The 43rd issue of this award-winning publication packs a punch: not just because of the bold graphic of an automatic pistol on its orange cover or its special section on anger and revenge, but because of the high quality of the writing, the fun with 130-character tweets, and the straight-ahead editorial approach. With the confidence attending decades of success, an enviable reputation, and a star-studded editorial advisory board, the publication rewards the reader by delivering on its promise: “True stories, well told.”
The editors’ decision to feature essays on anger and revenge inspired six talented writers, including Bindu Wiles, in her first published work “Sequelae: The Inner War.” Wiles, who has practiced Buddhism for 20 years, explores the effects of repeated fear and shock on the parasympathetic nervous systems of soldiers.
Sonya Huber, in “Breastfeeding Dick Cheney,” writes about the misuse of power, with Dick Cheney as her poster child. “This is not directly about politics,” she writes. “It is about that fearsome wave of hate.” Other writers focus their outrage on war, rape, abuse, and divorce. As editor Lee Gutkind observes in his column, “there’s a lot to be angry about in our world.”
Seven black, grayscale and orange images illustrate the essays on anger and revenge. In a counterpoint to the theme, a graphic insert with the letters LOVE breaks the text format in an essay on divorce—but wait. The “L” is actually that same automatic pistol illustrating the cover.
The image of a female figure with a ball of flame instead of a head accompanies Mardi Jo Link’s hilarious reminiscence about the end of a 20-year marriage, “Rebecca vs. Mr. Wonderful.” The illustration slyly recalls the dismissive and misogynistic phrase, “a woman with her hair on fire.”
Featured artist Michael Lotenero says that he wanted to make his works in this issue “as physical and emotional as the words that were written”:
I created the bloodlike spatters by throwing paint and coffee- and paint-soaked rags at the canvasses, then I studied the shapes, painting around the textures and marks to form the subjects, making sense and shape of the initial damage.
The last phrase of the artist’s statement provides an apt description of the accomplishment of the writers themselves. Their fluent, precise, and honest explorations of material that most of us would prefer to avoid thinking about both challenge and delight.
Outside the anger and revenge theme, short takes include an article by Ned Stuckey-French which recommends one outstanding essay from each decade of the 20th century. There is also a reprint of winners in the magazine’s daily @cnftweet contest. These charmers include: “No pants on, hollers the 86-year-old landlord to his tenant from the faded blue La-Z-Boy, ‘Just leave the check at the door.’” And “Before the storm we bathe, wash clothes and dishes, cleansing our lives in anticipation of a water shortage—or the rapture, I guess.”
An interview by Lee Gutkind reveals a theme of anger and revenge with Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights: A Town, A Team and A Dream which inspired the award winning television show. He is also the author of “Shattered Glass,” an article in Vanity Fair that exposed Stephen Glass’s fraud as a “journalist.” In the interview, Bissinger admits that because of his outspoken interviews and tweets “people do run from [him].” Nevertheless, Bissinger says he likes being outspoken: “I think that’s the way you should do it. I can be excessive. I know that. But more, in my mind, is always better than less as long as it is honest and from the heart, not some TMZ gotcha.”
Bissinger acknowledges that he suffers from the self-doubt and loneliness that can plague the writing process, and that he has “always been haunted and fascinated by people who have had early success [referencing Friday Night Lights] and then don’t have second acts.” Bissinger is morally outraged by writers who game the system, taking satisfaction in exposing Glass and Augusten Burroughs. He is angered by nonfiction writers and journalists who make stuff up, eluding the fact-checkers and publishers who don’t want to know the truth because they are looking ahead to big sales. Gutkind doesn’t ask Bissinger to compare himself to Jonathan Swift, but a pleasantly sulphurou air of the Swiftian hovers over this interview.
Philip Lopate contributes a thoughtful piece about doing research called “Show and Tell.” Lopate says that even memoirs and personal essays may require the writer to engage in research at some point but not to think of it as drudgery. Research, he says, “can bring a broader significance to your personal story” and “helps you break out of self-absorption and understand that you are not the only one who has passed down this road.” Lopate suggests that you don’t have to become a specialist in your research, you just need to learn enough to make your writing interesting.
The 14-member editorial advisory board includes Annie Dillard, Dave Eggers, Edwidge Danticat, Jonathan Franzen, Susan Orlean, Gay Talese, and Francine Prose. What else do you need to know about Creative Nonfiction?