If representing and exploring the real by writing in the genre of creative non-fiction is your goal, we hope these tips about what creative non-fiction is, as well as some pointers on a few genres that are considered creative non-fiction (memoir and the personal essay) can help you. We have also included some tips about Writing Negatively About People in Your Life as well as links to some well-known examples of creative non-fiction to give you a sense of what is out there.
An Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction
What is creative non-fiction?
- Creative nonfiction merges the boundaries between literary art (fiction, poetry) and research nonfiction (statistical, fact-filled, run of the mill journalism). It is writing composed of the real, or of facts, that employs the same literary devices as fiction such as setting, voice/tone, character development, etc. This makes if different (more creative) than standard nonfiction writing.
- Sometimes called literary journalism or the literature of fact, creative nonfiction merges the boundaries between literary art (fiction, poetry) and research nonfiction (statistical, fact-filled, run of the mill journalism). It is writing composed of the real, or of facts, that employs the same literary devices as fiction, such as setting, voice/tone, character development, etc.
- Creative nonfiction should (1) include accurate and well-researched information, (2) hold the interest of the reader, and (3) potentially blur the realms of fact and fiction in a pleasing, literary style (while remaining grounded in fact).
- In the end, creative nonfiction can be as experimental as fictionit just needs to be based in the real.
Content of creative nonfiction:
- It's important to clarify that the content of creative nonfiction does not necessarily have to come from the life or the experience of the writer. Say, for instance, the writer is using techniques from literary journalism to create a portrait of a person interviewed. The writer may choose to write a portrait of the interviewee through an omniscient perspective, meaning the writer wouldn't be in the piece at all.
- On the other hand, nonfiction writers often choose to write about topics or people close to them (including themselves). As long as the piece deals with something real, or something based on the real, the writer is allowed to take the piece in any direction he or she wishes.
- In creative nonfiction, writers attempt to observe, record, and thus shape a moment(s) from real life. Writers thus extract meaning through factual details—they combine the fact of detail with the literary extrapolation necessary in rendering meaning from an observed scene.
- At the same time, successful creative nonfiction attempts to overlay fact with traditional conceptions of dramatic structure. While rendering meaning from an observed scene, a piece should suggest a beginning, middle and end that clearly conveys the conflict and the characters, and pushes the action toward some sort of closure.
- In effect, creative nonfiction attempts to project a dramatic, literary framework upon everyday existence, rendering it enjoyable, enlightening and potentially meaningful.
- While writing creative nonfiction, writers should dwell on sensory details and "show show show."
- A piece should never just tell the reader something or summarize—this is what research non-fiction does.
Different types of creative non-fiction writing:
- Due to the fact that creative nonfiction is an ever-evolving genre of writing, it is difficult to define set types:
- The Personal Essay:
A piece of writing, usually in the first person, that focuses on a topic through the lens of the personal experience of the narrator. It can be narrative or non-narrative-it can tell a story in a traditional way or improvise a new way for doing so. Ultimately, it should always be based on true, personal experience.
- The Memoir:
A memoir is a longer piece of creative nonfiction that delves deep into a writer's personal experience. It typically uses multiple scenes/stories as a way of examining a writer's life (or an important moment in a writer's life). It is usually, but not necessarily, narrative.
- The Short Short: A short/short is a (typically) narrative work that is concise and to the point. It uses imagery and details to relay the meaning, or the main idea of the piece. Typically it's only one or two scenes, and is like a flash of a moment that tells a whole story.
- Literary Journalism:
Literary journalism uses the techniques of journalism (such as interviews and reviews) in order to look outside of the straight forward, objective world that journalism creates. It uses literary practices to capture the scene/setting of the assignment or the persona of the person being interviewed. It can often be narrative or heavily imagistic. Another important aspect of literary journalism is that it often stretches the idea of "objective facts" in order to better reflect real life and real people. In other words, while journalism is about being completely objective, literary journalism says that people can't be objective because they already have their own subjective views about the world. Therefore, by taking the "objectiveness" out of the journalistic process, the writer is being more truthful.
- The Lyric Essay:
The lyric essay is similar to the personal essay in that it also deals with a topic that affects the reader. However, the lyric essay relies heavily on descriptions and imagery. Lyrical suggests something poetic, musical, or flowing (in a sense). This type of piece uses a heavily descriptive, flowing tone in order to tell a story.
