Creative Nonfiction: What Is It and How to Write It
When boiled down, creative nonfiction can be defined as a true story told using the elements of fiction. The nonfiction part of the phrase means the story is well-researched, relies on facts, and uses real people and events. The creative part of the phrase does NOT mean made up; it means the story is told through scenes, has a narrative arc, and uses techniques fiction has mastered. Creative nonfiction strives to engage a reader through their senses and story while imparting factual knowledge.
In Born to Run: A Hidden, Tribe, Superathletes, and the Greatest Race the World Has Never Seen Christopher McDougal doesn’t simply state his running injury diagnosis nor does he exaggerate or underplay it. Instead he shares:
I was out on an easy three-mile jog on a snowy farm road when I suddenly whined in pain, grabbing my right foot and screaming curses . . . “Running is your problem,” Dr. Joe Torg confirmed when I limped into his Philadelphia examine room a few days later . . . I’d aggravated my cuboid, a cluster of bones parallel to the arch that I hadn’t even known existed (8).
McDougal shows the reader through a scene his injury and his visit to the doctor. He shares his pain, thoughts, and emotions about both, allowing himself to become a full character in his story instead of just a reporter. He shows his reader his experience instead of telling them. This is why creative nonfiction is successful and popular: it makes the truth real and entertaining through description, dialogue, and other fiction techniques.
Form: The Shape of a Text
One way authors can get creative with nonfiction is through form. A creative nonfiction piece can be an essay, article, memoir, poem, or hybrid work among other shapes. Many people think of nonfiction as a chronological account of a discovery or event. Creative nonfiction tosses such constraints aside in order to capture the emotion and lessons of an event or experience.
Just because a story is true doesn’t mean it has to be told in a linear prose style. Linda Kinnamon’s memoir Alchemy of the Afterlife weaves two timelines together: her professional experiences as a hospice nurse and the key moments in her childhood where she got up close and personal with death. By braiding these two timelines together, Kinnamon is able to show her readers what happens when people pass away both as an adult in the medical field and a child. If Kinnamon began her memoir with her childhood, it would probably no longer be considered a memoir and would not leave her readers with the same message about what happens after we die.
Patrik Ourednik takes non-linear chronology even farther. In Europeana: A Brief History of the Twentieth Century Ourednik circles through facts from Europe and America in the twentieth century, creating a spiral of information, horrors from war, and everyday life. This builds a rhythm and childlike narration. By not commenting on the facts he’s reporting, Ourednik creates an objective, omniscient point of view rarely seen in historical texts. Such objectivity would be difficult to obtain with a linear story structure. The form of Europeana is what makes the novel.
Poetry is the oldest form of storytelling. Because rhymes and rhythms make a story easier to remember, epic poems were used by bards and other spinners of tales before the written word. While poetry’s mainstream popularity has fallen since then, it’s emotional impact and truths have not diminished. Many poems are autobiographical, attempting to convey the author’s emotions and inner life during a particular moment or event. These are the creative nonfiction poems.
Rupi Kaur’s Milk and Honey collection is an outstanding example of creative nonfiction poetry. Broken into four parts, her collection touches on different perceptions of a women’s body, love and lust, relationship pain, and more. Her poignant poems are vulnerable, packed with emotion, and connect deep inside her readers. For example, this poem from part two “the loving” captures how the people you love the most are both your greatest ally and worst enemy:
your name is
positive and negative
connotation in any language
it either lights me up or
leaves me aching for days (67)
The name represents the person Kaur is referring to. This kind of complex relationship with someone else is something many readers can relate to and Kaur’s factual experience.
Distance from Reader
Creative nonfiction can delve into a single person’s experience to share a universal truth or emotion, or it can show the panoramic view of an event or life. The choice in point of view and authorial insights controls how close to the real-life characters readers feel.
In Milk and Honey Kaur’s relationship with her lover’s name is both incredibly personal and universal. By sharing her feelings and experiences, she helps others better understand their own emotions and what is causing them. However, the experiences and events Kaur focuses on are her own, and the point of view she most often uses is first person. Her poems are raw, personal, and subjective like a memoir. Memoirs and Kaur’s poetry zoom in on a specific perspective in order to convey their authors’ emotions, opinions, and experiences. Readers are as close to the narrating character (the author) as they can be.
Literary journalism, popular science, and books like Europeana have a greater distance from the characters because the authors are writing about people other than themselves. They cannot know what the characters (real people) were thinking or feeling, so they cannot dip into the character’s inner life without letters or diary entries. Instead, they must focus on the events and experiences of the characters to build the story. This often pushes these creative nonfiction texts into omniscient or distant third person points of view, creating a detachment between the reader and the characters. While this distance can be off-putting, it reinforces the truthfulness and factual nature of creative nonfiction, making the stories more believable.
Thoughts on Creative Nonfiction from an Editor
Factual Wiggle Room
While creative nonfiction is factual, authors do have a smidge of wiggle room. If you are writing about someone else and they are dumped, it is safe to assume they will feel the pains of rejection. Through your research, you should get to know the people of your piece well-enough to show some of their emotions; however, if you show too many thoughts and emotions you don’t have the evidence to support, your story will become fiction.
One place authors of creative nonfiction are expected to use creative license is dialogue. People don’t walk around recording all of their conversations and filing them as public record. In order to design full scenes with dialogue and develop characters, authors will have to create dialogue based on facts. In the excerpt from Born to Run, Dr. Thorp probably didn’t say “Running is your problem” in exactly that way, but the statement is the gist of what he was trying to get across. As creative nonfiction writers, it is up to you to decide how to phrase dialogue and where to put it to keep your story factual and entertaining.
My favorite kind of nonfiction to read is creative nonfiction because it reads like fiction and is true. When events and experiences are shown through scenes, have a narrative arc, and reveal people’s emotions, they are engaging, interesting, and entertaining. When they are true, they become awe-inspiring and shocking. Just because a story really happened, doesn’t mean it needs to be reported as a series of facts. It can be told in scene through a memoir, as a cyclical, memorizing collection of events, or through poetry. An author can invite readers into their intimate life experience or build a wider perspective through a panoramic view of events. The form and distance from your readers is up to you. If you want to learn more about this genre, a good starting place is Creative Nonfiction.org. Now it’s your turn to find out how creative nonfiction can Ignite Your Ink.
Do you find creative nonfiction difficult to write? I’d love to hear about your experiences with it in the comments. To learn more about the books I referenced, click on their image below. For a list of writing books every writer should explore, subscribe to Ignite Your Ink blog.
Ignite Your Ink is written by editor and author Caitlin Berve. She holds a MFA in Creative Writing and Poetics, actively participates in multiple writers’ organizations, and is dedicated to helping writers produce content that leaves an impression on readers.