If you had asked me the question, “What is creative nonfiction?” five years ago, I probably would have shrugged and said, “I don’t know – boring?” However, once I actually started studying and writing this genre, I found that was far from the truth.
Part of the reason why so many readers and writers find it hard to pin creative nonfiction down is because it covers such as wide expanse of subjects and forms. If you find the right books – ones that are well-written and thoughtfully crafted to capture all the most intriguing parts of a narrative – true stories can be just as gripping and immersive as invented ones.
The discussion around what makes for creative nonfiction (and, to take it a step further, what makes for good creative nonfiction) is a complex one. For the purposes of this post, we’ll focus on the basics of what defines this genre. I’ll also share some popular examples so you can get idea of just how much variety it encompasses.
What Is Creative Nonfiction?
A long standing definition of the creative nonfiction genre, provided by Lee Gutkind, is simply:
True stories, well told.
I appreciate this definition because it addresses the two primary motivations of writers of this type of literature:
- To report or relay information, ideas, or narratives based in provable facts, actual events, or the opinions of real people.
- To do so via the use of literary devices and techniques, and well-crafted language.
Gutkind’s definition also leaves room for the enormous variety of works the genre includes. Biographical, historical, scientific, and religious writing sometimes cross into the realm of creative nonfiction. Some journalism may also qualify, as does memoir and some prose poetry.
Of course, this amount of wiggle room can make it hard to draw a firm line regarding whether some works qualify or not. Memory is faulty – can all memoir be verified as “true”? How do you determine if a piece of writing is elevated enough to be considered “literary”? If scenes or dialogue are reconstructed in order to make the writing more literary, does it lose its nonfiction-ness?
The short answer is that there are many opinions in publishing and literary criticism that will generally steer the decision one way or another. But that doesn’t mean that writers, readers, and students of literature don’t sometimes argue over the qualifications of certain works.
The 2 Key Elements of Creative Nonfiction
Even though the go-to definition of creative nonfiction is pretty straightforward, there’s a lot of wiggle room in how it can be interpreted. Let’s take a closer look at the two key elements that make this genre.
While writing something “true” might seem pretty straightforward, defining truth can actually get kind of complicated. It’s easy to say that writers shouldn’t fabricate hard facts or statistics. However, when it comes to subgenres such as memoir, truth can become more subjective.
One of the primary areas where this discussion comes into play is when creative nonfiction authors recreate scenes and dialogue from memory, based on interviews and reports from others, or even based on speculation and assumptions.
Some think this practice is fine as long as the essence of the writing is true. In other words, if something similar was said or done, and the scene is true to the characters and the general sequence of events that actually took place, then it’s okay if every word and action aren’t 100% factually accurate.
Others are more strict when it comes to what’s allowed to make its way into creative nonfiction. A common compromise is to acknowledge when you’re taking creative liberties. Referencing the faulty nature of memory, mentioning who you interviewed in order to recreate certain events, or beginning fully invented scenes with a qualifier such as “I imagine…” can help you avoid unintentionally side-stepping into fiction.
2. Literary Devices
Of course, you can write true stories and have them come out dry and boring or rambling and confusing. The second mark of the creative nonfiction genre is that authors pay special attention to their language and use of literary devices. This is what sets this type of writing apart from most journalism or basic reporting.
Good creative nonfiction usually tries to address some key theme, much like literary novels do. Some authors might also experiment with structure and form, or even look for symbolism in real objects that might highlight a certain point they want to make.
Again, to a certain extent, whether or not a piece of writing is “literary” is subjective. There may be some dissent among readers, other writers, academics, or critics regarding the merits of a nonfiction book. However, major disagreements aren’t terribly common. It’s usually fairly evident whether the writing is elevated enough.
Popular Examples of Creative Nonfiction
Let me give you a few examples so you can get a better idea of what creative nonfiction might entail. Many consider In Cold Blood by Truman Capote one of the earliest books of the genre:
There’s been some criticism of Capote’s methods of depicting the murders of the Clutter family, as it appears he fabricated some scenes and attempted to make one of the murderers a more sympathetic character.
In the realm of memoir, Mary Karr’s The Liar’s Club is often held up as one of the best in the genre:
It chronicles Karr’s childhood in Texas, including her family’s alcohol abuse, her mother’s mental illness, and life in a small industrial town.
If you’d like to see the extent of the range of subjects and styles creative nonfiction covers, I’d recommend checking out Creative Nonfiction Magazine:
Established by Lee Gutkind, who I mentioned earlier in this post, each issue deals with a different topic and includes several pieces from different writers. The magazine has featured essays on science and religion as well as memoir excerpts and much more.
Creative nonfiction is an expansive genre. It covers a massive range of subjects, styles, and forms, which can make it difficult to pin down what qualifies and what doesn’t.
It really boils down to two key components:
- The events and information in the piece are true.
- The writer has used literary devices and artistic language to convey the story or information.
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