We sat down with Peter Kusnic, Weave’s Creative Nonfiction Editor, to talk about the limitations and rewards of creative nonfiction, as well as his own writing process. Peter has a B.A. from the University of Pittsburgh, where he studied fiction, creative nonfiction, and African American history. In 2009 and 2010 he earned national recognition as a semifinalist in the Normal Mailer Creative Nonfiction competition, for essays about memory and childhood, and the women’s history of racism in Selma, Alabama. His fiction has been featured in the Three Rivers Review, New Fraktur Literary Arts Journal, and The Original Thought. In addition to Weave, he is also a freelance magazine and news writer, and a waiter at Pamela’s Diner in Oakland. On days off he can be found in a coffee shop somewhere, at work on his first novel. He plans to enroll in an MFA program next year.
WEAVE: Why did you start writing?
Peter Kusnic: I’ve been writing since I was young—probably since I was six. I’ve always been obsessed with horror movies, Stephen King, Dean Koontz. I have a folder of my first short stories. All of which you could classify as “horror”—high body count, shallow depth, generally exploitative. Sometimes I go back and look at it and cringe. But I’m often surprised by how much detail I find in those stories; an interesting description or turn of phrase that reminds me why I turned to writing in the first place: I love language—reinventing it—creating unique metaphors, full characters, tangible settings. It wasn’t until college that I got serious about writing. Going in, I thought I was a writer. Coming out, I knew I was one. Studying both fiction and creative nonfiction at Pitt, I had wonderful mentors who helped me see the fallacy of objectivity in Nonfiction and the rewards of truth in Fiction. I found that, beyond content, there wasn’t much of a distinction between the two.
W: That actually leads into the next question: How do the genres compare, and where is the common ground?
PK: The essence of story is the same. Speaking from my personal approach: I find that both of the genres are about actively working to figure something out. In nonfiction, I start writing and it flows linearly. I have to pare the story down.
In fiction—I think Flaubert said this, but I’m not sure—the writing process is more horizontal. You begin with a skeleton and build outwards.
The limitations are different. In nonfiction, it’s a limitation of choice—what you choose to write about, what details/research/ideas you choose to illustrate the subject—and you’re also limited by the truth. And by truth I mean honesty. Is the narrator being honest with him or herself in relation to the subject? Does the narrator sound credible, trustworthy?
W: Can you say more about fiction’s limitations?
PK: In fiction, the limitations are nonexistent; anything can happen; but once you begin writing, you begin to see what the story is really about, and then you must impose limitations on the story that will enhance the story you see emerging. No matter what genre, we’re limited in what we can do with a given piece, whatever its length. But it’s up to the writer to decide what those limitations are. Writing exercises can be helpful to figure that out. “Now Write!” is a good exercise book. They can give you more perspective, can help shape an idea you’ve been toiling with. You can choose where to add emphasis. For example, building with setting—dedicating pages to the creation of a living, breathing space for your characters to occupy. You may scrap all of it, or decide to keep a sentence, a paragraph, an idea. The act of writing gets you closer to understanding your story. It may seem fruitless, all those wasted pages. But it's important to get all the muck out before you can start making sense of it.
W: How can creative nonfiction and poetry/fiction work together? In Weave for instance, the poetry and fiction have magical qualities. Along those lines, how can nonfiction incorporate the fantastical and/or the magical, and still be informed by truth?
PK: The creative nonfiction we’re generally looking at [for Weave] is memoir and personal essay. I think there are so many ways to tell a story in any genre, but the best ones reveal some kind of truth. In nonfiction, memory is truth; it’s what conjures the subject, defines a space for that subject to live, and invents the story. Memory is a very magical thing, ethereal and fleeting and always subject to change. It’s subjective, full of emotion, and hidden from everybody else. And it becomes history when we try to capture it in a medium—like writing. Truth is plastic and conveyable through infinite means. It’s up to the writer to determine what those means should look like on the page. There’s a lot of freedom in writing creative nonfiction. The writing has to be honest—if it’s forced, it will seem forced, and a reader won’t take your narrator seriously.
W: How does a nonfiction writer toe the line between honesty and creativity? Is it possible to be both creative and honest? As any story incorporates both poetry and prose, embellishments in the name of creativity, and the bias of perspective, can it ever be completely “true”?
