You are on page 1of 7

Creative Nonfiction: An Overview


nonfiction exist in the Philippines?

In the Philippines today, the field of nonfiction is incredibly

varied, and it is located in the Pages of newspapers and magazines,

as it was in the time of the first Filipino essayists in English during
the Commonwealth Period.
The essay in the Philippines enjoyed a kind of "golden age"
before world war II. unfortunately, nearly all of the coilections of
prewar essays in English are out of print. Dear Devices (1933), the
?irst of these, includes the work of the first generation of essayists
in English, A. E. Litiatco, Maria Luna Lopez, Federico Mangahas,
lcasiano, etc. The
]ose iansa.g, Maria Kalaw Katigbak, Fralcisco
the Heights (1937)
iirst single-althor book of essays was
by AifrJdo Gonza\ez. These books were foilowed by collections of
works which first appeared as newsPaper columns, like Literature
and society (1940) by salvador Lopez and Horizons from My Nipn
Hut {1941) by Francisco lcasiano. Most of the varieties of creative
nonfiction, as practiced in the lrhilippines today are already to be
found in these early volumes-social commentary, reverie,
reflection, recollection, meditation, humorous sketch, journal entry,
letter, travel sketch, Profile.
After the war, some prewar writers-Francisco Arceliana,

Amador Daguio, Estrella Alfon, Fura santillan castrerrcecontinued to produce essays and personal narratives. And Kerima
polotan, Adrian cristobai, F. sionil jose, and NVM Gonzalez began

publishing essays.
In a fit1tre (arid tittte-knor,vn) voiume caltrectr f,ittle Ileporfs (1986),
which tie hacl
Juan T. Gatbonton collectecl the trnsigned editorials
written for the Manila Cl'wonicle's Sr-rnday suppierrrent, This Wcr:k,
which he eclited l:rom 1954 to tr958. Flis own foreworcl clescribe:;
how he ancl his colleagues regarded ti'leir work:

( ttttltt,t'

Nrtrrlt, ln,tt


Nlrtttttrtl lrtr

I rltlttttrt l\,/r tltr,,

Most clf us who rarr tlrt: rnagirzint' Ilrt'rr wt'r' rllt11.t.l,rssr r rir lr.s
recent graduates or dropouts frtlm journ.tlisnt sclrtxrl. Wt.all atlrrrir.trl
The New Yorker and copied its prose style, with nluch zcitl, if littkr
skill. Our idol was, of course, E. B. White, whose elegant essays for
"Notes and Comments" led off every New Yorker issue. In "Littlc
Reports" ... we tried to echo his halloos, which certainly bear
repeating. (P. ix)

The elegance he admired is obvious in the pages of Gatbonton,s

own book, an elegance which strikes the contemporary reader as
almost quaint, so remote does it seem from what fills newspaper
pages these days.
That elegance is also present in the work of Carmen GuerreroNakpil, who is regarded by sorne as the most distinguished of the
postwar essayists. Nakpil's own reaction to this-expressed in the

introduction to A Question of ldentity (lgTZ), fittingly titled ,,pre-



I am afraid the distinction was earned only by my having been

such a bad short story writer. My short stories were so bad that my

friends would say, Of course they're bad. They're not short stories,
they're essays. \zVhen one is not much good as a fish, one becomes a
In desperation, I put together some stuff that had appeared in
newspapers and magazines under my by-line into a kind of nonboolC
called Woman Enough and called it a collection of essays. But
somebody has now written that a few of the pieces in that item are
not essays but short stories. (P.4)

The '60s and early '70s were the era of the philippines Free press,
the Philippine Graphic and the Asia Philippines Leader, a high point
in Philippine journalism. These periodicals attracted as staff
members and regular contributors some of the finest writers of the
time, including NickJoaquin, Gregorio Brillantes, Kerima polotan,
Wilfredo Nolledo, Gilda Cordero-Fernando, Ninotchka Rosca, Luis
Teodoro, Jose Lacaba, Sylvia Mayuga, Petronilo Bn. Daroy, Antonio
Hidalgo, Rosario Garcellano, etc.