- The Personal Essay:
Top of Page
Memoir: Tips for Writing about Your Life
Memoirs are an often overlooked subdivision of creative writing, and more specifically, creative non-fiction. They have the potential to be incredibly interesting, richly developed, beautifully moving pieces that can sometimes be confused with autobiography. Generally, autobiographies are the life story or history of a person's life written by that person. Though memoirs share some similarities with autobiographies, such as first person narration, they are more than a recounting of one's life events in chronological order. Instead, they can be descriptions of one single event or moment in one's life, rather than that life in its entirety, and tend to be written in a less structured or formal manner. Memoirs have the capacity to be funny, profound, moving, cynical, etc., and may even have resemblances to fiction in their creativity. Memoirs can focus on one specific event, place, person, etc. or they can be expanded to encompass a broader range of events, snapshots, or memories in the author's experience. Here are some basic things you should know about writing a memoir:
Here are some basic things you should know about writing a memoir:
- A memoir can be about nearly anything in your personal experience/life that is significant enough for you to want to retell it, or it can simply be a snapshot of a moment or a description of a person, place, or thing in your life.
- Choose a topic that you care about, for this will make your piece more descriptive, emotional, and creative. Even though it is about YOUR life, if you care about your topic then so will the reader.
- Seek a deeper or underlying theme within the simple description of an event etc. that the reader can connect to. Use a lot of description and imagery, if you can, to make the reader feel like they know the topic intimately.
- There is no specific form or style that it is necessary for a memoir to have USE YOUR OWN UNIQUE VOICE!
- Do not confuse memoirs with autobiography, they are NOT the same thing (as noted above). You may want to find some memoirs in the library or online in order to get a feel for the variety out there and some of the ways you might want to go about writing yours. A few examples we are familiar with are:
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater
- Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
- The Dog Who Wouldnt Be by Farley Mowat
- A memoir, though based on and rooted in truth and fact, does not have to be 100% straight laced non-fiction. Take a new perspective, get creative, find a way to make your piece more interesting, fresh, thought-provoking etc. In other words, just because this is non-fiction, that DOES NOT have to make it boring, dry, straight-forward, and humorless.
- Though there is some controversy over what can and cannot be called memoir, Lauren Slater's book Lying is a good example of how creative you can get with this genre. Hers is specifically labeled a metaphorical memoir in order to avoid this controversy (though it has followed her anyway), and so perhaps saying something to that effect is a way of avoiding complaints of false advertising and fraud. Though you should not claim something to be true that is not, you can choose what you want to leave out of or include in your memoir. You can make it read like fiction, and you can make conscious decisions to surround your work with ambiguity that questions the nature of truth vs. fact (as Slater does). It may sound complicated, but really is quite basic: don't make claims your piece is something it's not, don't outright lie and then say it's fact, but choose your material carefully and you can do many more things with memoirs than you might at first think (see the limits of the real in creative non-fiction).
- Finally, have fun with it! Enjoy it! Memoirs can be very emotionality releasing, fun to play around with, and can reward not only the reader but also you, the writer. Test your limits and try different ways of writingits all about self-exploration and discovery.
Top of Page
The Personal Essay: A Few Pointers
The personal essay is one of the most popular forms of creative non-fiction writing found in English classes, especially in high school but also, to a certain degree and in a more complex way, college. This kind of writing allows you to explore a topic through the lens of your own, personal experiences, reflections, ideas, and reactions. It can be one of the most powerful kinds of writing you get to do, both in its direct connection to you, the writer, allowing you to engage with material in class at a very personal, complex, and meaningful level, and also in the amount of latitude that you as a writer are afforded in terms of style, technique, and form. The following are some tips and strategies to help you think as you write and revise a personal essay, or prepare to write this kind of assignment for the first time (the topic of the essay will always varywe are focused on the genre as a whole here).
- Focus. In some ways, the personal essay is similar to memoir and many of the same techniques can be used effectively. It differs in that an essay is focused on one specific topic (and here, it will be explored through your own experiences) whereas the memoir has the capability to trace or illuminate several themes, topics, and ideas via the authors life (or part(s) of that life) that he/she describes (and how he/she describes it).
- Organization. Not to be confused with form (see below). Your essay, like other essays, should have some kind of coherent organization to it. This is not to say that you must use thesis style (in fact, we are confident that powerful personal essays follow that organization scheme less than 5% of the time). No matter how you choose to organize (and what form you use), be sure that your paragraphs and ideas flow from one to the next, connected by a common theme (trying to tackle the topic on which you are writing). It can be scattered or fragmented (if that is a stylistic/form choice you make), but the entire paper should have a relationship, even if it only becomes clear at the end. This allows the reader to follow your experience.