PK: Every story can be “true”. How do you write about how it feels to experience death? It’s different for everyone depending on how you exist. You have to show how you feel or think. When writing about personal experiences, the “I” has to be there, a persona. Vivian Gornick talks about persona in her book on creative nonfiction, “The Situation and the Story.” The persona is sort of like a reader’s conceptual identity of the narrator, which in creative nonfiction, is inextricably linked to the author. As the reader reads, he or she gets an idea of this person telling the story, their values and beliefs. Reading established authors in any genre you can often find a fundamental topic uniting all their work. Sometimes characters and settings recur, or ideas from works long ago return in a different form, hopefully with greater lucidity. I like to think writers write because they have to. To be a writer is to be in a constant process of figuring out. It’s a dedicated practice, discovering your niche, your topic, your persona. A lot of writing, journaling, navel gazing. But ultimately it comes down to your emotional reality—that’s as true as anything else in this world.
W: Advice for emerging nonfiction writers?
PK: Trust that it’s what you want to do, because it means lots of work, grief, hours. You have to find the emotional energy to make your piece feel alive, to resonate with you, the writer. You have to be dedicated to learning the technical tricks of the trade, because even a good, evocative story can go awry without this foundation. There should be research, and outside contexts that serve as the narrator’s tools in figuring out the experience. I think research is the most undervalued component of nonfiction, because it shapes how the narrator’s reality fits into the broader landscape of the world. Without external voices holding it up, the essay can come off as being too self indulgent for a reader to find meaningful.
For me, the hardest part is knowing when done is "done." There's always something missing, something that isn't working as well as it should, a scene that can be filled out or pared down. It can be totally overwhelming. The sense that it's not good enough, it's not ready, unfinished. Those anxieties come with the territory of writing. They can be overwhelming, paralyzing. But it's important to plow through them and get the work as done.
W: What’s on your personal summer reading list?
PK: I just finished Factotum by Charles Bukowski. Raunchy, dirty, misogynistic—but the scenes were visceral, well paced. I also read The Shallows: What the Internet is Doing to Our Brains, which revealed some really compelling evidence about how the Internet affects us culturally and psychologically. I have plans to get back into Madame Bovary, and I’m currently reading Breath, Eyes, Memory, a novel by Edwidge Danticat. And Botany of Desire by Michael Pollan, which is a memoir about gardening.
W: Critic Chris Anderson said that nonfiction, as a genre, can be split into two categories—the personal essay and the journalistic essay. Can you speak to this?
PK: It’s an oversimplification. When I write personal essay or memoir, I do a lot of research, read lots of theory, lots of poetry. I read a lot of Freud and Blake while writing a memoir about memory repression and my childhood. For an essay on the Civil Rights Movement, I interviewed participants in the Montgomery Bus Boycott and others, enigmatic people who pioneered profound changes in American society. I transcribed 16 hours of video, took a sex and racism class, another class on racial gabs in public schools, researched the history of lynching, repression. I mean, I did so much work on those essays, and it paid off. The journalistic flourishes—the epigraphs, the allusions, the integration of facts into narrative—turned the muck of my personal feelings and memories into a concrete narrative with resonance.
With magazine or news writing, the approach is a little different. I get an assignment, a deadline. The story is given to me in abstract and it’s my job to fill in the details through interviews and research. The content must always be factually accurate while being at the same time streamlined and compelling. I have to make decisions and tailor the story to both the readership and my editors. Details I might find interesting may not be right for the publication, and so I have to turn my filter on. That’s a reality nonfiction writers who want to work for newspapers or magazines should understand. The piece is yours, but it’s shaped by many forces. That I think is the biggest distinction between the personal and journalistic essays. But in the end it’s all just narrative.
W: Lots of young writers I interact with express concern that writing a memoir is just “navel gazing,” or that they don’t have interesting stories. What do you have to say about that?
PK: Memoir is the most intimate form of nonfiction. What’s incredible about a good one is that you are transported into a very private and intimate world that is at once totally personal and universal. The memoirist writes with great courage, and we have to respect that. Everybody has a story to tell. I don’t care if you’ve spent the last six months with the indigenous peoples of Bolivia, or in jail, or changing diapers. What matters is how you tell the story. As writers, we aim to capture both the zeitgeist and the fundamental human experience behind the story, and, if we’re ambitious, we want it to flow like a dream and make a reader stop and think in a way he or she never has before. There are all kinds of ways of doing that, but the first step is recognizing that you do have a story to tell.
interview by Caitlyn Christensen