Creative Nonfiction in Writing Courses
These resources discuss some terms and techniques that are useful to the beginning and intermediate creative nonfiction writer, and to instructors who are teaching creative nonfiction at these levels. The distinction between beginning and intermediate writing is provided for both students and instructors, and numerous sources are listed for more information about creative nonfiction tools and how to use them. A sample assignment sheet is also provided for instructors.
Last Edited: 2018-03-09 02:18:22
Creative nonfiction is a broad term and encompasses many different forms of writing. This resource focuses on the three basic forms of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, the memoir essay, and the literary journalism essay. A short section on the lyric essay is also discussed.
The Personal Essay
The personal essay is commonly taught in first-year composition courses because students find it relatively easy to pick a topic that interests them, and to follow their associative train of thoughts, with the freedom to digress and circle back.
The point to having students write personal essays is to help them become better writers, since part of becoming a better writer is the ability to express personal experiences, thoughts and opinions. Since academic writing may not allow for personal experiences and opinions, writing the personal essay is a good way to allow students further practice in writing.
The goal of the personal essay is to convey personal experiences in a convincing way to the reader, and in this way is related to rhetoric and composition, which is also persuasive. A good way to explain a personal essay assignment to a more goal-oriented student is simply to ask them to try to persuade the reader about the significance of a particular event.
Most high-school and first-year college students have plenty of experiences to draw from, and they are convinced about the importance of certain events over others in their lives. Often, students find their strongest conviction in the process of writing, and the personal essay is a good way to get students to start exploring these possibilities in writing.
A personal essay assignment can work well as a prelude to a research paper, because personal essays will help students understand their own convictions better, and will help prepare them to choose research topics that interest them.
An Example and Discussion of a Personal Essay
The following excerpt from Wole Soyinka's (Nigerian Nobel Laureate) Why Do I Fast? is an example of a personal essay. What follows is a short discussion of Soyinka's essay.
Why do I fast? I do not mean, why do I fast now? I have settled that in terms of continuing conflict. But why do I fast at all? Why have I, at any given time, suddenly decided---I must now do without food for some time? Perhaps I ought to settle that in my mind before I am trapped in a fatal demand of my own self-indulgence.
Yes, self-indulgence. A sensual self-indulgence. It is important to separate the area of will-power from the drugged immersion in rainbow-tinted ether. For I suspect that it is the truly sensual that take easily to fasting.
Soyinka begins with a question that fascinates him. He doesn’t feel required to immediately answer the question in the second paragraph. Rather, he takes time to consider his own inclination to believe that there is a connection between fasting and sensuality.
Soyinka follows the flowing associative arc of his thoughts, and he goes on to write about sunsets, and quotes from a poem that he wrote in his cell. The essay ends, not on a restatement of his thesis, but on yet another question that arises:
Were these new kingdoms which that sage hermit sought, the kingdoms of nothing? Or did he speak, as being replete in his own being, spurning all exterior augmentation.
This question remains unanswered. Soyinka is not interested in even attempting to answer it. The personal essay doesn’t necessarily seek to make sense out of life experiences; rather, personal essays tend to let go of that sense-making impulse to do something else, like nose around a bit in the wondering, uncertain space that lies between experience and the need to organize it in a logical manner.
However informal the personal essay may seem, it’s important to keep in mind that, as Dinty W. Moore says in The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, “the essay should always be motivated by the author’s genuine interest in wrestling with complex questions.”
Generating Ideas for Personal Essays
In The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, Moore goes on to explain an effective way to help students generate ideas for personal essays:
“Think about ten things you care about deeply: the environment, children in poverty, Alzheimer’s research (because your grandfather is a victim), hip-hop music, Saturday afternoon football games. Make your own list of ten important subjects, and then narrow the larger subject down to specific subjects you might write about. The environment? How about that bird sanctuary out on Township Line Road that might be torn down to make room for a megastore?..."
"...What is it like to be the food service worker who puts mustard on two thousand hot dogs every Saturday afternoon? Don’t just wonder about it - talk to the mustard spreader, spend an afternoon hanging out behind the counter, spread some mustard yourself. Transform your list of ten things into a longer list of possible story ideas. Don’t worry for now about whether these ideas would take a great amount of research, or might require special permission or access. Just write down a master list of possible stories related to your ideas and passions. Keep the list. You may use it later.”
It is this flexibility of form in the personal essay that makes it easy for students who are majoring in engineering, nutrition, graphic design, finance, management, etc. to adapt, learn and practice. The essay can be a more worldly form of writing than poetry or fiction, so students from various backgrounds, majors, jobs and cultures can express interesting and powerful thoughts and feelings in them.
