was the right program for me because I resisted focusing solely on a project I hadn’t even conceptualized yet.  Before the summer residency even started I was asked by email to discuss my thesis, and I had nothing to say!  (And yes, I’m using passive voice because I think I’ve been critical enough already of the person who said that to me.)

I am not interested – at least not at this point in my career – in writing a book. I want my thesis to have a cohesive theme, which is definitely going to be something about the personal experience of religion, but I don’t want to write chapters.  I want to use the genre that fits the topic, and I don’t want to limit myself to topics that require “reporting” because my thesis is supposed to be “reported.”

I keep putting “reported” in quotes because I just don’t get how any nonfiction isn’t reported.  People – students, faculty, writers – discuss this division between memoir and “reported” that I think is artificial.  Memoirists aren’t making stuff up, right?  Even though they may not be using traditional journalism methods, they are writing nonfiction. Or they should be.

And where do essays fit into that dichotomy?  There are different kinds of essays – opinion, reflection, instruction, etc., and an essay needn’t be defined by one of those categories.  I’m reading The Best American Essays of the Century and in her introduction Joyce Carol Oates says:

…the genre [essay] has evolved into a form closely akin to prose fiction and prose poetry, employing dialogue, dramatic scenes, withheld information, suspense.

So….is essay a third “genre”?  No.  Nonfiction is nonfiction.

This point is especially on my mind because I don’t want to write “a reported piece.”  I want my thesis to be thematically consistent, but I don’t want to pick one format and stick with that no matter what the topic is.  I want to tell stories in the most informative and most compelling way possible, and if my instincts tell me a story is best conveyed by going forth and interviewing people, than I will.  If it’s social commentary or reflection, I’ll write an essay.  And if there’s something in my life that’s pertinent, I’m going to write about myself – which I guess you could call memoir; who knows?

I’m having a phone conference with Leslie this week and hopefully I can get all this hashed out.  I don’t want to keep feeling like I’m forcing myself to tell a story in a certain format.  I have confidence that she will guide me through this crucial part of my progress toward the final work.


  1. Interesting ideas. I suppose “reporting” and “telling a story” both serve the same goal of getting a story across, but the way in which it is told can be vastly different. Reporting, from my experience, relies just on the facts, while a more artistic non-fiction (if you can call it that) is conscious of using all different techniques to put feeling and emotion into the piece.

  2. Thanks for the comment, JW. It speaks directly to the question of how to define creative nonfiction, which is somewhere in between traditional journalism and fiction.

Comments are closed.