Last week, in the first installment of this semester’s weekly posts and in the first class of our creative writing workshop, we asked, “What does it mean to ‘read like a writer?'” In this second week, we’re going to take a stab at defining just exactly what creative nonfiction is.
There’s one problem — there is no “exactly” about it. If you ask different writers, teachers, and editors to define “creative nonfiction,” you often get very different answers. Creative nonfition can cover a variety of genres or sub-genres; the text we’re using in our class (The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction) offers examples of a number of formats of the genre: essays, memoirs, personal reportage, personal cultural criticism, and alternative nonfictions, which in itself encompasses brief nonfiction, blogs, graphic memoir, the lyric essay, video essays, and visual essays.
So let’s backtrack for a moment. What is creative nonfiction? A very general definition might note that the creative nonfiction genre is, much as the nomenclature indicates, not fiction. It’s not the creation of a story, plot, characters, and places solely from the imagination (although some might argue that that’s not what fiction is). Creative nonfiction, we might say, involves the re-telling of true stories – things that actually happened to people who actually exist or existed. To go a step further, creative nonfiction writers tell these stories not by simply reporting the facts (the way, for example, a journalist might) but through the use of literary techniques such as plot, characterization, and dialogue to fashion the story into a creative text. The goal, one might say, is to interpret events, to explore and discover meaning in the story. Going yet one step further, we might say that in order to interpret real events, the writer has to insert him/herself, as interpreter, into the story in some way — often as the narrator of the piece. This usually (but not always) occurs through the use of the first person voice.
Whew again — you can see how cautious I’m being: “we might say,” “one might say.” Because there is no real agreement on the definition of “creative nonfiction,” I’m treading carefully as I disect my own interpretation.
A common questions is this: what separates journalism from creative nonfiction? The generally accepted role of a journalist/news reporter is to impartially report the facts of a story (“just the facts, ma’am”). Of course, reporting a story without skewing it in one direction or another is almost impossible, even for journalists — but that’s another topic. A basic premise of journalism is that the goal is to be impartial.
Creative nonfiction writers, on the other hand, don’t have to apologize for having a point of view. In fact, their goal is to uncover and express a point of view by gleaning their own meaning from events, past or present, and then expressing their conclusions in a literary way. This works much the way a fiction writer might discover and choose to focus on a specific theme in a novel. Many creative nonfiction writers, in fact, transform the events they write about into a text with a classic story arc — a beginning, a build-up toward a climactic moment, a denouement (“the final part of a play, movie, or narrative in which the strands of the plot are drawn together and matters are explained or resolved”) and an ending. We all know real life doesn’t actually happen that way — as one neat story arc after another — but creative nonfiction writers pull pieces of real life out of their memories or observations and create stories. They experiment with structure, language, and meaning in order to, as Annie Dillard put it, “fashion a text.” Many memoirs read much like novels because the writer has fashioned a text out of her or his own life.
Of course, many texts don’t use the classic story arc. There are flashbacks and vignettes and braided essays using more than one storyline…playing with how to structure a story to the best effect is part of the fun (and work).
If I were sitting on one of the many panels that discuss creative nonfiction at literary conferences, or if I were present in a room full of writers and editors tackling the subject, there would inevitably be people who disagree with some, or even all, of what I’ve said so far. Some might argue that journalism — or any putting of pen to paper — is creative. Some might point to the field of “literary journalism” as a kind of hybrid genre that requires researching and reporting the facts and fashioning creative texts, often in the first person. Does that make it creative nonfiction? Let the arguments begin.
One of the greatest bones of contention regarding creative nonfiction stems from discussions of just what a “fact” is — or how to define the “true” aspect of “true stories.” One school of thought is that if you can’t prove something is true you can’t put it in your text — for example, you can’t state that it was raining on that cold night in April in 1978 just because “that’s the way you remember it.” If it’s not possible to look up the weather on that date and prove that it was really raining that night, you can’t say it was raining in your story. According to this school of thought, if you don’t know the exact words someone used to say something, you can’t recreate dialogue based on your best guess.
Another school of thought says that the above restrictions don’t work, because almost no one remembers exactly what words were used in a conversation, especially if that conversation happened years ago. No one can say exactly what the weather was during that hour thirty years ago, or whether their head definitely hurt that night or not. Instead, according to this line of thinking, the goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to get as close to the facts as possible through memory and research. After all, if you ask two people who were both present at the same event to describe that event, you will likely get two different versions of what happened. People perceive and remember things differently, so who is to say what is the “truth?” Knowing this (again, according to this school of thought), as long as you don’t write something that you know is outright incorrect — like that you spent 3 years in prison when in fact you were there for just 30 days, or that one of the characters in your story stormed out of the room when you know that person actually stayed — you’re okay. You can even clue your reader into things you don’t quite remember with phrases like, “The way I remember it…” or “In my mind, I see him standing in a red shirt and blue jeans…” Writers who work this way often say that they are seeking the emotional truth of their story — what they took away from the events in terms of meaning — because the actual truth is impossible to perfectly know or recreate. In this case, imagination does enter into the craft of creative nonfiction writing, because the writer imagines the emotional and thematic connections he or she uses to organize the story and fashion it into a text.
Of course, some writers might go even further than that and say it’s okay to imagine even more than just connections in creative nonfiction. But that, too, is a more in-depth discussion than I can attempt here.
This ongoing discussion about what is “true,” “imagined,” and “acceptable to include” in a piece of creative nonfiction is, as you can tell by now, complicated. But knowing the disagreement exists is important; we’ve all heard of popular memoirs that proved to be filled with made up facts, damaging the credibility of authors, publishers, and the memoir genre as a whole.
Perhaps you can see now why there are semester-long courses on what is, and how to write, “creative nonfiction.” For today, though, I’ll just conclude by suggesting a working definition of “creative nonfiction” that we can use as a starting point: creative nonfiction is the craft of fashioning narratives in a variety of forms from remembered or recorded real-life events, with the goal of discovering and expressing meaning.
Hey, it was worth a shot. Again, let the arguments begin (feel free to comment in the comment thread).
Next week: The Situation vs. the Story in Creative Nonfiction
Root, Robert L., and Michael Steinberg, eds. The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. 6th ed. Boston: Pearson, 2012. Print.