Creative Nonfiction's off-with-their-heads experiment asks where a story really begins. | Book Reviews + Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper
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Creative Nonfiction's off-with-their-heads experiment asks where a story really begins. 

In an unusual move, nationally known Pittsburgh-based journal Creative Nonfiction chopped the first few paragraphs -- and in one case, a whole introductory section -- of three essays in its newest issue, First Lede, Real Lede.

"Lede" is writing lingo for an article's opening section -- and magazine editor/founder Lee Gutkind says the beginnings of many essays are unimportant. Often, the opening is just a "clearing of the throat before you say something significant," he says. "Writers love to set the scene and do a little drumbeat, when it's my belief [that] what readers really want is to get into the story, get into the action, and forget about the preamble."

While journals like CNF edit for grammar and style, editing for "shape" is unconventional. "What prompted me to do this was the surprise of writers when we go into their work," says Gutkind, himself a published author. "If you're working for Esquire or Harper's or The New Yorker, I'm sure those editors go into the work all the time, but literary editors almost always don't."

CNF posted the unedited versions of the essays on www.creativenonfiction.org, along with reaction from the authors. Readers can weigh in on the changes by posting responses of their own.

"No one else, to my knowledge, ever shows what they do from an editorial standpoint, especially from a content standpoint," says Gutkind. "So I thought this would be a good way to help our writers and shed light on what editors generally do."

Laurie Rachkus Uttich's piece, "Crazy Talk" -- a memoir of her family's history of mental illness -- is among the essays. A scene describing a childhood bike ride to an insane asylum was cut, and in her online response, Uttich writes that her "eight-year-old self mourns its loss."

Still, she adds, "I trust editors and fellow writers. Others can often see what the memoirist cannot. And I recognize the essay works without [the original intro]. 'If you don't need it, don't use it,' I would tell someone else. 'Kill your darlings,' [as] William Faulkner supposedly said first."

Carrie Seymour had a similar reaction to the changes to "Reclamation," her essay about mining, and humans' relationship with nature.

"Shortly after having agreed to the edited version," she writes in her online commentary, "I re-read this line from Annie Dillard's great book The Writing Life: 'How many books do we read from which the writer lacked courage to tie off the umbilical cord?' I felt duly chastised and grateful that an editorial staff had saved me from myself."

CNF originally chose four essays to edit, but one writer strongly objected to the cut, and her piece was dropped.

"This is an example of writers at work," Gutkind says of the experiment. "It shows how we deal with craft and continue to make our work better, and how we're continually dissatisfied and confused in many respects for long periods of time."

"People constantly say to me, 'I think I'll write a book one day,' and they don't know what they're talking about!" he says. "It's 10 times harder than they think."

Creative nonfiction, the genre Gutkind champions, includes memoir and reportage that incorporates literary techniques.

"I want to open up the art and the craft of writing narrative nonfiction," he says. "I want to open up the inside of it, the behind-the-scenes to other writers, but also to readers."

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