'l'ltr. rrrpsl plrlilir', .rrrtl t't,t't,titrly tlrt' lriottt'r't', Nit'k f o,rtltritt, ll,ts
lttr.rl llis lt.ttttl itl ('v('ry varit'ty tlf lrtltrl'it'litttl pl'ttst', irttltrrlirrli
lrlolir',rlrlry, ltistory, Profile, tlttttrtoir, cvcll olt irllllatrac' Antl lris
that the whrlle ()f it has yct to be
1,r.,,,ltr.lti,,rr is sO volurninous
lnw period and the muzzling of the Press led to a
krrrg hintus. IJut after 1986, publications returned with a vengeance.
W6at is the scene lite today? The answer can only be:
trt,nrcndously exciting. Not all of the publications and publishing
Irouscs that cropped up after EDSA 1 are still around today, but
there are enough to make the scene a lively one'
Most of the creative nonfiction being published today still
(.onsists of essays (many of them published as newsPaPer columns)
and magazine feature articles. The columns themselves range from
the seriJus political commentary of Conrad de Quiros and Randy
[)avid, to the historical trivia of Ambeth ocampo, to the highly
personal reflections of the wacky JessicaZafraand the sophisticated
Gonzalez, to the cultural-commentary-disguised-as-foodcolumn of Clinton Palanca (unfortunately discontinued in mid2002).Many of these columnists eventually compile thebest of their
columns into books.
A few interesting examples among the recently published books
of nonfiction deserve *et tio.r. Journalist Lorna Kalaw Tirol has
collected essays on midlife by both professional and nonprofessional wr-iters into several volumes-coming to Terms (1994),
'wo*r, Fire (1997) and. Primed
for Ltfe (1997); and her interviews
into two others-Aboae the crowd (2000) and Public Faces, Priaate
Liaes (2000). Poet Ricardo de Ungria has put together a lovely
book containing poems, fiction excerpts,
essays and jouinal entries by writers who spent a season in
Hawthornden Castle in scotland-Luna caledonia (1992).I myself
have collected autobiographical writings by several generations of
women who have wriiten on different phases of a woman's life:
childhood, love and marria ge, war, etc. (Pinay: Autobiographical
Naratiaes by Women Writers, 1928-1'998)'
(1993)- Barbara
Jullie Dazahas writtenAn Etiquettefor Mistresses
Gonzalezhas written a collection of personal essays masquerading

( tttltttr' Nortltr lntrr t\ Mrttrrtrtl lttr I tltltttttt Wt tltr:;

lNIlt()l)tl( ll(tN

as a manual on single parenting-llow Dtt You Knout Ytur pcnrls

Are Real? (1,991), and another collection of essays on her farnily
called We're History! (1998).

'l'hc aut0[ri0graPhy arrcl [riogrrrphy will be dcalt with in Iater

chapters of this btxrk.

Carmen Guerrero-Nakpil's third collection of essays,

interestingly titled Whateoer (2002), is out. And Gilda CorderoFernando and lVlariel Francisco have produced Ladies Lunch and
Other Ways to Wholeness (1994) and A Spirituat pillow Book (t998),
two books that defy classification.
Mention should also be made of the handsome, highly literate
GCF books on different aspects of Philippine culture (Cordero-

ls creatiue nonfiction a neu genre?

Fernando objects to the label. "coffee table books"). Her rnost recent
book, Pinoy Pop Culture (2001), has the look of a superior magazine.
Another noteworthy trend is the proliferation of what are called
the "glossies,"' magazines which cater to specific markets with
special interests, e.g., PuIp, Food, Cook, Mega, Metro, FHM, Men's
Zone, etc. Some are affiliated with international chains and carry a
lot of syndicated material, llke Cosmopolitan, Good IlousekeeTting,
Tattler and Peaple Asia.The quality of the writing is uneven in these
magazines. But some of it is quite good, which should not be a
surprise, as it is produced by talented young fictionists and poets.
The most recent and perhaps the best, in terms of the quality of the
writing in it, is Flip.rt is also unusual in that it bears the stamp of
tlre personality of its editor-publisher, ]essica Zafra, whose own
essays are compiled in a whole series of books.
According to the editor-in-chief of Cosmapolitan phitipphrcs, the
magazine tried publishing short fiction but gave it up because of
lack crf interest.r On the other hand, "first-person accounts,' (>n a
wide numbrer of subiects-in short, creative nonfiction alr,r,ays
generate interest.
In his 1996 Ramon Magsaysay l,ecture, "Journalism Versus
Literature," "NJick ioaquin ciairned that the distinction between the
tr,vo fielcls is no longer valid. Describing his own pioneering work,
'The Aquinos
of Tarlac, he cleclarecl: "Today I clon't of that berok
as reportage ,rr journalism or histnry or biography. I simply think
of it as literature." (P. 16-1S)

