Wednesday, November 24, 2010

Telling the Truth: Creative Non-fiction

Hello Writers!

We've talked a lot about various aspects of poetry and fictional prose in recent posts, but today I thought I'd throw a bone to a sometimes neglected genre of creative writing: creative non-fiction. I first encountered creative non-fiction as a formal genre in Writing 123, back in my freshman year of college. Before that, I had thought very little about creative non-fiction, except in terms of the memoir.  But in fact, memoir is just one form of creative non-fiction. Other forms include the personal essay, travel writing, food writing, autobiography, and the literary journalism essay. In each of these forms, truth telling is our task.

Creative Non-fiction 
Writing creative non-fiction is sometimes a difficult thing to do, because the task of truth telling often presents the writer with cognitive challenges. These challenges have to do with the way our brains remember things. When we recount an event or personal experience on paper, we are negotiating between the past and the present. Our brains are constantly "updating" past experiences according to present criterion. Nicole Dudukovic, writing for Psychology Today, admits that sometimes "the truth and nothing but the truth" isn't always possible, and she asks a pertinent question:

"Remembering by its very nature is a reconstructive process that often leads to distortion. We piece together our memories from the fragments of life's events that we've retained. We don't have exact copies of events stored in our brains. Our memories of life experiences are influenced by our unique perspective during the experiences as well as at the time of remembering. The myriad of events that occur and the vast knowledge that we gain throughout our lives influence our memories of the past. If our autobiographical memories are always reconstructed and influenced by our current perspective, is writing an accurate memoir ever possible?"

One example of this, from a sociological point of view, is how many of us, after experiencing something that we view as having transformed us in some way, will interpret past experiences as situations that prepared us or predisposed us to arrive at our current conception of ourselves or our worldview.

Nonetheless, writers of creative non-fiction, including memoir, are called to give an account that is honest and sincere. And this is only fitting, since creative non-fiction is often an attempt to capture and describe real events that are important to us or to our society. In many cases, the truth is the most beautiful or most necessary thing to write about.

Creative Non-fiction
We shouldn't forget that creative non-fiction is not just a recording of events; it is an art. It is truth telling, but it is always story-telling. Philip Gerard, author of the instructional book, Creative Non-Fiction; Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, lists five characteristics of creative non-fiction that imbue it with "literariness."

First, creative non-fiction has an apparent subject and a deeper subject. The apparent subject is the immediate, active force at work. This subject can be extraordinary or mundane, but it must capture the interest of the reader, and be able to effectively transport the reader from point A to point B in the narrative. The deeper subject is something that underpins the whole narrative. It may be a meditation on the bigger picture you as the writer are trying to convey through the retelling of events.

Second, works of creative non-fiction should are released from the usual journalistic requirements of timeliness.. Most creative non-fiction is marked by a sense of the writer's urgency to write about the subject while it is fresh and potent, but that doesn't mean we shouldn't let ideas percolate inside of us for awhile. Gerard says it well: "Long after the the apparent subject ceases to be topical, the deeper subject and the art that expresses it remain vital." I would even say that it sometimes takes time for ourselves, as writers, to understand that vitality fully.

Third, creative non-fiction is narrative. It always tells a good story. It employs the traditional structure of narrative, with a basic premise or set-up, complications, climax, and resolution.

Fourth, creative non-fiction contains a sense of reflection. The reader should get the sense that the writer has asked thoughtful questions about the experiences he or she is trying to convey, and that these experiences have made an indelible mark on him or her.

Fifth, creative non-fiction pays close attention to the craft of writing. Creative writers, whether they are writing poetry, fiction, or non-fiction, will endeavor to make the words come alive for the reader, using interesting turns of phrase, lively metaphors, the element of suspense, et cetera.

What about you? Have you experimented with creative non-fiction? How do you go about writing about your personal experiences an/or specific events in your life? Sometimes writers can feel a certain tension between the qualifiers of "creative" and "non-fiction". Do these tensions exist for you? Why or why not?


  1. As you know from reading my blog, I am all about creative non-fiction. My understanding of non-fiction narrative has definitely expanded over the last year; I no longer try to use a "just the facts, ma'am" approach, instead endevouring to draw my readers into the emotive memory. I have an idea percolating in the back of my mind, for a fiction-non-fiction narrative... I'll let you know how that goes.

  2. For sure; I have indeed read your posts, and you do a great job of conveying the experiences of your life in a creative way. I believe that in creative non-fiction, the writer does have some license with the narrative. There should always be that leeway there, enabling the writer to "stretch" things, as it were, while keeping the essentials intact.

  3. I think my creative non-fiction comes from having kept a journal and seeing that true stories, people's own personal stories are just as powerful if not more so then a fictional story. I think it's common people think their own lives are boring day in and day out routines and events that a fictional story gives them a way of an escape from such boredom. I think real life is just as fascinating, but that comes from how I look at things in this fictional way I see my non-fictional life as really exciting!
    Isn't that funny?



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