Shortly after midnight on July 24, 2020, I was listening to folklore, Taylor Swift’s first surprise album. I liked the first two songs a lot, but the third, “the last great American dynasty,” especially drew me in— the story of a woman named Rebekah, a divorcee who partied her husband to death and scandalized the small town in which she lived, in the mansion she named the Holiday House.
The song was fiction, I assumed, and Rebekah a creation of Taylor Swift’s— until the bridge, when Swift (always master of the bridge) sings:
“Fifty years is a long time
Holiday House sat quietly on that beach
Free of women with madness, their men and bad habits
And then it was bought by me”
And then it was bought by me! If everyone in the house hadn’t been asleep, I would have yelled the words. It was a surprise twist in a surprise album, a connection to the songwriter herself in a song that turned out to be true— Rebekah Harkness lived in Rhode Island in a house that Taylor Swift purchased for $17.75 million forty years after Harkness died. And yes, she really did dye a neighbor’s pet green.
In three minutes and fifty-one seconds, Swift gave us a full portrait of this woman— and drew parallels between Harkness’s life and her own. (Harkness may have been “the maddest woman this town has ever seen”; now Swift carries on her legacy as the “loudest.”) Taylor Swift gave us a history lesson, filtered through her own connection to this woman.
Recently, that’s been one of my favorite styles of creative nonfiction to read and write. I was a journalism major, so I’ve always appreciated a well-reported piece that teaches me something— but typically, the writer is nowhere to be found.
When, in the third line of The Library Book, Susan Orlean writes that a source said something “to me,” it felt like breaking the rules. Never, in all the journalistic articles I had written, had I pointed out to the reader that a quote was said to me— never had I pointed out that I existed at all. But I liked it; in fact, I love Orlean’s writing style in The Library Book. As she writes about the 1986 fire at the Los Angeles Library and the many functions of the library system today, she not only keeps herself in the scenes but also shares with readers her own love for libraries.
If there’s a name for this subgenre, I haven’t found it yet. It’s somewhere at the intersection of reported nonfiction and memoir and immersion journalism. I haven’t encountered it widely, but it seems to be increasing in popularity. As a reader and a writer, I see three main purposes or benefits of this style: to draw connections between the writer and subject; to be transparent about the reporting and writing process; to show the reader why the writer cares and why they should, too.
First: When the creative nonfiction writer is allowed to exist within the work, they can draw parallels between themselves and their subject, as Swift did with Harkness. Many readers do this as they read, across all genres (hello, my fellow Jo Marches and Hermione Grangers), so why can’t the writer make their connection explicit? Mitchell S. Jackson’s Survival Math is mostly a memoir of his own life and family— but it’s also about larger social and racial issues, all “framed” within Jackson’s story (as the back cover describes it). And the prologue fits into this hybrid style: Jackson, an Oregon native, writes a letter to Markus, the first known Black man to set foot in what became Oregon, in 1788. The central topic of the prologue is the history of Blackness in Oregon, and Jackson connects each era of that history to himself and Markus— even the time, like the 1920s, when neither Markus nor Jackson were alive. We see the parallels between the writer and the subject, and that illustrates the persistence of racism in the region— one of the things that connects “you and me and the generations between and beyond us,” Jackson writes to Markus.
Second: When the writer is present in the piece, we don’t have to wonder how they know that Julian Van Winkle, a third-generation bourbon producer, had his photo taken in front of the office building at Stitzel-Weller Distillery, where his father and grandfather had worked— author Wright Thompson knows because he took the photo on his own phone. In Pappyland, Thompson writes about the Van Winkle family and the past and present of bourbon— and Thompson himself is on almost every page. He learned his subject by spending time with him at horse races, at distilleries, at family gatherings— and, of course, by drinking his bourbon. By the second page of the book, Thompson has tasted the bourbon (it “went down smooth, with enough burn to let you know it was working”). Plus, Julian Van Winkle’s personality would not come through nearly as well in one-sided quotes, presented as if spoken into a void. In his responses to Thompson and Thompson’s to him, we get to know Julian Van Winkle along with Thompson. (Note: The first purpose is present here, too: “Julian and I originally sold this book as his story alone,” Thompson writes in chapter two. “That concept fell apart in the first trip when my own life kept mirroring and driving my conversations with the Van Winkle family.”)
Third and, I think, most important: When the writer is in the work, we get to know why they wrote it in the first place— why they care about the subject. In The Library Book, Orlean shares how she became interested in the fire: When her son interviewed a librarian for a class project, Orlean rediscovered her own love for libraries. Then, when touring the Central Library, a librarian told her you can still smell the smoke in some of the books— which is when she learned about the fire for the first time. She became fascinated, and now we as readers are, too.
In a workshop last fall, I received one piece of constructive criticism most frequently: Your voice needs to be stronger. I was writing about a historic figure— a fellow Kentuckian and writer— and, according to my classmates, the strongest parts were those in which I expressed my admiration and interest in this woman. It’s not that she didn’t merit attention on her own; it’s just that my passion was a filter that made reading more enjoyable for the reader. Passion from the writer is contagious to the reader. Recently, I was talking about this woman and the book I want to write about her to a family friend. “I just like hearing you talk about her,” the friend said.
It’s the same with Rebekah Harkness. She was plenty interesting before Taylor Swift bought her house and wrote a song about her, but I imagine Google searches of her name increased dramatically after folklore’s release. Swift cares about Harkness’s story, and now so do Swift’s listeners.
The style may still be emerging in creative nonfiction, but it’s apparently established in country music— Swift said in an Entertainment Weekly interview that she was following a blueprint: “I always wanted to do a country music, standard narrative device, which is: the first verse you sing about someone else, the second verse you sing about someone else who’s even closer to you, and then in the third verse, you go, ‘Surprise! It was me.’ You bring it personal for the last verse.”
What is creative nonfiction if not bringing it personal?
Bailey Vandiver is a writer, a reader, and a Kentuckian. She is an MFA student in creative nonfiction at Eastern Kentucky University’s Bluegrass Writers Studio. She writes mostly about her family, her cats, and fellow Kentuckian Alice Dunnigan. Media and Communications Editor at Kentucky State University MFA Student in Creative Nonfiction at EKU Bluegrass Writers Studio baileyvandiver.com