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Review of Robert Root's The Nonfictionist’s Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction

Rowan & Littlefield 2008

 

By Bill Milligan


My father waits for me. It's a spring day, warm.  We're fishing the Canada Creek not far from the mouth of the Black River in northern Michigan.  My father floats up behind me in his homemade kayak--a contraption that seemingly he alone can keep afloat--and takes a  break to watch me fish a deep cut along the bank for brook trout.  I snap a picture of him with a disposable camera.

I know this spot in the stream: just down from the big marsh where I shot an 8-point buck a decade earlier, upstream a bit from the spot I shot a 9-point in 1979. The area is perfectly defined in my mind -- the hard-sand bottom where dead beech leaves and pine needles tumble along in the current, the stiff bends where logs and branches pile up, the soft, black muck lining the banks.

My dad isn't defined in the picture.  Of course this is because of his physical distance from me when I snap the picture but I realize parts of him haven't been defined for me.  Ever.  But this is okay.  There are spaces, gaps that exist whose presence doesn't define something that's missing but rather add definition to the whole of my father and our relationship.  I've learned its okay to honor the gaps and the spaces and realize they're integral ingredients of the whole of the understanding.

I received Bob Root's latest book, The Nonfictionist's Guide: On Reading and Writing Creative Nonfiction, just a few short weeks after my father's death this past fall, during a time of sorting physical records and deeds, boxes of pictures and cards. In other words, during a fertile time of reading about, writing about, and grappling with the loss of my father.

Root's very philosophy about reading and writing nonfiction makes his book the perfect read for me right now.  The beauty is that each reader will also react that way because Root proposes that nonfiction -- the reading of it, the writing of it -- is a singularly unique act for each of us: "Instead of a prescriptive manual, I can only provide a preliminary set of suggestions and reflections. All we have left to do now is to consider what those suggestions and reflections imply for readers and writers of nonfiction" (198).

Rather than rely on prescriptive remedies (although he does give invaluable practical advice each and every chapter in the book), Root challenges the reader to truly explore nonfiction. He does this by providing his, and many other authors, anecdotal and experiential interactions with the art form.  If nonfiction be a shirt, Root unbuttons it in this book and lets the fabric breath.

Reading this book challenges me to re-think how I approach my own reading and writing.  I sense this very review leading me somewhere on a larger journey to a bigger story, the review itself acting as the early stage of a discovery for something I need to write about but haven't  yet.  And I can think of no better compliment to give Bob Root and his book than that.
 


Bill Milligan teaches composition, journalism, mass communications, and creative nonfiction at Bay College in Escanaba, MI. His freelance writing has appeared in numerous regional publications including The Detroit News, The Detroit Free Pressand Traverse Magazine, where he won an Editor's Choice Award in 2004. His creative nonfiction has most recently appeared in Rosebud and Flashquake.