- Form. One of the best parts of this kind of writing is the power given to you as the writer. There is no form, no formula, no tried and true method that you must use to be effective. In fact, to copy something that somebody else has done is not only rather boring, but also defeats the purpose of this being a personal essay. Choose a form and style that suits you and is fitting for the experience that you are describing. Try to think of the form as a part of the writing itself, not just a framework for it: the form should actually enhance and make more poignant what it is you are taking about. Push the boundaries, but dont go too faryou are still writing an essay (and be sure that you follow any specific requirements outlined by your professor).
- Diction/Language. Like form, in the personal essay (and creative writing generally, perhaps even, to some extent, writing in general) the way in which you say something can mean just as much as the form into which you place what it is you are saying. Use language to enhance what you are writing about and not just as a means to say it. Here is where you can get really creative and appropriately use linguistic play to explore your topic and your own relation to it in new and complex ways.
Choosing at Topic and Approach
When beginning a personal essay, you should choose a significant event in your life. This can be almost anything, but something about it should matter to you. Many personal essays hinge around a sad experience, but joy is just as strong an emotion, if not more so. As always in creative writing, you should consider why you are writing this piece: what can writing about this experience teach others? What can you learn from revisiting the memory? In a personal essay, the importance of the word “personal” is not to be undervalued. Whatever you choose to write about must be important to you, hinge around your experience, and have some impact on you.
When writing a personal essay, it is important to remember that the main character is you. This is challenging for a lot of people who are used to expressing themselves through a character or through poetry. Personal essays demand more vulnerability than either of these forms. In a personal essay, the writer should never be afraid of the word “I” in fact, it should be used as often as possible. In most situations where you find yourself straying into the first person plural (“we”) or even the third person, using such vague language as "one could" or “one would,” you will almost always find the writing becomes stronger if you replace the subject with “I.” Most of the time, drifting into vague language is a sign that you are trying to convey a message you find “too” personal and are afraid of expressing. However, it is this vulnerability that fuels the personal essay. You cannot learn from the experience unless you are honest with yourself, and readers will not be able to understand why this experience is significant if you hide yourself from view. Your character in the story can only develop if you claim the story as your own.
While one of the most common kinds of creative non-fiction writing (at least in an academic setting), the personal essay is probably one of the harder assignments to revise. After all, how do you fix a paper that is composed of very personal ideas? A personal essay is not like a formal analytical essay-- it doesn't need an explicit thesis-driven format. Therefore, revising a personal essay can be complicated, especially when you feel as though you don't want to tamper with personal thoughts. However, a personal essay often needs someone to tamper with it in order to make it a complete piece. Below we have listed several steps that may be useful when revising or giving feedback on a personal essay (either your own or someone elses).
- Voice/Tone: The voice and tone are important in the personal essay because they reflect the attitude the writer is trying to get across. Is the mood happy? Sad? Is it serious? Are we placed inside the writer's head? These are all important questions to ask in order to realize the effect/the emotion the writer wants the piece to convey. Ask yourself (or the writer): Is the writer's voice consistent throughout the piece? Does it reflect the tone of the piece? Does the piece incorporate some experimental ideas? It is not necessary to have a personal essay be experimental, but it does need to be unique to the writer (hence the name). Some experimental ideas include: playing with the sentence structure by juxtaposing short sentences with longer, complicated sentences ... playing with word usage by including repetition or alliteration ... or playing with form by including other voices, dialogue, and points of views.
- Showing v. Telling: Details and imagery can only help a personal essay; they help to develop a story by making it more real to the reader. A personal essay doesn't necessarily need scenes, but it does need a well formed focus or point and imagery can help to establish that.
- Character Development: If the personal essay has characters, make sure they're developed clearly and that the relationships between the characters are developed. Dialogue between characters not only helps the reader to understand the relationships, it helps the reader to understand the individual characters and their actions. Imagery also helps with this and ties back into showing v. telling; by describing a character through details (of their actions or their appearance), we better understand a character.
- Original Language: Everything in a piece of creative writing is subject to scrutiny, including word choice. Therefore it's helpful to look closely at language. Is the writing fresh? Are there any obvious clichés that detract from the piece?
- Form: How a piece of creative non-fiction writing is put together is extremely important. The form not only needs to be organized well, it also speaks to the piece as a whole. Good questions to ask: Why is it organized in this way? How does this reflect your (or the writers) experience? It's also helpful to discuss different form techniques such as flashbacks, stream of consciousness, or different scenes that piece together a writer's main idea.
