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Creative nonfiction: From robots to transplants

University of Pittsburgh professor Lee Gutkind will be releasing his newest book, Almost Human, later this month. Last Tuesday, Gutkind visited Wean Hall to discuss both the content of his book and, to a lesser extent, its research process. Almost Human is centered around Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute — its faculty, staff, and students. Gutkind focuses on five key players in the field of robotics, including four Carnegie Mellon faculty members and a NASA scientist. He also focuses on the robots themselves; Almost Human documents both their successes and their failures. At his lecture, Gutkind said that a robot named Zoë was the “primary motivator ... of [the] book.” In the text, he begins by describing Zoë’s shortcomings and problems. Throughout the book, however, Gutkind documents the process of her evolution from a simple machine into the first robot scientist.

Gutkind decided to write the book after being approached by Anne Watzman, the director of public relations for both the Robotics Institute and the School of Computer Science. While Gutkind was working for National Public Radio, Watzman asked him to cover RoboCup, a soccer game pitting robots against other robots; in particular, Sony AIBOs were programmed to make their own decisions based on situations in the game. Gutkind returned to Carnegie Mellon a few years later, this time to write a book about the Robotics Institute.

With the help of Watzman, Gutkind gained special access to the facilities for his research. He spent four years observing the roboticists, who both build and program robots, at the Robotics Institute. Gutkind described his research as having three phases. First, he observed the day-to-day activities that took place in the institute, immersing himself in his subjects’ lives in order to “see the world through their eyes.” Second, Gutkind spoke one-on-one with the roboticists in order to hear their thoughts on what they had accomplished and how, in some cases, they had fallen short. Finally, he spent time reading other sources to learn as much as he could about the subject.

“Although you are writing about something specific, you need to move it to a more global orientation,” Gutkind said, explaining the importance of general research. By offering a glimpse into the mysterious field of robotics, Gutkind makes his books appeal to a broader audience. Gutkind is anxious for people in the robotics world to read Almost Human as well, and he hopes that the book will help to bridge the information gap between different robotics facilities. “The more people that read it, the better,” he said.

Besides robotics, Gutkind has immersed himself in many other interesting fields, including the motorcycle subculture and organ transplants. Bike Fever, Gutkind’s first book, took him across the country via motorcycle — all part of his research on the subculture and the “on the road” movement. During that time, Gutkind explained, it was much safer and more exciting to travel cross-country on a motorcycle.

For Gutkind, his exploration of the world of organ transplantation was the most memorable. While working on Many Sleepless Nights, he spent four years shadowing surgeons, scrubbing in on surgeries, and watching lives saved and lost. While researching the book, Gutkind explained, he experienced what seemed like every imaginable procedure and set of circumstances. To be so fully immersed in such a world was the most “exhausting, heartwarming, and exciting” of his experiences.

Creative Nonfiction

Outside of authoring books, Gutkind is also the founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction, the first to specialize in the genre. According to Gutkind, he founded the journal in order to transform this “new” genre into a legitimate literary form. The journal helped solidify the genre as a movement, in addition to bridging its domains from the world of journalism to that of academia.

“The journal Creative Nonfiction [helped] to introduce the genre to people who hadn’t otherwise thought of what distinguished ‘creative nonfiction’ from plain old ‘nonfiction,’ ” said Jane Bernstein, a professor in the English department. While it is now accepted throughout the literary world, there are still many people who are confused as to what the term “creative nonfiction” means. Gutkind described it as a “blend of real life and literature, and much more challenging.” He compared creative nonfiction to robotics. “When we look ahead to the future in technology, we see robotics moving in,” he said. “In creative nonfiction, people laughed when I started my journal, but now — 15 years later — it is the fastest-growing genre of publishing in the academic world.”

Both Carnegie Mellon and the University of Pittsburgh offer courses in creative nonfiction. At Carnegie Mellon, several courses are offered: A workshop on the essay is taught by Hilary Masters; courses in literary journalism and science writing are taught by Jane McCafferty; and Bernstein teaches courses on the memoir and creative nonfiction. At the University of Pittsburgh, Gutkind started a program for creative nonfiction students to graduate with a Master’s of Fine Arts degree. Requiring MFA candidates to write a publishable manuscript, the program is professionally oriented.

In creative nonfiction, Bernstein explained, “lots of good stories are told in innovative ways by excellent writers. That’s the heart of it.” Besides Gutkind, other key figures in creative nonfiction include Truman Capote (In Cold Blood), Gay Talese (Unto the Sons), Norman Mailer (Armies of the Night), Tom Wolfe (The Painted Word), and John McPhee (Annals of the Former World), all of whom Bernstein believes have changed American literature.