What Is Creative Nonfiction? Help
What is Creative Nonfiction?
Simply put, this form of creative writing encompasses all prose that is not "untrue." While fiction supposes artifice, nonfiction supposes truthfulness. In nonfiction, writers have a contract with the reader about being truthful—if they are imagining something, they must let the reader know that is what they are doing. If they know their memory may be inaccurate, they must admit this in some way that the reader recognizes they are only human, telling a story as best as they remember it. If they believe they are making something up as a way of coping with reality, then that explanation must become part of the writing. When the writer breaks the contract of being as truthful as possible with the reader, the product is no longer creative nonfiction but semi-fictionalized prose some call "faction," a genre to which Truman Capote and Norman Mailer contributed.
In his book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, Philip Gerard notes how odd it is that nonfiction is named, "not by what it is," but by "what it is not." He points out that it is like "defining classical music as nonjazz or sculpture as nonpainting." It seems, he says, that poetry and fiction rose to the fore of the written arts and in the minds of literary critics overshadowed the more ubiquitous form of writing that pre-existed both of them.
Perhaps the handiest way to differentiate nonfiction from fiction is to say, as Gerard does in quoting Pulitzer Prize winner Ron Powers, that
The nonfiction act… satisfies our hunger for the real and our need to make sense, make order, out of chaos.
That hunger grows in times of conflict and uncertainty. As contemporary people struggle with changing climate, technology, and theology, as well as finding a place in a global world, the various forms of creative nonfiction from reflections to memoir to personal submersion in diverse cultures and conflicts become more and more popular among writers and readers. As our entertainment industry becomes more and more polished, so grows our hunger for nonair-brushed versions of things. We want to know what it is like for others whom Hollywood has not recast and remodeled. We are willing to accept that any particular nonfiction writer has a specific, personalized version of events. That knowledge endears us to the writer, who yearns to understand experience, and in that yearning creates accounts that help us understand our own experiences. For decades, novels and heroes in epic poems helped us through human foibles and disasters. Today, the work that helps us might more frequently be nonfiction accounts by ethnic minorities suffering the obstacles of assimilation or the work of those who have overcome difficult illnesses, survived war, or won or not won against other challenging odds.
Why Do People Write Creative Nonfiction?
In Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Suzanne Paola and Brenda Miller, Miller writes that the genre of creative nonfiction allows her "to discover new aspects" of herself and the world, "to forge surprising metaphors, to create artistic order out of life's chaos." She says, "I am never bored writing in this genre, but always jazzed by the new ways I can stretch my writing muscles."
Philip Lopate uses the word "borders" when he describes creative nonfiction in his book The Art of the Personal Essay. He asserts that personal essayists in particular investigate "the borders of the self." Memoirist Abigail Thomas writes in Thinking About Memoir, "Writing memoir is a way to figure out who you used to be and how you got to be who you are…(The word memory comes from the same root as the word mourn, and that should tell you something.)"
I believe that by writing personal essay and memoir, we are creating a blueprint for an experience or experiences we already lived, but for which we couldn't yet see a design that contained meaning.
Sports writers, nature enthusiasts, travelers, and those whose interest is piqued by a mystery, unsolved crime, or a cultural happening write creative nonfiction to explore both an inner and an outer story or journey. As Adam Hochschild describes in Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers' Guide, edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call, the work of the creative nonfiction travel writer is to enter a world not his own; in doing so he or she notices much more and sees things normally missed. This leads to a feeling of being more alive.
The same goes for writing about nature, sports, or mysteries. By entering into this world not our own, we learn about something outside of ourselves, and, as a consequence of looking hard outside of ourselves but through our own emotional lens, we learn more than we could have imagined about ourselves.
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