- Fiction/Poetry Techniques: Since creative non-fiction writing is such a hybrid and multi-faceted genre, it's often helpful to use/borrow techniques from fiction or poetry. Scenes, dialogue, narrative structure, setting, and an emphasis on language are all important aspects of creative nonfiction as well.
Top of Page
Writing Negatively About People in your Life
When it comes to writing creative nonfiction, the vast majority of the material is going to be from experience. Writers will write about things they have gone through, monumental events in their lives, and the people they have encountered. While the closest people in your life often leave a positive impact, what happens when you want to write negatively about them? It can be hard to feel like it is your place to expose personal parts of others without their permission for the sake of your piece. However, it is ultimately your decision what you would like to write about and what you feel is necessary to include. It is also important not to embellish or include elements of fiction in your creative non-fiction. So if that means describing an explosive fight between you and your parents or outing your sibling for a crime they committed, you as the author have the authority to do so. But if this is something that causes you anxiety or makes you feel like youre abusing your power, here are a few things to consider.
- One, who is your audience? If your piece is not likely to make it very far out of your classroom environment, it may not be necessary to warn the people in your life that they have become characters in your piece. However, if your piece is going to be published in some sort of way or might have the opportunity of circulating, odds are high that you will want to inform the people in your life before they find out on their own.
- Two, what is absolutely necessary? Trashing loved ones in your life could be a necessity to the point you are trying to make in your creative non-fiction piece. However, you could also become carried away and swept up by emotion and decide to include things out of spite rather than out of need. Always reread your pieces for intention and make sure that sensitive, personal aspects of your piece are crucial to the understanding for the audience and not just fluff. When youre playing with emotions, it is even more important to write with intention.
- Three, do they need to know? If you still feel like you want to make your piece transparent with the people you have turned into characters, do so in a professional way and be prepared for backlash. It is important to warn them that you do delve into personal matters but that you do not wish for the audience to hold that against them and that you would not include it if you did not find it absolutely necessary.
- Lastly, be aware that they are free to react in any way that they want to, and if that is negatively, remember to keep your integrity. Just because they have disliked their portrayal in your piece does not mean you need to filter or sensor it in any way. Be respectful of their feelings but stick to your guns as a writer.
Top of Page
- Excerpt from Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris A collection of memoir-essays by David Sedaris, this particular except is from the essay entitled SantaLand Diaries, where Sedaris recounts his experience working as a holiday elf for Macys. It is a great example of memoir. As you read, think about the debate going on about the memoir (see handout on memoirs)where do you see embellishment or possible stretching of the truth for artistic purposes? How is this different from a straight autobiography? What kinds of stylistic devices is Sedaris using that would make this a piece of creative non-fiction?
- Excerpt from Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
This piece is a classic example of Literary Journalism (also called New Journalism). In it, Wolfe is reporting on both the sixties in general as well as Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, from the period spanning the late fifties to 1965. Considered to be an essential period piece of that decade, this novel is also one of the first examples of Literary Journalism. What about this piece separates it from more traditional journalism? How is it closer to what we would otherwise consider (mistake for??) a novel? From this excerpt, can you see how this kind of journalism is considered a kind of creative non-fiction? What does this type of journalism have to offer us as readers that more traditional journalism doesnt/cant? This piece also demonstrates nicely the concept of the limits of the real in creative non-fictionhow so? (see our note on this concept under Creative Non-Fiction)?
Note: To access excerpt, follow the link, click where it says “click to look inside” and then use the arrows to flip the pages.
- Excerpt from Lars Eighner's Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets
A great example of memoir. What do you see as the point or message of this piece to be? How does the author accomplish this? What features make this an example of creative non-fiction? Of memoir?
The mind is a magpie, which is what makes essays so delightful. The classic essay is woven with shiny scraps of memory, fact, argument, and self-observation. It takes existential leaps amid personal ruminations. There are countless wonderful and weird examples, penned (or typed) by everyone from Michel de Montaigne to Ralph Waldo Emerson to Joan Didion to Zadie Smith.
The best essays often read as if they emerged full-blown from a writer’s head. Yet, Montaigne, originator of the form, was famously revising his work right up to his death. The process of accumulating a big nest of thoughts, then cutting it down, then adding something back, then whittling away more, creates a final product that mimics the mind at work.
