Introduction: Scenes from a Life

Increasingly, and not for the first time, I’ve become more interested in true stories, rather than fictional ones. There are many ways to describe it: Creative Non-Fiction, with that funny use of the negative – non – in the middle; Lyric Essay; New Journalism; Autofiction… each with its own bandcamp and cheerleaders. What seems evident to me is that some of the most interesting prose work is happening in these borderlands – where poetics are brought to bear on the true story, mixing up poetry and reportage, the polemic, the witness statement, the argument – I’m thinking Carmen Maria Machado, Claudia Rankine, Annie Ernaux, Jenn Ashworth – who in turn were preceded by James Baldwin, Joan Didion, Truman Capote, Walter Benjamin, Stefan Zweig, Susan Sontag, even Virginia Woolf, whose essays are some of the finest of her writing. Short form versions of these proliferate online – with the internet’s insatiable need for more and yet more content. So quite a few of these selections are available for free. I’ve picked pieces that I’ve just recommended to my current Creative Non-Fiction class. Pieces in a range – let’s call them essays – which I think make for great examples of work written with all the care and attention over language and storytelling that we would expect from fiction. In these difficult times, the writer is called to witness, as much as to interpret. To look at the phenomenon of life as it is lived, to look to use one’s life as evidence for an argument. All these pieces try to do that in their own way. 

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