In the first week of April, Mayhill Fowler, a fellow writer on the Huffington Post Web site, wrangled an invitation from a friend to a Barack Obama fundraiser. There, the candidate happened to say something that struck a chord, and four days later Mayhill wrote a fourteen-hundred-word reflection on what Americans might learn from each other. It included a quote in which Obama characterized some small town voters as "bitter."
In the days that followed, the word took on a life of its own. The Hillary Clinton and John McCain campaigns would use it to disparage Obama as elitist; the mainstream media would repeat it in headlines and talk shows; the Obama campaign would spend hundreds of thousands of dollars defending and apologizing for it.
But beyond this political firestorm—which could very well cost Obama the nomination—a second, writerly one has flared up. In the political blogosphere, where contributors are expected to be partisan, Mayhill has been excoriated for writing critically of a campaign she supports. For journalists and politicos, Mayhill scored an unfair scoop.
But the origin and form of Mayhill’s piece suggest her work is neither blogging nor journalism, but creative nonfiction. That its effect was out of proportion with its intention begs the question: What can the creative nonfiction writer expect in the Information Age?
Mayhill is an unlikely figure to be at the center of all this drama. She’s sixty-one, a long-married mother of two grown daughters. She has a soft, round face and hair that beautiful color somewhere between blonde and gray. She’s never worked as a professional writer—if by “professional” we mean “paid”—but she has a natural gift for storytelling, analysis, and character.
Since last summer, Mayhill and I have contributed to a project sponsored by the Huffington Post called “Off the Bus.” The name is a play on the 1974 book The Boys on the Bus, which described how the press came to live so symbiotically with the campaigns and each other that they were unable to report original, critical stories. To provide some fresh perspectives, a media scholar put together the idea of a Web site in which volunteers with an interest in politics could write about the campaigns from their own base of expertise and geography.
Sure enough, the project took off: By April, when Mayhill’s story broke, over eighteen hundred people were contributing. Many were experienced journalists taking advantage of the platform of the Huffington Post, which is best known for its celebrity coverage but also has reasonable cred as a political site. Others followed the blogger model: short, opinion pieces synthesizing and commenting on news.
Then there were writers like Mayhill and me—we went to campaign events and wrote reported, first-person pieces rooted in our impressions and experiences.
I have an MFA in creative nonfiction: Reported, first-person pieces are what I do. I disclose information and use language to reveal my bias, and I expect the reader to take my work for what it is—the perspective of a single individual. I also take my task very seriously. I’m the eyes and ears for all the people who aren’t in the room, and I try to convey both the substance of what happens and also the mood, the setting, my own reaction and those of the people around me. These, the devices of fiction, are important in making a scene come alive. But they are especially critical in describing a presidential campaign, which can be sanitized by sound bites or spun into unrecognizable fluff by a press office. As citizens in a democracy, we need all the information we can get about the candidates and the apparatus that surrounds them. Creative nonfiction offers a lens that is colored by voice, tone, and critical intelligence.
It also has a distinct form. In Mayhill’s piece, the paragraphs are long—seven and eight sentences—and the syntax is complex. She includes a memory of her own father and an excerpt of a poem. The incendiary word, “bitter,” appears in the sixth of twelve paragraphs. The entire piece is written in the first person.
As a piece of writing, it lacks the speed and focus of a blog; the lede, insofar as it has one, is buried; the purpose is neither to advocate nor to inform but to ruminate on a theme. That its inspiration is political puts it nicely in the company of Joan Didion and George Orwell. We call these writers essayists.
Twenty years ago, Mayhill might have written a dozen of these essays and published them in a book, released well after the candidate had won or lost and the five hundred people who bought the slim volume were in a contemplative, nostalgic mood.
Ten years ago, Mayhill might have e-mailed these reflections to a dozen or so friends. A few would write back with complimentary remarks.
Five years ago, Mayhill might have started her own blog, attracting the attention of her friends’ friends.
This year, Mayhill published her thoughts on the Huffington Post, and the entry had, according to the editorial director, “two hundred and fifty thousand page views and over five thousand comments in forty-eight hours.” It was picked up by the Associated Press, Reuters, Meet the Press, and virtually every other news source around the country. The Obama campaign is still negotiating the fall-out, and Mayhill is at the outer limits of her fifteen minutes of fame.
Frankly, I’m scared by the effects of my friend’s lovely, thoughtful piece. As a creative nonfiction writer, I consider my first obligation to be to the truth, and the second to the integrity of the prose. I have low expectations for my influence. At best, I hope for a subtle, nebulous impact—to shift a paradigm, to touch the heart of an adolescent.
Yet, Mayhill’s essay may show how both the power and the responsibilities of the genre have expanded. On the Internet, one’s ruminations are as fair game as a wire story, and any individual with a publishing platform may be held accountable not to the standards of good citizenship or even to good writing, but to the effect of one’s work. Journalists have some training and institutional authority for this role; bloggers aspire to such power. But the creative nonfiction writer, used to heeding only the demands of the muse, may be surprised by how quickly her ideas, or even just one word, can spread.
In the dry tinder of this long presidential season, an essay's spark jumped the firewall into the popular press, where the debate over Obama’s remark and Mayhill’s right to repeat it is still raging.