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Contributors: McKinley Murphy.

This resource provides an introduction to creative nonfiction, including an overview of the genre and an explanation of major sub-genres.

Creative Nonfiction: An Overview

The Creative Nonfiction (CNF) genre can be rather elusive.  It is focused on story, meaning it has a narrative plot with an inciting moment, rising action, climax and denoument, just like fiction. However, nonfiction only works if the story is based in truth, an accurate retelling of the author’s life experiences. The pieces can vary greatly in length, just as fiction can; anything from a book-length autobiography to a 500-word food blog post can fall within the genre.

Additionally, the genre borrows some aspects, in terms of voice, from poetry; poets generally look for truth and write about the realities they see. While there are many exceptions to this, such as the persona poem, the nonfiction genre depends on the writer’s ability to render their voice in a realistic fashion, just as poetry so often does. Writer Richard Terrill, in comparing the two forms, writes that the voice in creative nonfiction aims “to engage the empathy” of the reader; that, much like a poet, the writer uses “personal candor” to draw the reader in.

Creative Nonfiction encompasses many different forms of prose.  As an emerging form, CNF is closely entwined with fiction. Many fiction writers make the cross-over to nonfiction occasionally, if only to write essays on the craft of fiction. This can be done fairly easily, since the ability to write good prose—beautiful description, realistic characters, musical sentences—is required in both genres.

So what, then, makes the literary nonfiction genre unique? 

The first key element of nonfiction—perhaps the most crucial thing— is that the genre relies on the author’s ability to retell events that actually happened. The talented CNF writer will certainly use imagination and craft to relay what has happened and tell a story, but the story must be true. You may have heard the idiom that “truth is stranger than fiction;” this is an essential part of the genre. Events—coincidences, love stories, stories of loss—that may be expected or feel clichéd in fiction can be respected when they occur in real life.

A writer of Creative Nonfiction should always be on the lookout for material that can yield an essay; the world at-large is their subject matter. Additionally, because Creative Nonfiction is focused on reality, it relies on research to render events as accurately as possible. While it’s certainly true that fiction writers also research their subjects (especially in the case of historical fiction), CNF writers must be scrupulous in their attention to detail.  Their work is somewhat akin to that of a journalist, and in fact, some journalism can fall under the umbrella of CNF as well. Writer Christopher Cokinos claims, “done correctly, lived well, delivered elegantly, such research uncovers not only facts of the world, but reveals and shapes the world of the writer” (93). In addition to traditional research methods, such as interviewing subjects or conducting database searches, he relays Kate Bernheimer’s claim that “A lifetime of reading is research:” any lived experience, even one that is read, can become material for the writer.

The other key element, the thing present in all successful nonfiction, is reflection. A person could have lived the most interesting life and had experiences completely unique to them, but without context—without reflection on how this life of experiences affected the writer—the reader is left with the feeling that the writer hasn’t learned anything, that the writer hasn’t grown. We need to see how the writer has grown because a large part of nonfiction’s appeal is the lessons it offers us, the models for ways of living: that the writer can survive a difficult or strange experience and learn from it. Sean Ironman writes that while “[r]eflection, or the second ‘I,’ is taught in every nonfiction course” (43), writers often find it incredibly hard to actually include reflection in their work.  He expresses his frustration that “Students are stuck on the idea—an idea that’s not entirely wrong—that readers need to think” (43), that reflecting in their work would over-explain the ideas to the reader. Not so. Instead, reflection offers “the crucial scene of the writer writing the memoir” (44), of the present-day writer who is looking back on and retelling the past. In a moment of reflection, the author steps out of the story to show a different kind of scene, in which they are sitting at their computer or with their notebook in some quiet place, looking at where they are now, versus where they were then; thinking critically about what they’ve learned. This should ideally happen in small moments, maybe single sentences, interspersed throughout the piece. Without reflection, you have a collection of scenes open for interpretation—though they might add up to nothing.

Contributors: McKinley Murphy.

This resource provides an introduction to creative nonfiction, including an overview of the genre and an explanation of major sub-genres.

Finding Your Footing: Sub-genres in Creative Nonfiction


Memoir is perhaps the “flagship” of creative nonfiction, the sub-genre most familiar to those outside of literary and academic circles. Most human beings lead interesting lives filled with struggle, conflict, drama, decisions, turning points, etc.; but not all of these stories translate into successful memoir. The success of the memoir depends on the writer’s ability to sequence events, to tell a story, and to describe characters in believable ways, among other things. Writer Carol Spindel reminds us that in the mid-2000s a scandal surrounding writer James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces erupted after he was forced to admit that large sections of his “memoir” were “fictionalized:” he’d embellished, made things up. A memoir that strays from the truth is not far removed from lying, because regardless of the writer’s intention, the story deceives the reader. Spindel writes that, unlike in novels, “The knowledge expressed in the memoir has the legitimacy acquired through first-hand experience.” Good memoir also provides reflection on the events that have happened to the writer, so it “can give readers insights into society, and even into the larger meaning of life itself” (Spindel).

The Braided Essay

The braided essay is a good tool for introducing writers—especially student writers—to the CNF genre.  In a braided essay, the writer has multiple “threads” or “through-lines” of material, each on a different subject. The essay is broken into sections using medial white space, lines of white space on a page where there are no words (much like stanzas in poetry), and each time there is a section break, the writer moves from one “thread” to another. Braided essays take their name from this alternating of storylines, as well as from the threads the story contains; there are usually three, though to have four or two is also possible. Though there is not a strict formula for success, the form usually contains at least one thread that is very personal and based on memory, and at least one thread that is heavily researched. Often, the threads seem very disparate at first, but by the climax of the essay, the threads being to blend together; connections are revealed.

Topical Writing

Perhaps the genre closest to an essay or a blog post, topical writing is an author’s take on a given topic of specific interest to the reader. For example, nature writing and travel writing have been popular for centuries, while food writing is gathering steam via cooking blogs. Nature writing involves exploring the writer’s experience in a beautiful and thoroughly rendered natural setting, such as a cabin on a mountaintop. Travel Writing, as the name implies, details the writer’s experiences while traveling, whether by choice on a vacation or out of necessity due to business or serving in the military. Finally, contemporary food writing explores the writer’s connection to cooking and enjoying food of any variety. All three will occasionally step into the writer’s personal experiences via memories, but these episodes are always related to the topic driving the essay.

Whatever form a creative nonfiction piece takes, it must remain based in the author’s actual lived experiences and perceptions. Like academic writing, the piece must be accurately researched and the sources must be documented. Finally, the author must also always leave room to reflect on how their experiences have shaped them into the person they are now.  It’s the reflection that makes the reader feel satisfied: it offers something to the reader that they can carry with them, a way of seeing the world.

Works Cited

Cokinos, Christopher. “Organized Curiosity: Creative Writers and the Research Life.”  Writer’s Chronicle 42.7: April/May 2015. 92-104. Print.

Ironman, Sean. “Writing the Z-Axis: Reflection in the Nonfiction Workshop.” Writer’s

Chronicle 47.1: September 2014. 42-49. Print.

Spindel, Carol. "When Ambiguity Becomes Deception: The Ethics of Memoir." Writer's

Chronicle (2007): n. pag. AWP. Association of Writing Programs, 1 Dec. 2007. Web. 13

Sept. 2015.

Terrill, Richard. "Creative Nonfiction and Poetry." Writer's Chronicle (2004): n. pag. AWP.

Association of Writing Programs, Oct.-Nov. 2004. Web. 3 Oct. 2015.