Margaret Lazarus Dean, director of the creative writing program in the Department of English, learned to write fiction. Her latest book, however, is a work of creative nonfiction, which is a relatively new genre in the world of writing.
“The novel has been around for centuries and the poem has been around maybe as long as people have been able to write,” Dean says. “We trace the birth of creative nonfiction to a moment in the 20th century when some journalists were trying to write in a more literary way – using the tools from creative writing to tell true stories.”
Creative nonfiction, also known as literary or narrative nonfiction, uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives written to entertain and challenge readers, which contrasts with other types of nonfiction, such as journalism.
“In some ways, people have been writing about things that are true for centuries, such as letters or stories about their own lives,” Dean says. “This idea that we can define a genre called creative nonfiction and have certain expectations of it is really exciting.”
Dean’s latest book, Leaving Orbit, tells the story of the final days of American spaceflight and follows in the literary footsteps of creative nonfiction greats such as Tom Wolfe and Norman Mailer. Dean focused on the shuttle era and spent much of 2011 traveling back and forth from Tennessee to Cape Canaveral to witness the final three space shuttle launches.
“Everyone in my department was really supportive of the project,” Dean says. “No one told me I should not do this big, ambitious project in a genre that is completely different from my own and one that I have no training in.”
Dean’s first foray into creative nonfiction was a great success. In addition to winning the Graywolf Press Nonfiction Prize, Leaving Orbit was the book chosen for the 2016 Life of the Mind program, a component of the First Year Studies course that gives students their first taste of college studies. It was also the first faculty book chosen for the program.
“The book has to be something that is accessible to young people who are going to be reading it on their own,” says Dean, who has served on the book selection committee for several years. “The book has to appeal to an 18-year-old who might not have liked English in high school or read that many books written for adults on their own.”
Leaving Orbit turned out to be just that book for the Class of 2020.
“Students who read it told me it was the only book they’ve read from beginning to end, or the only one that was not for a class, or even the only one they didn’t find super boring,” Dean says. “Those kind of compliments I really take to heart.”
Another thing Dean takes to heart is the accomplishments of her colleagues in the English department.
“We are all writing great books all the time,” Dean says. “My colleagues are having a really big impact on an important conversation about Shakespeare or African American literature or rhetoric. I’m proud to be part of a department that is very productive.”
As for the study of creative nonfiction, Dean has ventured into teaching it and hopes one day the department will add it as a concentration.
“I meet a lot of young people who want to write creative nonfiction and see it as the primary genre they want to learn,” Dean says. “I think it would be exciting if we could add that someday.”
Image: Margaret Lazarus Dean stands in front of the countdown clock at the Kennedy Space Center Press Site in Cape Canaveral, Florida, for the final shuttle launch July 8, 2011. Photo by Stu Maschwitz.
Originally published in Higher Ground, April 20, 2017.