I love essays for many reasons, not the least of which is their rambling quality. But now, I also find myself drawn to flash essays. At a thousand words (give or take a hundred), flash essays are very short compared with the classics. By “flash essay,” however, I still mean an essay—prose that’s driven by ideas rather than the narrative techniques of creative nonfiction.
Flash essays may include an anecdote or two, but they’re not memoir. They’re not “lyrical.” They don’t narrate a personal story in the second-person (you went into 7-11, wondering if the blood running down your legs would pool around your socks) or third-person voice. Flash essays resemble a first-person opinion piece rather than a fictional short story.
Take “Wild Messengers” by Jennifer Holland, a post that appeared in the New York Times “Opinionator” blog last November. “About a decade ago,” Holland begins, “a brain tumor came to steal my mother away.”
She recounts leaving the sickroom briefly for a drive on a wintry Minnesota morning, when she saw “nine bald eagles along that stretch of road” on “the ninth of February.” Then, almost as soon as Holland returned to the house, her mother died. “I’m not a religious person, not even a particularly spiritual one,” she writes, adding:
That night, though, I couldn’t help but think that those birds were nature’s messenger…. I can certainly imagine my mom, a true animal lover, choosing majestic birds, their number matching the date (a little nudge to see if I was paying attention), to prepare me and say her goodbye. When I suspended my disbelief, it made perfect sense.
It’s a first-person story, including a vivid anecdote about the eagles. But she goes on to weave in references to religious traditions that have venerated animals as spirit messengers, touching on St. Francis, Native American totems, even Wild by Cheryl Strayed. From her opening line, Holland signals she’s looking back, pondering what it all means. She questions, then whittles away.
It’s a flash essay—just over 1,160 words. However, from where I sit as a magazine journalist, there’s a whole lot of confusion about the difference between an essay like this one and a personal narrative.
At worst, the boom in teaching nonfiction in creative writing programs has influenced novice writers to jettison the intellectual playfulness of essays in favor of narrative scenes and “true stories.” Literary discussions of flash often assume "micro-essays" are real-life twists on flash fiction. But they aren’t, at least not for me.
Part of the confusion involves the mishmash of mainstream magazines, newspapers, blogs, and literary journals that all publish short nonfiction. It’s great to have more venues now, but journalistic editors and literary editors assess nonfiction features differently. I’m always thinking of provocative titles and leads, about cluing in readers quickly to the focus of a feature. While I appreciate the emotional wallop of good flash fiction and memoir, the literary compression that’s so much a part of flash can undercut clarity of purpose and meaning in nonfiction.
In TW’s 2014 flash nonfiction contest (judged by Dinty W. Moore of Brevity), we received many strong memoir and narrative nonfiction entries, but very few attempts at essays. This is anecdotal evidence at best. Still, I now believe the 500-word limit we set is too short for an essay.
Even flash essays need space for thoughts to ramble—and thoughts are the things that power a strong “I” voice. Montaigne remains the model. Centuries after he began writing his essays in 1571, a sickly French aristocrat who’d retired from public life in his late thirties, it’s tough to think of a quirkier, more skeptical persona. Here’s how he begins “On Liars”:
There is nobody less suited than I am to start talking about memory. I can hardly find a trace of it in myself; I doubt if there is any other memory in the world as grotesquely faulty as mine is!
This is not a narrative opening. But it’s a great hook for an essay, one that nudges readers to draw personal comparisons as well as to follow his thoughts. “On Liars” moves from Montaigne’s wry observations about himself to classical references to the crucial distinction between not remembering and deliberately lying. Some of his later essays are sixty-pages-plus, but this one comes in at under 2,500 words.
In the twenty-first-century, of course, there are practical reasons for essayists to stick to a thousand words. My own reading habits have changed after a decade awash in digital media. I get bored fast. I tend to skip around, looking for relevant facts and takeaways. My “grotesquely faulty” memory could compete with Montaigne.
But today’s antsy readers don’t just have short attention spans. They also want to engage with what they read—commenting, arguing, challenging what “experts say.” While this may annoy traditional journalists or elite literary writers—what gives a mere reader the right to question my information or assumptions?—it’s where flash essayists can excel.
So, consider this an invitation to the dance of ideas. After much collecting and cutting, adding and subtracting, this flash essay is just a smidge over a thousand words. Longer than an op-ed, but with room for a few unnecessary shiny bits, such as this credo for all nonfiction writers from the essay master himself:
Lying is an accursed vice. It is only our words that bind us together and make us human.