It used to be called personal journalism or literary journalism

or new journalism or parajournalism. These days it is labeled
"creative nonfiction," a term apparently coined by Theodore A'
Rees Cheney. "Cteative nonfiction," he wrote, in Writing Creatiae
Nonfiction (1991) "requires the skill of the storyteller and the
research ability of the rePorter"
This type of writing, begins with the facts, but does much more'
It elaborates on the facts, interprets them, and, more significantly,
presents them in an interesting and engaging way. It is a "more
imaginative approach to reporting." (P. 3)
The key word is "personal." The writer of creative nonfiction
presents the world-or that slice of it that he wishes to focus onthrough the prism of his own personal$r. Thus he makes contact
with the reader in a different way from that of the traditional
journalist. The reader becomes involved, as he does in fiction. He
gets to know the personalities, gets caught up in the events'
Practitioners of the art believe that they may "even come a little
closer to the 'truth'." (P. 5)
Tom Wolfe, one of the early practitioners of the art, traces the
development of the genre to the travel writing of the L8th and L9th
centuries.z Hemingway's journalism pieces, collected in By-line:
Ernest Hemingway (1968), is highly regarded as a modern model for
this type of nonfiction narrative.
Why did creatiae nonfiction deaelop?

Perhaps more interesting than the question of when it got

started is why it got started, and why it has become so popular
today. Trying to explain the phenomenon in the west (in the U.S',
more specifically), Cheney notes that, first, it addresses a new kind
of reading public in the west-a reasonably well-educated public.

Creatfue Nonfiction: A Manual

for Filipino Writers

academic lives and identities?" and "Is there

essay in the academy?"s

He quotes Ronald Weber:

... A large and growing public that feels it really should take an
interest and is looking for guidance as to what is, currently "The
Real Thing"... a liberally educated public that had been through the
required surveys of literature yetwas caught up in a contemporary
fascination with the new and the topical.3

And second, it addresses a public interested in nonfiction, not

only because it is truer than fiction, but because it is often stranger
than fiction. Reality itself has become so extravagant and weird,
that conventional fiction cannot do it justice.
It would seem, therefore, that what in the so-called Third World
has led writers to marvelous realism, has in the west led them to
creative nonfiction.
ls creatiae nonfiction

nol,D a


distinct field of study (Iike fiction or poetry)?

One of the more interesting developments in the U.S. and the

U.K. is academe's validation of the genre as a field of study. Kings
College in the University of London not only offers general courses
like "Literary Biography and Autobiographyi'but also a course
like "Writing Lives: Literary Biography and Autobioglaphy in
Theory, History and Practice," which it describes us "anotlier transhistorical pathway, concentrating on all aspects of literary lifewriting." In fact, it is now possible for graduate students to work
on what they call a "Writing Lives Pathway," which gives students
the option of doing either a critical study or "an exercise in
biography writing."4
Some of their faculty members are also now developing courses
in other forms of "literary life-writing," like the diary,letters, etc.
In October 2000, the Texas A&M University hosted an
interdisciplinary conference on "Autobiography, the Scholar and
the Essay," to investigate such issues as: "How does a'scholar'and
critic write the atrtobiographical essay that expkrres his/her irientity
whilt' l-rt'inB nrrlrt' lltirrt 'rrrcrt'ly' corrft'ssiorral?" ,rntl "l low tlo wt'
ttr'llrlli,rlc llrt"t'orrlr,ssiorr,rl',rspr.r'ls ol orrr own lilr':;lory irr otrr'

place for the personal

Interest in nonfiction is growing in our universities as well.