The essay is more worldly than poetry and fiction in another sense: it allows for more of the world and its languages, its arts and food, its sport and business, its travel and politics, its sciences and entertainment, to be present, valid and important.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
The banner of the magazine I’m proud to have founded and I continue to edit, Creative Nonﬁction, deﬁnes the genre simply, succinctly, and accurately as “true stories well told.” And that, in essence, is what creative nonﬁction is all about.
In some ways, creative nonﬁction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of ﬂavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonﬁction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these.
The words “creative” and “nonﬁction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques ﬁction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonﬁction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.
The word “creative” has been criticized in this context because some people have maintained that being creative means that you pretend or exaggerate or make up facts and embellish details. This is completely incorrect. It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.
"Creative” doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonﬁction: “You can’t make this stuff up!”
The Fastest-Growing Genre
Creative nonﬁction has become the most popular genre in the literary and publishing communities. These days the biggest publishers—HarperCollins, Random House, Norton, and others—are seeking creative nonﬁction titles more vigorously than literary ﬁction and poetry. Recent creative nonﬁction titles from major publishers on the best-seller lists include Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle.
Even small and academic (university) presses that previously would have published only books of regional interest, along with criticism and poetry, are actively seeking creative nonﬁction titles these days. In the academic community generally, creative nonﬁction has become the popular way to write.
Through creative writing programs, students can earn undergraduate degrees, MFA degrees, and PhDs in creative nonﬁction—not only in the United States but in Australia, New Zealand, and throughout the world. Creative nonﬁction is the dominant form in publications like The New Yorker, Esquire, and Vanity Fair. You will even ﬁnd creative nonﬁction stories featured on the front page of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
The Memoir Craze
In the 1990s, the controversy over the publication of a half dozen intimate memoirs triggered what the publishing industry and the book critics referred to as the “memoir craze.” Angela’s Ashes (1996) by Frank McCourt and This Boy’s Life (1989) by Tobias Wolff were both made into major motion pictures; the British actress Emily Watson starred as McCourt’s mother, Angela, and Academy Award winner Robert De Niro played Wolff’s stepfather, Dwight Hansen. The Liars Club (1995) by Mary Karr, another of these best-selling tell-all memoirs, rode the new interest in the genre, as did Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss.
Memoirs are not new to the literary world. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is a classic of the form as is Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, ﬁrst published in this country in 1938. Today the memoir craze continues in full force. Celebrities, politicians, athletes—victims and heroes alike—are making their private lives public. And readers can’t get enough of these books. The literature of reality, with all of the pain and the secrets that authors confess, is helping to connect the nation and the world in a meaningful and intimate way.
Memoir is the personal side of creative nonfiction but there’s a public side as well, often referred to as narrative or literary journalism—or “big idea” stories. Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire) captures big ideas, for example, as does Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat) through creative nonfiction.
One distinction between the personal and the public creative nonfiction is that the memoir is the writer’s particular story, nobody else’s. The writer owns it. In contrast, the public side of creative nonﬁction is mostly somebody else’s story; anybody, potentially, owns it, anybody who wants to go to the time and trouble to write about it. These pieces, although narrative, focus on fact, leading to a bigger and more universal concept.
In every issue, Creative Nonfiction publishes “big idea/fact pieces”—creative nonﬁction about virtually any subject—from baseball gloves to brain surgery to dog walking to immortality or pig roasting. There are no limits to the subject matter as long as it is expressed in a story-oriented narrative way. These are stories almost anyone could research and write.
Because they’re so personal, memoirs have a limited audience, while the public kind of creative nonﬁction—when authors write about something other than themselves—has a larger audience. These “big idea/factual essays” are more sought after by editors and agents and will more likely lead to publication.
The Building Blocks of Creative Nonfiction
Scenes and stories are the building blocks of creative nonﬁction, the foundation and anchoring elements of what we do. This is what I tell people who want to write but have no experience writing. And I tell the same thing to the graduate students in my writing classes—and PhD students. Writing in scenes is one of the most important lessons for you to take from this book—and to learn.
The idea of scenes as building blocks is an easy concept to understand, but it’s not easy to put into practice. The stories or scenes not only have to be factual and true (You can’t make them up!), they have to make a point or communicate information, as I have said, and they have to ﬁt into the overall structure of the essay or chapter or book. It is often a daunting task. But it’s essential.
Writing in scenes represents the difference between showing and telling. The lazy, uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonﬁction writer will show that subject, place, or personality, vividly, memorably—and in action. In scenes.
YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between
You Can't Make This Stuff Up is "the essential and definitive guide to creative nonfiction," according to New Yorker writer and author of The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean. "It's as engaging to read as it is useful. Any writer or reader will find it indispensable and, frankly, inspiring."
READ MORE ABOUT CREATIVE NONFICTION—HOW TO READ IT, WRITE IT, UNDERSTAND IT AND PUBLISH IT—IN LEE GUTKIND’S NEW BOOK, YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP