They can indeed be creative. This site talks about different types of essays, all of which I have seen taught in schools.
These four types are expository, persuasive, analytical, or argumentative.
The latter two are of the type commonly considered to be typical of academic essays.
The analytical essay should, as the name suggests, present a formal analysis. One should:
Be “objective” [and] avoid using the first person too much
and one should not:
Use slang or colloquial language (the language of informal speech) [or] contractions.
An argumentative essay should
prove that your opinion, theory or hypothesis about an issue is correct [and] be a topic that you can support with solid evidence
(and, by extrapolation, use formal language as for an analytical essay).
An expository essay, however, is more about personal response:
Your reaction to a work of literature could be in the form of an expository essay, for example if you decide to simply explain your personal response to a work. The expository essay can also be used to give a personal response to a world event, political debate, football game, work of art and so on
and, in a persuasive essay:
You are presenting an opinion and trying to persuade readers
but in a less scientific way than in an argumentative essay.
Generally, there are still conventions that separate a personal essay from creative nonfiction; the latter might rely on narrative or characterizing devices, whereas the essay is likely to be more formal and use more straightforward, less "creative" devices.
Editorial opinion pieces in a newspaper can be classed as essays. Typically, they can use slang and first person, but don't tend to play with nonstandard syntax or narrative devices too much. Of course, there is a lot of leeway that depends on the newspaper's style and intended audience, among other things.
The American Scholar has a collection of essays that show how personal and nonacademic an essay can be.
As for whether an essay can be fictional:
I think the idea is that an essay will be based on truth, but can be subjective, while fiction would be called a story/creative writing or similar. The first link certainly suggests that even the less formal essay types are about presenting your opinions/recounting your experiences, etc. There is nothing to say that you can't lie or pretend, but that could mean your "essay" is reclassified when you are found out.
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.