Creative Nonfiction in Writing Courses
Creative nonfiction is a broad term and encompasses many different forms of writing. This resource focuses on the three basic forms of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, the memoir essay, and the literary journalism essay. A short section on the lyric essay is also discussed.
The Personal Essay
The personal essay is commonly taught in first-year composition courses because students find it relatively easy to pick a topic that interests them, and to follow their associative train of thoughts, with the freedom to digress and circle back.
The point to having students write personal essays is to help them become better writers, since part of becoming a better writer is the ability to express personal experiences, thoughts and opinions. Since academic writing may not allow for personal experiences and opinions, writing the personal essay is a good way to allow students further practice in writing.
The goal of the personal essay is to convey personal experiences in a convincing way to the reader, and in this way is related to rhetoric and composition, which is also persuasive. A good way to explain a personal essay assignment to a more goal-oriented student is simply to ask them to try to persuade the reader about the significance of a particular event.
Most high-school and first-year college students have plenty of experiences to draw from, and they are convinced about the importance of certain events over others in their lives. Often, students find their strongest conviction in the process of writing, and the personal essay is a good way to get students to start exploring these possibilities in writing.
A personal essay assignment can work well as a prelude to a research paper, because personal essays will help students understand their own convictions better, and will help prepare them to choose research topics that interest them.
An Example and Discussion of a Personal Essay
The following excerpt from Wole Soyinka's (Nigerian Nobel Laureate) Why Do I Fast? is an example of a personal essay. What follows is a short discussion of Soyinka's essay.
Soyinka begins with a question that fascinates him. He doesn’t feel required to immediately answer the question in the second paragraph. Rather, he takes time to consider his own inclination to believe that there is a connection between fasting and sensuality.
Soyinka follows the flowing associative arc of his thoughts, and he goes on to write about sunsets, and quotes from a poem that he wrote in his cell. The essay ends, not on a restatement of his thesis, but on yet another question that arises:
This question remains unanswered. Soyinka is not interested in even attempting to answer it. The personal essay doesn’t necessarily seek to make sense out of life experiences; rather, personal essays tend to let go of that sense-making impulse to do something else, like nose around a bit in the wondering, uncertain space that lies between experience and the need to organize it in a logical manner.
However informal the personal essay may seems, it’s important to keep in mind that, as Dinty W. Moore says in The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, “the essay should always be motivated by the author’s genuine interest in wrestling with complex questions.”
Generating Ideas for Personal Essays
In The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, Moore goes on to explain an effective way to help students generate ideas for personal essays:
“Think about ten things you care about deeply: the environment, children in poverty, Alzheimer’s research (because your grandfather is a victim), hip-hop music, Saturday afternoon football games. Make your own list of ten important subjects, and then narrow the larger subject down to specific subjects you might write about. The environment? How about that bird sanctuary out on Township Line Road that might be torn down to make room for a megastore?..."
"...What is it like to be the food service worker who puts mustard on two thousand hot dogs every Saturday afternoon? Don’t just wonder about it - talk to the mustard spreader, spend an afternoon hanging out behind the counter, spread some mustard yourself. Transform your list of ten things into a longer list of possible story ideas. Don’t worry for now about whether these ideas would take a great amount of research, or might require special permission or access. Just write down a master list of possible stories related to your ideas and passions. Keep the list. You may use it later.”
It is this flexibility of form in the personal essay that makes it easy for students who are majoring in engineering, nutrition, graphic design, finance, management, etc. to adapt, learn and practice. The essay can be a more worldly form of writing than poetry or fiction, so students from various backgrounds, majors, jobs and cultures can express interesting and powerful thoughts and feelings in them.
The essay is more worldly than poetry and fiction in another sense: it allows for more of the world and its languages, its arts and food, its sport and business, its travel and politics, its sciences and entertainment, to be present, valid and important.
The Personal Memoir
Because the personal memoir is more demanding than the personal essay, for both writer and reader, it doesn’t fit into introductory courses as well as the personal essay. An intermediate level course is a good place to introduce the memoir. However, if the instructor takes the time to explain and introduce the memoir form, it can be adapted for introductory courses.
Difference Between the Personal Essay and the Memoir
While the personal essay can be about almost anything, the memoir tends to discuss past events. Memoir is similar to the personal essay, except that the memoir tends to focus more on striking or life-changing events. The personal essay can be a relatively light reflection about what’s going on in your life right now.
Where the personal essay explores, free from any need to interpret, the memoir interprets, analyzes, and seeks the deeper meaning beneath the surface experience of particular events. The memoir continually asks the following questions:
- Why was this event of particular significance?
- What did it mean?
- Why is it important?
In this sense, the memoir is heavier than the personal essay, and it mines the past to shed light on the present. The memoir seeks to make sense of an individual life. The questions that are left unanswered in Wole Soyinka’s essay from the personal essay resource, Why do I Fast? are answered in the memoir.
Generating Ideas for Personal Memoirs
Moore’s memoir exercise from The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction is useful in both beginning and intermediate courses:
“Make a list of six to ten events or circumstances in your own life, or the lives of those very close to you, that still provoke your curiosity. Mine your own life for the events and circumstances that still raise questions in your mind. Once you have the list (and this list should be private - don’t share it with others - and don’t hold back because you think someone else will be looking), pick one of the questions on the list that you are willing to explore.“
The potential questions Moore asks in this exercise are meant to be answered in the memoir. While the memoir tries to make sense of experience, it also shares something in common with the personal essay - the exploration of the question, and the process of trying to arrive at an answer, is at least as important as the answer or resolution you may arrive at.
