There has been a rise of a genre called “creative nonfiction” in the last decade. Or at least a rise of calling it that.
Creative nonfiction, also called literary nonfiction and narrative nonfiction, is when writers use prose and storytelling to create a narrative — but the story is true.
Like John McPhee, a pioneer of creative nonfiction, wrote in his piece “Omission” in The New Yorker, “Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.”
Like other nonfiction, these stories are real, true things that happened. But the telling of them is how they differ.
Common types of writing considered creative nonfiction are biographies and autobiographies, memoirs, self-help, literary journalism, travel writing, and personal essays.
Think about it like this: A newspaper reporter is giving the facts of an event, usually in chronological order. They say what happened and move on. Someone writing a memoir is writing the real, true story of their life but in a way that tells a story and usually from the first-person point of view.
Creative nonfiction is fact-based but interesting to read. The creative part is in the retelling of the story.
As Lee Gutkind, author of The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol 1 and creator of Creative Nonfiction magazine, says, “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.”
Accuracy Is Still Important
Creative nonfiction is still nonfiction. At its core, it still needs to be a true story that actually happened. It is not a dry retelling, more like sitting around a campfire and telling your friends a story of something happening to you.
But accuracy is incredibly important. If something is marketed as a true story, it needs to be real. If not, the author’s ethics are called into question.
When something is proven untrue, it affects the entire publishing world and casts doubt on other, similar works. Two authors who exaggerated their experiences or outright lied were James Frey, when his 2006 book A Million Little Pieces was revealed to have experiences that were completely fabricated, despite saying it was a true memoir, and Margaret Seltzer (writing as Margaret B. Jones), author of Love and Consequences. It turned out the experiences she wrote about growing up as a half white and half Native American foster child and gang member were lies.
Unlike journalism, creative nonfiction does not call for objectivity. It is often a first-person retelling of real events and experiences, therefore we get the personal subjectivity from the writer.
How to Write Creative Nonfiction
Creative nonfiction is almost approached like a novel. You have scenes and stories and experiences and pull them together to tell the entire overarching story. The scenes and stories are real — the same way your personal experiences and stories you share with friends are real.
Using techniques like prose, elements of playwriting, and poetry, creative nonfiction is just another way to say that the stories are true and interesting to read. They capture attention in the same way a novel does. They create a narrative, characters readers emotionally invest in, and have a beginning, middle, and end.
Authors of creative nonfiction maintain that their work is accurate and real, as that is the true building block of the genre. They simply employ writing techniques to make it a story instead of a list of facts.
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