Q&A: UI instructor Dylan Nice

BY DI STAFF | FEBRUARY 17, 2011 7:20 AM

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University of Iowa TA Dylan Nice uses his writing to put a creative spin on real-life events and helps his students do the same in his creative nonfiction writing class.

The Daily Iowan: How would you define creative nonfiction?

Nice: A poor career choice. I think one of the things that is interesting about creative nonfiction that is also a little bit of a problem with it is that it doesn’t have many of the established rules that a genre such as short story has, in which by writing in that genre, you’re kind of citing the history of the genre, and that’s what gives what you’re doing some authority. That’s not to say that creative nonfiction or essay doesn’t have its greats, but I would say that it’s a little more of a gray area as to what exactly it is. A lot of people have said that creative nonfiction is the only thing that is defined by what it is not instead of what it is. It’s interesting; it’s art.

DI: How important do you think it is to stick to the facts in this genre?

Nice: Not at all, not even a little bit. I think the only time it’s really important is when what you’re saying is demonstrably false, where someone could actually go back and say that that thing never happened. I think that creative nonfiction does have to deal with some material in the world that was not invented by the author himself, where there’s some sort of tension where the author is coming up against something that exists in the world that was not of his own imagination. But as far as facts go, I kind of don’t believe in facts.

DI: What inspires your work in nonfiction writing?

Nice: Complete narcissism. I think every writer is a narcissist. Well, everybody’s a narcissist, but I think to be a writer, you especially need to be a narcissist. The difference between a genius and a hack, they’re both narcissists, but the genius has the proper documentation. But I think that self-involvement can be the impetus for someone to really search for truth. I would like to think that even though my work is motivated by narcissism largely, if I do it right, by the end of it, there’s something that happens in the work that’s bigger than myself.

DI: What do you think makes a piece of nonfiction writing great?

Nice: I’m very interested in language. The sentences themselves have to be great. That’s not to say that every piece of nonfiction I think is great is necessarily poetic, I just think the language has to be devastating in some way. I think any piece of great writing should in some way deepen the reader’s understanding of the world and should comfort the reader in some way. I recently read Joan Didion’s The White Album again for the first time in a couple years, and it was remarkable rereading it now that I’m a little older, because she is thinking in a way in that essay that I immediately identified with, and it comforted me in a way in which I knew that I wasn’t losing my mind. The things that she noticed about the world in the 1960s are some of the same things I’m beginning to notice about the world and that I found incredibly unsettling, and I didn’t know if it was OK or not. And now I read her essay, and she’s someone who’s established and whom I admire greatly, and she’s seeing the same thing I am. That’s a comfort; that’s something that you can take some solace in, that other human beings have seen and felt the same things that you are, and that it’s OK.

DI: What do you think sets your class apart from other writing classes?

Nice: Just the general disorganization. Just throwing stuff up on the wall and seeing what sticks. I like to talk about everything at once, so we don’t do a character day, a theme day, a travel-writing day. I just kind of put on the syllabus the things that I find to be really great pieces of writing, and we talk about how they work. I like to think of my class as just being a kind of highly unstructured discussion of the genre and just writing in general. The way I learned about writing was just getting my mind blown on a weekly basis, so that’s what I try to do when I’m teaching.

— by Riley Ubben

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