Writing the memoir is not a simple Q & A with yourself; rather, the complicated process of trying to seek the answers is what makes the memoir engaging to write, and read. Here is an example from Carlos Fuentes’ How I Started to Write:
Fuentes is constantly questioning and answering, interpreting and analyzing his experience, trying to make sense of why and how he did what he did in order to become a writer. He seeks answers and tries to make sense of his life by interpreting his own experience, the cultural and political life of his time, the meaning of language and literary influence, and by stepping over imagined nationalist borders.
Literary journalism is another essay form that is best reserved for intermediate and advanced level courses, but it can be incorporated into introductory and composition courses. Literary journalism is the creative nonfiction form that comes closest to newspaper and magazine writing. It is fact-driven and requires research and, often, interviews.
Literary journalism is sometimes called “immersion journalism” because it requires a closer, more active relationship to the subject and to the people the literary journalist is exploring. Like journalistic writing, the literary journalism piece should be well-researched, focus on a brief period of time, and concentrate on what is happening outside of the writer’s small circle of personal experience and feelings.
An Example and Discussion of a Literary Journalism
The following excerpt from George Orwell is a good example of literary journalism. Orwell wrote about the colonial regime in Marrakech. His father was a colonial officer, so Orwell was confronted with the reality of empire from an early age, and that experience is reflected in his literary journalism piece, Marrakech:
Orwell isn’t writing a reflective, personal essay about his travels through Marrakech. Neither is he writing a memoir about what it was like to be the son of a colonial officer, and how that experience shaped his adult life. He writes in a descriptive way about the Jewish quarters in Marrakech, about the invisibility of the “natives,” and about the way citizenship doesn’t ensure equality under a colonial regime.
Generating Ideas for Literary Journalism
One way to incorporate literary journalism into an introductory or intermediate level course is simply to have students write personal essays first. Then the students can go back and research the facts behind the personal experiences related in their essays. They can incorporate historical data, interviews, or broaden the range of their personal essay by exploring the cultural or political issues hinted at in their personal essays.
If a student writes, in passing, about the first presidential candidate they were eligible to vote for, then she can include facts and figures around that particular election, as well as research other events that were current at that time, for example. As with other essay forms, students should find topics that are important to them.
Because the lyric essay is a new, hybrid form that combines poetry with essay, this form should be taught only at the intermediate to advanced levels. Even professional essayists aren’t certain about what constitutes a lyric essay, and lyric essays disagree about what makes up the form. For example, some of the “lyric essays” in magazines like The Seneca Review have been selected for the Best American Poetry series, even though the “poems” were initially published as lyric essays.
A good way to teach the lyric essay is in conjunction with poetry (see the Purdue OWL's resource on teaching Poetry in Writing Courses). After students learn the basics of poetry, they may be prepared to learn the lyric essay. Lyric essays are generally shorter than other essay forms, and focus more on language itself, rather than storyline. Contemporary author Sherman Alexie has written lyric essays, and to provide an example of this form, we provide an excerpt from his Captivity:
"He (my captor) gave me a biscuit, which I put in my
pocket, and not daring to eat it, buried it under a log, fear-
ing he had put something in it to make me love him.
FROM THE NARRATIVE OF MRS. MARY ROWLANDSON,
WHO WAS TAKEN CAPTIVE WHEN THE WAMPANOAG
DESTROYED LANCASTER, MASSACHUSETS, IN 1676"
"I remember your name, Mary Rowlandson. I think of you now, how necessary you have become. Can you hear me, telling this story within uneasy boundaries, changing you into a woman leaning against a wall beneath a HANDICAPPED PARKING ONLY sign, arrow pointing down directly at you? Nothing changes, neither of us knows exactly where to stand and measure the beginning of our lives. Was it 1676 or 1976 or 1776 or yesterday when the Indian held you tight in his dark arms and promised you nothing but the sound of his voice?"
Alexie provides no straightforward narrative here, as in a personal essay; in fact, each numbered section is only loosely related to the others. Alexie doesn’t look into his past, as memoirists do. Rather, his lyric essay is a response to a quote he found, and which he uses as an epigraph to his essay.
Though the narrator’s voice seems to be speaking from the present, and addressing a woman who lived centuries ago, we can’t be certain that the narrator’s voice is Alexie’s voice. Is Alexie creating a narrator or persona to ask these questions? The concept and the way it’s delivered is similar to poetry. Poets often use epigraphs to write poems. The difference is that Alexie uses prose language to explore what this epigraph means to him.
Creative Nonfiction Assignments
Sample Assignment: Personal Memoir
Make another list of ten events in your life that are important to you and provoke your curiosity. Often, this list contains events that are still mysterious to you in some way, and that intrigues you in a way that you can’t quite make concrete conclusions about. Write down all the questions that come to mind around these events. Make a list of questions. Essay ideas often arise out of an exploration of these questions (adapted from Dinty W. Moore).
Sample Assignment: Lyric Essay
Wayne Koestenbaum’s lyric essay, Assignments, provides good prompts for writing your own lyric essays:
- Make a list of media you gave up (e.g. watercolors). Say why.
- Quote from a line from a novel or a poem. Selfishly manipulate and misuse the quote.
- From memory, describe a scene from a movie you haven’t watched in years. Then, see the movie again and write a second description of the scene.
Becky Bradway and Doug Hesse. Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology. Bedford/St. Martin, 2009.
Phillip Lopate, editor. The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present. Doubleday, 1994.
Dinty W. Moore. The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. Pearson Longman, 2007.
Mary Oliver and Robert Atwan, editors. The Best American Essays 2009. Mariner Books, 2009.