Mary Karr's mother drank heavily, abused her children and kept a tragic secret.
Frank McCourt went shoeless and hungry in the slums of Limerick, Ireland.
It was tough going, yet both survived and have riveted readers with tales of their troubled childhoods, contributing two more best sellers to the many-splendored genre known as "creative" or "literary" nonfiction.
The literary nonfiction boom that spawned these memoirs and many others hasn't bypassed Goucher College. Today, the school's Center for Graduate and Continuing Studies holds its second annual mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Summer Writers' Conference (complete with commemorative T-shirt), where high-profile nonfiction writers Tobias Wolff, Tracy Kidder and Gay Talese will read from their works and students from around the country will gather to hone their craft. The conference is, in fact, -- a sort of kick-off for the college's new master's degree program in creative nonfiction. Goucher has joined a burgeoning field. Some 40 percent of the 94 groups that belong to Writers' Conference & Festivals, a Denver-based support group, offer a creative nonfiction component in their programs, spokeswoman Kelleen Zubick says.
David Fenza, director of Associated Writing Programs in Fairfax, Va., says that 50 of its 287 members' creative programs offer creative nonfiction courses. "I would say in the last five years, the focus on nonfiction has increased dramatically," Fenza says. Writing programs also have begun to accept creative nonfiction dissertations.
And while Mark Crispin Miller, departing director of the writing seminar at the Johns Hopkins University, cited departmental resistance to creative nonfiction as one reason for leaving last week, most academic interest in the form emanates not from journalism programs but from English and writing departments where many poets and novelists have crossed genres.
The result is dozens of creative nonfiction titles published every year, memoirs foremost among them. Publishing statistics don't break down narrowly enough to yield precise figures, but book ads in the Associated Writing Programs Chronicle, academic journals, trade publications, book sections and best seller lists tell all: The literary memoir is having its day in the sun.
The attendant hyperbole has been deafening. The genre's authors have been praised on book covers (often by one another), for their triumphant spirits. The Goucher event is billed as a "conference devoted exclusively to the emerging genre of creative nonfiction." Its director, Lee Gutkind, has been called the "pioneer of creative nonfiction."
Nonfiction in 1675
A bit of historical perspective, though, suggests that this "emerging genre" is nothing new.
It has actually been emerging since ancient times. And the honor of "pioneer," in America at least, actually belongs to our original pioneers, compared to whom the pasts of Karr and McCourt are a walk in the park.
The authors of "The Liars Club" and "Angela's Ashes," two of the most popular recent memoirs, have nothing on Mary Rowlandson, for example.
Rowlandson is one of this country's first memoirists. The account of her capture by Indians in 1675 is cited by scholars as a quintessential example of early American literature. Even a passing glance at "The Narrative of the Captivity and Restoration of Mrs. Mary Rowlandson" makes the others' miserable exploits look like a day at the beach.
"There were 12 killed, some shot, some stabbed with their spears, some knocked down with their hatchets," Rowlandson recounts in one vivid passage.
Literary journalist that she was, Rowlandson used the massacre as an opportunity for introspection on fortune's sudden turns: "When we are in prosperity, oh, the little that we think of such dreadful sights, and to see our dead friends and relations lie bleeding out their heart blood upon the ground. There was one who was chopped into the head with a hatchet, and stripped naked, and yet was crawling up and down."
The point is not that human suffering is relative; but that creative nonfiction -- touted by critics, publishers, writers and agents as an exciting new literary hybrid that melds emotional and factual truths in varying proportions -- in fact has a long, venerable history. The impulse to write literary nonfiction is deeply embedded in our American character.
Our first American writers established the primary mythic images that were to determine the course of all future literary journalism. In Indian captivities, remarkable providences (accounts of plagues, freakish weather, heretics, brazen women and other threats to Puritan values) and journals, they invented an archetypal American, whose compulsive self-examination and search for true virtue in the wilderness of a new land became the model for the American heroic quest.