The University of the Philippines, the first institution in the country
to offer degrees in Creative Writing, on both the undergraduate
and graduate levels, began by offering workshop courses on the
essay, and has now established Creative Nonfiction as an area of
specialization for Creative Writing majors.
Nick Joaquin has commented on this new interest in his
foreword to a collection of essays by Marra Lanot, Diid Vu and
Other Essays (1999):
A great change in reading tastes is happening in our times: the
decline in popularity of fiction and a growing preference for
nonfiction. The switch is from the novel and the short story to the
magazine article and news column ... The essay that used to be the
literary Cinderella is now a sta4 rated more even financially than
short story or poem ... The modem essay ranges from reportorial to
intimatelypersonal ... (P. vii)


FoR DrscussroN

Two reasons are given above to explain the popularity of creative

nonfiction in the west, particularly in the U.S. Would the same reasons
apply to the Philippines? lf not, what might be the reason for the
popularity of the genre in our country?

What is creatiae nonfiction?

Ten years after Cheney published his book, the term has become
the accepted way of describing what is becoming perhaps the most

important, and certainly the most popular genre in the literary

world today. Those who insist on a definition might use this one:
creative nonfiction is nonfiction prose which utilizes the
tt'chniqucs and stratcgies of fiction.
lrr '/'/rr' Arl ol ('rrttlittt' Notrf'icliott (1997), l.t.t' ( irrtkirrd writes:

( rniltttr' Notrlttluttt: A Mtttunl lot I tltlttttrt Wttlrts

Crcativc n()nfi('ti()n c()trrbincs the auth<lrity of literature and the'
authority of fact ... (lt) dcmancls spontancity and an imaginative
approach, while remaining true to the validity and integrity of the
information it contains... (P.5) Creative nonfiction differs from
fiction because it is necessarily and scrupulously accurate in the
presentation of information, a teaching element to the readers, is
paramount. Creative nonfiction differs from traditional reportage,
however, because balance is unnecessary and subjectivity is not
only permitted but encouraged. (P. 15)

The writer of creative nonfiction may not alter facts in the

interest of improving his story. He must not deliberately misquote
his sources, misconstrue their statements, or mislead his readers.
He is expected to write compelling stories about real life, and in
doing so he must employ all the devices and strategies available to
the fictionist. Sometimes this involves imagining scenes or even
conversations that did not actually happen. This is tricky ground,
and the writer would be well advised to tread softly here.
In "Was the Hero of Tirad a Hatchetman?" Nick joaquin writes
of Gregorio del Pilar:
He was famous,powerful, popular, elegant and good looking.
The stay abroad had polished him. He was the Lord Byron of the
Revolution and he dressed the part, with a glitter of boots and
uniforms, diamonds onhis fingers, a whitehorse for mount. When

the first Filipino governor of Bulacan was installed, Del Pilar

presided at the rites dressed infac, formal togs made by "one of the
best tailors in Hong Kong." $oaquin 1977,p.L91)
So far so good. Then comes this passage: "Women swooned
over him; he had a mistress across each bridge and on this side of
it, too." (P. 191) Good literature. But is it factual?
On the other hand, in "Would Luna Have Been a Strongman?"
an account of the assassination of Antonio Luna, Joaquin writes:
Eyes flashing and fists clenched, Luna entered the house and
ran upstairs, after slapping a sentry who had been too unnerved to
salute. Upstairs, Luna was metby his mortal foe, Felipe Buencamino,
who told him that Aguinaldohad gone toSanlsidro(Joaquinl977,




()rrt. ,1;r;trrrrr,s llr,rl tlrt. sl,rppirrg ol llrr' :,r'trlty t:, rlot tttttr'ttlltl
'l'lrt, "t,yt,s I l.rslrirrg, .rrrtl lists t'lt'rrr'lrt'tl" is irtt,rgirtt'tl Iry tlrt' ,trrllrot itt
tltt,itttt, ol .ttt irtt.tgitrirtive rt'Ctltlstrttctirltl rtl lltt't'vt'ttl, wlr'tt
Virgirriir woolf ()t1c(, rccontmcnclccl to writcrs of biograPhy as tlrt:
"crcativc fttct."
What nre the types of crentiae nonfiction?

