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Words to the Wise

Creative Nonfiction Revisited

How often have you heard the question asked in your critique group, "Is this creative nonfiction? Is that what I've written here?" Writers can be forgiven for not being sure, as the label and the genre it represents are still fairly new. But one thing is certain: creative nonfiction has become hugely popular and, done well, can be among the most pleasurable of reads.

What distinguishes creative nonfiction from other forms of nonfiction are the styles and elements of craft it employs. Nonfiction focuses on ideas and facts and uses various forms of explanation and exposition to bring information to readers. Creative nonfiction, while solidly grounded in research and issues, tells a story, using the elements of literature and fiction. Nothing in the nature of storytelling or narration is out of bounds. The unfolding of scene, the revelation of character, the suspense of plot—even the devices of poetry and screenwriting—can be part of bringing a piece of creative nonfiction to life. Theme, imaginative research and precise language are as central to it as to any form of storytelling.

But there is another, even more important, distinguishing feature that sets creative nonfiction apart: the presence of the author, the "I." In most forms of nonfiction, the author does not enter in, or does so cautiously, careful to avoid being seen as intruding on the purpose of the writing or the information being communicated. In creative nonfiction, the author, either implicitly or explicitly, is present in the work. Just think about the more popular forms of creative nonfiction—memoir, personal essay, travel writing, and journals or letters. These usually feature the author, or if not the author, then real people and real events the author knows intimately through personal or some other connection. In some way, the piece is a personal statement, and readers come away from it knowing the author better. As one writer put it, the genre of creative nonfiction evolved because "we [writers] like delivering the knock on the door ourselves."

Creative nonfiction offers flexibility and freedom not common to many other genres. Writers can be both poetic and journalistic, while becoming part of the story or essay if they so choose.

Sources:

Barrie Jean Borich, What is Creative Nonfiction Writing?

Trevor Carolan, "The Politics of Writing," 1990 (full publication information unknown; email me if you would like the article)

Elizabeth Lyon, A Writer’s Guide to Nonfiction, New York: Perigree, 2003.

Other Words to the Wise on creative nonfiction:

Creative Nonfiction? Isn't That an Oxymoron?

Creative Nonfiction: A Tricky Business

Taking the Risk—Writing About Those We Know

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