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Words to the Wise

Creative Nonfiction: A Tricky Business

In Creative Nonfiction: Isn't That an Oxymoron?, I introduced you to creative nonfiction, that apparent oxymoron so beautifully explored by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola in Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (1st ed., 2005). Creative nonfiction poses particular challenges; Miller and Paolo call it "a tricky business." On the one hand, the writer is striving to turn real life into art. On the other hand, she must deal with the issues that come attached with that "real life." Can you, for example, when writing from your own memory, place a character in an imaginative place because you don't exactly remember the scene? Can you, in order to set up the scene properly, simply create the characters you need? Can you, because you don't remember the dialogue verbatim, put words in a character's mouth? In short, how much of your imagination can you use?

Tell It Slant spends many pages on these basic questions of creative nonfiction. Central to the issues is that, whatever you are writing about, it is "the self that inhabits the prose of creative nonfiction." This "I" picks and chooses among the facts, re-creates the essential scenes, makes crucial decisions about what to include and what to exclude, decides on the opening line that will set up the voice of the piece. Say the authors, "The 'I' gives the essay its personality, both literally and figuratively."

But, as you create this persona for your piece, you are establishing a relationship between yourself and your reader, a relationship that goes to the heart of creative nonfiction: "In creative nonfiction—more so, perhaps, than in any other genre—readers assume a real person behind the artifice, an author who speaks directly to the reader." For this relationship to work, the writer must establish a level of trust—a "pact with the reader." Your reader will assume, because you are presenting your work as a piece of nonfiction, that this is a "true story," rooted in the real world. In return for this assumption—this faith in you as a writer—you must "pledge ... both to be as honest as possible with the reader and to make this conversation worthwhile."


Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction. New York: McGraw-Hill, 2005. Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction is now in its third edition, published in 2019.

Words to the Wise on creative nonfiction:

Creative Nonfiction? Isn't That an Oxymoron?

Creative Nonfiction: A Tricky Business

Creative Nonfiction Revisited

Taking the Risk—Writing About Those We Know

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