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“Sometimes the fire behind great literary magazines is the exact thing that causes them to burn out,” wrote Nick Ripatrazone in an article that appeared on Literary Hub in November, 2018. Ripatrazone’s piece had the ominous title: “Literary Magazines Are Born To Die.” But was the decades-old, and recently suspended, Creative Nonfiction doomed? Is it even dead?
Creative Nonfiction dominated the terrain in a publishing world increasingly driven by memoir and long-form journalism. It boasted an advisory board that featured Dave Eggers, Annie Dillard, Rick Moody, Susan Orlean, and Jonathan Franzen—to name only a few luminaries. It was also comfortably lodged in its own 501(c)(3), allowing the magazine to supplement subscription and workshop income with private donations and foundation funding.
So, why did this bright star of the literary world suddenly go dark? On the Creative Nonfiction website, Gutkind makes it sound like the magazine is taking a simple breather to re-evaluate its structure and finances.
“Sometime in the spring of last year,” Gutkind’s letter states, “I began worrying about us and our future. Publication costs had skyrocketed. The staff was over-worked, and our technology was old and cranky.”
But it seems that questions of leadership and vision are also in the mix. Now 80 years old and after 30 years at the helm, Gutkind also believed it was time to search for a successor. “It became clear to me that in order to. . .re-vitalize our magazines and our education program,” he wrote, “that we ought to take a pause.”
The Plain Truth—or Truth Served Sunny-Side Up?
But is Gutkind’s statement the unvarnished truth—a key criterion for any solid piece of nonfiction or journalism—or are the facts more nuanced, more the stuff, shall we say, of creative nonfiction? After all, as Gutkind himself has written, “in creative nonfiction, writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously. Creative nonfiction writers are encouraged to utilize fictional (literary) techniques in their prose.”
Whatever is amiss, it is neither straightforward nor simple. Almost no one is talking about the magazine’s abrupt shutdown, one that left workshop registrants and subscribers hanging. Some former staffers, such as Education Director Sharla Yates, who was in charge of the many workshops the magazine mounted each year, declined to be interviewed for this piece. I also reached out to former Marketing Director, Stephen Knezovich, without success. Former Managing Director, Hattie Fletcher, initially agreed to be interviewed but did not answer my questions by the publication deadline.
However, a January 20, 2023, Twitter thread may shed light on the real story. Of the six staffers who worked at Creative Nonfiction, five quit and one may have been fired. Seventeen nonfiction teachers who offered courses through Creative Nonfiction through 2023 had their classes canceled.
Many of these online faculty relied on these courses to pay their bills and several shared their insights with me via email. They confirmed that part of the problem at Creative Nonfiction was probably economic, an issue that ironically intensified during the pandemic when online courses of all kinds were in demand.
According to Joanna Cooper of Muse Writing and Creative Support, who taught two courses for Creative Nonfiction and designed two self-guided courses for the Creative Nonfiction Foundation as well, one problem was that the intensity of the work accelerated. “During the pandemic, the classes became extremely popular,” she told me, “and everyone was doing more work for the same pay.”
Like workers elsewhere, the pandemic became a time for Creative Nonfiction employees to recalibrate and rethink the terms of their labor. Now, according to the anonymous Twitter feed that purports to speak for former employees, several of the instructors responded to overwork by attempting to run their courses independently.
As Cooper explained: “I have contacted some of the other CNF (Creative Nonfiction Foundation) instructors and three will be moving their classes to Muse,” a platform sponsored by the Muse Writer’s Center. But it’s a mixed opportunity for some. “I hope to attract many of the students who would have signed up for CNF courses,” Cooper continued, “but losing that platform/community was definitely a shock and presents a loss of a large chunk of income for instructors.”
Cooper also told me that, although Creative Nonfiction’s problems were not apparent to subscribers and students until they hit the news in the New Year, “most of the staff had quit in mid-December.” Furthermore, staffers’ discontent wasn’t new. Cooper shared with me that she had heard from a friend who had worked at Creative Nonfiction as a graduate student that the organization had been through similar upheavals at least twice before. Cooper speculated that Gutkind’s unresponsiveness and lack of empathy with workers’ concerns may have led to the staff quitting en masse.
Yet, is it time to say goodbye to Creative Nonfiction? Perhaps the journal and the foundation have done what Gutkind set out to do: establish a genre, one that they no longer have an exclusive hold on. Megan Baxter, a teacher who will now offer her Memoir in Collage course through Muse, sees Creative Nonfiction’s problems as better contextualized by the fragile nature of literary magazines and institutions in general. “I certainly hope the genre of creative nonfiction will continue to have a champion within the world of literary journals,” Baxter noted, “but I think anyone who is familiar with the literary landscape understands that magazines, even large and well-respected publications, can shift their focus or fold altogether.”
Nevertheless, the fact that economics and labor problems however well-justified could wreck a valued cultural institution has been a shock to many. Others I reached expressed a feeling of wistfulness—or nostalgia for a time, perhaps only in our collective imagination, when working in the literary arts was a profitable labor of love. And whatever the distress that caused the journal to fold, at least for now, everyone continues to rave about the dedicated staff and Creative Nonfiction’s stellar literary reputation.
