Exploring Truth through Nonfiction

Author Brandon Schrand demonstrated the breadth of creative nonfiction by sharing his writing from past and forthcoming books in an English Reading Series lecture.

Brandon SchrandPROVO, Utah (February 27, 2015)—The difference between a personal essay and a book about history may seem large, but award-winning author Brandon Schrand, speaking in an English Reading Series lecture, said the gap is smaller than you might think. From his works, he demonstrated how creative nonfiction in all its forms uses individuals and events as stepping stones to greater understanding.

Schrand first shared readings from his book of personal essays Works Cited: An Alphabetical Odyssey of Mayhem and Misbehavior, which he wrote in the style of an extended works cited list. Every entry on the list begins with a book he had read in the past and somehow ties into a personal experience or lesson from his life. Titles like The Great Gatsby and The Mad Scientists’ Club serve as jumping points for a huge collection of stories, everything from a family train ride to meeting a college roommate.

Because the list is organized alphabetically instead of chronologically, Schrand recognized that he would have to form “through-lines” – connecting threads or themes that tie a book together – for the reader’s benefit. Schrand explained, “One of the through-lines is navigating that weird space between boyhood and manhood, between reality and fiction.” He identified other through-lines as coming to terms with his rural Idaho upbringing and reconciling it with his academic pursuits.

Despite the very personal nature of most of his writing, Schrand has delved into narrative nonfiction as well – telling others’ stories or stories from history. He’s currently working on a new book of essays, The Man Who Sold God: The Cult of Psychiana, the Great Depression, and the Rise of Self-Help America. The book concerns Frank B. Robinson, a spiritual leader who founded Psychiana (1928), which Schrand described as the world’s first mail-order, money-back guarantee religion and a forerunner of self-help religions. The movement reached its height of popularity during the Great Depression, and Robinson was able to amass a fortune during the nation’s worst financial years.

Schrand said he came across the story by accident and initially thought that it would provide interesting material for an essay. However, as he researched, he began to see more possibilities. He said, “The more I started looking at it, the more I realized that the story was a lot bigger than one man and his movement.” He saw how the story held implications for American self-help in general, which originated in the Great Depression. What began as an essay quickly developed into a full book as he looked into the testimonials of people whose lives were changed by Robinson’s work and examined how those same sentiments exist in today’s self-help campaigns.

When asked, Schrand explained that his transition from personal nonfiction to narrative nonfiction wasn’t a leap but a natural move, saying, “Nonfiction is such a broad genre – biography, history, essays, memoir, autobiography – that I always want to work a different set of muscles.” He explained that even when he writes personal essays, the essays aren’t about himself but the ideas that a story or experience epitomize. Likewise, when he is writing about Robinson or other moments from history, the narrative is always larger than the people involved.

For more information about the English Reading Series and upcoming speakers, visit the series’ calendar.

—Samuel Wright (B.A. American Studies ’16)

Image Courtesy of Brandon Schrand