Gutkind, nonfiction masters program founder, moves on

By Sam Stahl Staff

In the bleakest depths of winter, Pittsburghers often crave a climate change. They long to leave… In the bleakest depths of winter, Pittsburghers often crave a climate change. They long to leave the slushy streets and gray skies behind in search of someplace warmer, someplace brighter. Pitt professor and critically acclaimed author, editor and Vanity Fair-described ‘Godfather behind creative nonfiction,’ Lee Gutkind, will do just that this January. Warmer weather and a new job await him in Tempe, Ariz., where he will be a professor and Distinguished Writer in Residence at Arizona State University. ASU will provide the support that Pitt never gave to Gutkind for his journal, Creative Nonfiction, which he started 15 years ago. ‘I started the first creative nonfiction MFA program and I thought, ‘Wouldn’t it be wonderful to start the first creative nonfiction journal at the same time?” said Gutkind. ‘But the University wouldn’t support it, so I got annoyed and started it on my own. Some former Pitt Newsers and students helped me out. We needed a literary journal to support this growing genre.’ As the genre rapidly expands, many readers struggle to grasp its multifaceted definition. In his introduction to the latest issue of Creative Nonfiction, Gutkind writes that it is ‘a way of writing that combines relevant and enlightening information (journalism), with ideas presented by the author (personal essay), inspired by the in-depth experiences of the author (memoir) or others (biography), and written with artful clarity (poetry). One way or another, the creative nonfiction writer must always be telling a story, writing in scenes, invoking a narrative.’ Gutkind, a Pitt graduate himself, started the world’s first creative nonfiction MFA program at Pitt in 1993. He later went on to begin the Creative Nonfiction Foundation and Pittsburgh’s 412 Creative Nonfiction Literary Festival. He’s directed Pitt’s writing program and the Mid-Atlantic Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference. To say Gutkind is passionate about the genre is an understatement. ‘ ‘ ‘ Unfortunately, the enthusiasm Gutkind possesses isn’t always appreciated by the city. ‘There isn’t support. Writers aren’t valued here. Pittsburgh is a great place to write, not a great place to be a writer,’ said Gutkind. ‘ ‘This is a city still fighting to stay alive. It’s not prospering in any great degree. The city is in flux, so consequently the arts are in flux,’ said Gutkind, as he went on to cite more challenges the creative community faces. ‘For instance, my best students leave town. There isn’t an active publishing world here. There are four groups of creative writers at Pitt, CMU, Carlow and Chatham. They bring lots and lots of creative talent, all within a 10-minute walk, but they never work together. There is great raw material and potential, but the community doesn’t have the glue to bring it together and keep it together.’ ‘ ‘ ‘ That’s not to say that Pittsburgh hasn’t given inspiration and nurturing to Gutkind and countless other writers present and past. ‘It’s a manageable city. It’s inspiring and has comforting houses at good prices. If you want to sit down and write and be productive, come to Pittsburgh. I would tell anyone with a book to write to come here,’ said Gutkind. ‘ ‘ ‘ Gutkind has done just that, many times over. While the impact he’s made on other creative nonfiction writers is immeasurable, his own list of work is long. He has edited nearly a dozen anthologies, authored four writing guides and 10 books, the most recent being ‘Almost Human: Making Robots Think.’ He was even interviewed by Jon Stewart in May of 2007 on ‘The Daily Show’ to discuss Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute, which he details in the book. Gutkind followed CMU’s roboticists, learning about both their excitements and struggles as they expand the technology-driven world. Gutkind repeatedly immerses himself into other worlds, ensuring that he gets the clearest picture of his subject. ‘ ‘ ‘ When he’s not working on a book, Gutkind’s schedule is crammed with appearances and lectures. In the past year alone, he traveled everywhere from the Prague Summer Writing Workshops to the Creative Nonfiction Seminar at Bar-Ilan University in Israel, and many places in between. As he ventures to Arizona, Gutkind will surely maintain the busy life to which he’s grown accustomed. When told how different Pitt’s writing program will be without him, Gutkind laughed, saying ‘Oh they’ll replace me in a heartbeat and I’ll long be forgotten.’