Dorian Fox, a nonfiction teacher who developed the course, Memoir and Personal Essay: Deeping Your Craft, for Creative Nonfiction, recounted the pleasures of the collaborations fostered there. Fox joined the Creative Nonfiction team when Sharla Yates first reached out to him to solicit a pitch for their weekly webinar series. Yates accepted the pitch and Fox gave a one-hour-long webinar on using humor in creative nonfiction in late 2021. Not long after, Yates asked if Fox was interested in building his own version of the ten-week course that became Memoir and the Personal Essay and teaching it in Spring 2022.
“I’d read and admired the journal for years, so I was flattered, honestly, to be invited into the fold,” Fox recalled. “And the staff were lovely to work with—kind and approachable, yet professional and savvy.” However, he also saw new pressures on the staff as Creative Nonfiction increased its offerings and other forms of labor increased. “My impression was that the staff were doing a lot of community-building around the journal in recent years, through social media and their education programs,” Fox noted. And they did a great job: “Especially coming out of the pandemic, it was enticing to be involved in an online atmosphere that readers and writers seemed excited about,” Fox added. Courses were deftly promoted through social media and on the Creative Nonfiction website. “The first round of my course included a lot of students from Creative Nonfiction’s Pathways program, which linked several courses into a year-long curriculum. The second round filled on its own.”
But community building took a toll: the pressure was building on a group of workers who may have already hit their limits working for love and too little money. As Fox observed, “the staff’s own explanation seems to suggest certain issues were long-standing. It’s clear they tried to open a dialogue. It’s clear the decision to leave was very painful. I’d noticed that CNF’s education programs seemed to be expanding quickly, and I sometimes wondered how a small staff could support that growth. It seemed like a heroic and possibly unsustainable amount of work for a few people.”
Brooke Champagne, who developed the course Finding Authentic Voice for Creative Nonfiction echoed her faculty colleagues—both about the professionalism of the staff and the story-behind-the-story at CNF. “My correspondence with Director of Education Sharla Yates was wonderful. She was a clear, open communicator and seemed enthusiastic about the content I was offering,” Champagne told me.
But, she inferred, Gutkind may have been blinkered when it came to steering the organization through a period that was testing its capacity to the breaking point. When I asked if Creative Nonfiction’s Board of Trustees offered oversight as the situation deteriorated, Champagne observed, “I know Lee Gutkind is the progenitor of the magazine, and I feel that the public explanation of what went down seemed disingenuous and to leave out a lot of context. There was no vision of the future in his letter to readers, either, which was equally disconcerting.”
Will all of the remaining players simply walk away from the smoking ruins of this prestigious foundation and its journal? That has yet to be decided. Literary magazines are judged by a subjective criterion known as “cultural worth,” and all of the faculty I spoke to seemed to feel that Creative Nonfiction was absolutely worth saving—even if it’s just the literary magazine, and not the workshops, that survives.
But at present, Creative Nonfiction’s fate remains up in the air. As Champagne observed, “It would be great for the magazine to come back, because it offered me so much in the past decade and a half of my reading life. And yet, it feels like the people who made the magazine so wonderful are gone now, so what would it look like in the future? I’d love to hold a new issue of the magazine in my hands, but that’s probably just nostalgia talking.”
Creative Nonfiction is Not Alone
It’s hard not to think that the demand for online writing courses is receding as students also recalibrate their post-pandemic lives. On February 14, 2023—Valentine’s Day, no less—Catapult, an indie publishing company located in New York City, which offered an extensive roster of writing courses in both fiction and nonfiction, abruptly announced that it, too, was canceling all of its course offerings.
As a longtime Catapult student of both writing forms, I was shocked to receive this email from Director of Programs Colin Drohan:
Today, Catapult announced a restructuring plan, and the writing program will not be starting any new courses. This does not affect your class, which will continue and wrap up as scheduled.
I’m so sorry to share this unfortunate news about our program with you, but our entire team is wishing you the best on your writing journey long after your class ends and we’ll be continuing to root for you.
With hundreds more writing teachers scrambling to figure out how to keep their classes going without Catapult’s robust marketing platform, it may seem like it’s harder than ever to make a living as a writer. But as Creative Nonfiction’s backstory suggests, this isn’t a new problem. Writers being underpaid and working odd jobs to make a living has always been an issue. Harper Lee was an airline reservation clerk. George Orwell worked for the Imperial Police in Burma. F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote The Great Gatsby, but he also cranked out short stories for popular magazines that he himself despised, as well as an advertising campaign for the Muscatine Steam Laundry in Muscatine, Iowa, “We keep you clean in Muscatine.”
In other words, making a living as a writer is hard: it should be no surprise that the institutions that support writing offer piecework that their employees both need and resent. If Creative Nonfiction has gone dark for good, the miracle may be that it lasted as long as it did.
Vicky Oliver earned her New School MFA degree in Creative Writing (Fiction) in 2022. An active Brown University alumna, Vicky Oliver has written six career “how to” books, including Bad Bosses, Crazy Coworkers, and Other Office Idiots (Sourcebooks), and twelve personal narrative essays, four in anthologies. She reads for LIT magazine, the Journal of the New School Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing program.