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Creative Nonfiction: An Overview

Summary:

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

Contributors: McKinley Murphy
Last Edited: 2016-04-26 08:40:12

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.

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