,,creative nonfiction" covers quite a large field. At

The term
one end of the spectrum would be literary journalism (what used
to be called "new journalism")-writing in a personal way about
the facts in a news event-which is still close to traditional
reportage. And at the other end is the literary memoir, what Annie
Dillardieferred to when she said that "works of nonfiction can be
coherent and crafted works of literature." (Dillard 1995:56)
Our earlier statement to the effect that the writer of creative
nonfiction "may not alter facts in the interest of improving his story,"
which is partiiularly important in literary journalism, would not
need to be so strictly applied to a literary memoir or a travel essay,
where it might be useful to, say, invent a travelling companion
who would serve as foil to the narrator by presenting entirely
different impressions of the places described'
Between those two poles would fall a whole range of other
types of writing:


the magazine feature article

the newsPaper column as cultural commentary
the review
the interview story
the character sketch
the biographical sketch or profile
the personal (or familiar) essaY
the autobiographical sketch

It would be futile to try to determine strict differences among

the various types. Gutkind, for instance, tried to distinguish the
essay from the article by saying that the term "essay" is generally



tttr' Notrltr ltrttt:

il lvltttutl lor

I'tlrltrrrrt Wr


used to refer to a prose picce that is morc pcrs()nll thitn objt't'livt.

or verifiable than an "article," but he stressec-l tlrat thc two irrc vt'ry
similar, and that he himself used them interchangeably.
We might add that the term " articLe" usually refers to a "featurc"
in a magazine or newspaper or e-zine. It thus tends to address a
specific type of reader (the particular market of the periodical or

website) in which it appears. This represents a certain set of

constraints. Of course essays, when they are also written for
publication in magazines or journals, must sometimes
accommodate themselves to other types of constraints. We shall
return to this point later.
A profile is an in-depth articie or essay that concentrates on
one person or place. (P. 7)
Literary iournalism or new iournalism is writing in a personal
way about the facts in a news event.
Personal narratives, or "life storiesr" as they are now called,
may be divided into: autobiographical narratives (e.g., memoirs,
travel narratives, journals, etc.); and biographical narratives (e.g.,
character sketches, interview stories, etc.)
Elsewhere, I have written:
But when does a feature article become an essay, hence,
"literafure"? How about an interview story? or a column? or a movie
review? Is "literariness" a matter of subject or style or approach or
tone? For that matter, when does a storgor narrative become an

And given the paradigms of poststructuralist criticism,

should we be worrying about these distinctions at all? Are not all

these materials simply "texts"? (Hidalgo 2002,p.354.)

lH lHr

rlrllr l l(lN



lln' :;lrtltgit't;

t'l t','t'ttlit'r tntttlittiott I

l|.rlr.rrt.g,its 0f crcativc nOltfiction arc very tnuclr like thc

rlrnlcglt.r 0l i'icti0n. (lrrtkincl stresses that thtl trasic objective of
"the mission of the
r rr.nlrvr.rrorrlit-liolr is ttl teach (he refers to it as
p,r.rrrr"'), lrtrt tlre point is to do it in such a manner "that the
r,.nrrrl,rr,t rt'irtlt'r will be interested in learning more ' ""
the point
'lir rrst: a tgrm brlrrowed from traditional
lrr lo ltatrclle the subject-whatever it might be-as a
piece of
Irrlt'rt'st" story. What this means is simply
r,t.r..rtive nonfiction has a personal voice, a clearly defined
o[ vicw, which will reveil itself in the tone, and be presented
lhrough scene, summary and description, as it is in fiction. All
irs striltegies are designed to reach out to the readers and draw
tlrt.r. iniagain, as in fiction-without losing track of the facts.
'l'he following paragraph, for example, provides much
irrformation even while sounding a personal note:

coming iiom the Chinese and meaning
Durin! the Spanish period farmers used to bring in their produce
pigs, eggs, panocha'.kakanin' and
1'ueget"ables, fruits, chickens,
seulor,al local delicacies like pinipigor the Ilocanos' inuruban
tupig) toan area close to the church ot municipio. In victoria,
plaza '
wiere I grew up , tinngge was
Farmers in their cars came to town as
very early Saturday morning. Other towns
from r.rne town to the next. These markets sold, as well, goods which
Tianggeis short fot "aratt) ng tiangge" or market day' the

containers and sliPPers.

As Nick Joaquin put it, referring to his own creative nonfiction:

"Today,I don't think of that book as reportage or journalism or
history or biography, I simply think of it as literature." (See p. 5.)

The types of creative nonfiction

thoroughly in Part I of this book.


be discussed more


on the site of the old market. It is now a roofed structure divided

into stalls that are rented out by the municipal government' The
tiangge in the town plaza has disappeared, but Saturday is
maik"et day, and the firmers still bring their produc e to the
and out-oi-town vendors still
- Doreen Fernandez, "Tiangge, Talipapa, Palengke"'
Essays on PhilippineFood

.i* ,lid!:

( rtttltrtt' Ntttln lnttt A


lt1rlrttrtl lot

I tltlttttrt lytt!tr,,

We will discuss thc strategics of crcativ(f n()nli('li()n itr llr(, n(.xl

part of this book. but we can mention what tlrey irrc r.row:




rll( ll( rN

l{l'r kr. lw,rs tlortr. wrllr rny l,rsl 0x.rtil.rrrrl lr|y, I lovt'tor k.rrrrl r(lll. I
.,,ttr I yls.
Arrrl I got nty r(x k arr<l roll scrvcd to nte alotrg with cltickerl ass orl
(lront tltt'li.rlray lrrihaw next door) in a dim-lit joint srnall
yotr < ottltl strt the band through the purple haze. " lto ba ang
,rt,,r,{,pll,r" askecl a comic bubble painted on the mural behind
llrr. "slagc" art:a-l remember Batman and Jim Morrison done in bold

r.rrr rrrglr s(

a strong beginning

c()li(l ( olors.

concrete and evocative details
a convincing ending

one way of looking at what happens in a work of creative

nonfiction is this: it is a personal account of a quest. The point is
the discovery, the triumph of the quest. It is this discovery, this
insight, which the reader looks for when he agrees to participate
in the adventure. Presenting it as a quest-an e*iitit g explorationand not just as a bare listing of events or facis or steps or
developments or trends-this is the challenge faced by the writer
of creative nonfiction.

lN lla(|l

llrat night we Bot to see Dean's December with frontman Binky

l.rrrrpano jumping and twisting in his musicdriven seizures like a
rn.ulrnan. Then we got to see the Skavengers, then fronted by Dominic
(iamboa a.k.a. "Papadom" (The line included Mally Paraguya on bass,
Patrick Reidenbach on drums, Aye Ubaldo on keyboards, Noel Carcia
on guitar and Maryana on sax). They were doing covers by the Specials,

English Beat, the Clash, etc. Speaking of covers, we paid P20 at the
foot of the staircase to get in.
School was out; I did not earn my driver's license after hitting the
gate of my driving school but when there's a will, there's a way-l
made it back to Red Rocks to bring friends, as if to say, "Sisters,

brethren, I have found the promised land!' I also made it back to

watch the audition of a new band called Color lt Red. I sat in the
audience with the high school buddies of their then bassist, Hank

Two of my first new friends at Red Rocks were experimental


Read the essay below by Karen Ktnawicz, and evaluate it in terms

of whether it contains the right balance of information and imagination,
facts and personal impression.

Shaking the City:
Twenty-Seven Months of Club Dredd, Lower Timog

filmmaker Regiben Romano, and band manager, lover of manga and

cyberpunk (yes, even then) JinB Carcia. Regi had longish hair that
resembled pasta tvvists and Jing's hair was-and still is-viciously spiky.
The powers that be at Red Rocks fell in love with the band and
scheduled them for more gigs. Unfortunately, the promised land shut
its doors in the mid '90s.

Club Dredd

by Karen Kunawicz

By early December of lgg}, Club Dredd stood where Red Rocks

once did. lt's run by Patrick Reidenbach with the help of Robbie Sunico.
Rock and roll drove me to get my license. I couldn't think of anything

It was in 1990. Two guys I knew from the late night carpool ride
asked me if I wanted to go to this little joint along Timog called Red

better to do on a free night than just slowly make the trip to Timog
from my old home in Makati and just hang out and be myself at the

Red Rocks