What is “Creative” or “Literary” Nonfiction?

A friend recently asked me what creative nonfiction was. I must admit that I find the term a bit clunky. I might prefer “literary nonfiction,” though only just marginally. Both seem a bit affected, and protest too much. In any case, this does seem to be the genre which has chosen me, whether I like its current appellation or not.

So, I’ve been mulling my friend’s question over, and here’s what I’ve come up with: creative non-fiction tells facts, but uses techniques of fiction (character building, dialogue, atmosphere) to do so. It’s concerned not only with the content and truth of what it communicates (as is often the case with journalistic writing) or with the argument it puts forth (as in academic writing), but with how it is crafted. Form, rhythm, flow: these too are the life-blood of a writer of creative nonfiction.

The best elucidation of creative nonfiction comes from Lee Gutkind, which should come as no surprise, since he publishes a journal called Creative Nonfiction and works seriously in the genre. Here’s how he sums what it is best at:

Perhaps creative nonfiction’s greatest asset: It offers flexibility and freedom while adhering to the basic tenets of reportage. In creative nonfiction, writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously. Creative nonfiction writers are encouraged to utilize literary and even cinematic techniques, from scene to dialogue to description to point of view, to write about themselves and others, capturing real people and real life in ways that can and have changed the world. What is most important and enjoyable about creative nonfiction is that it not only allows but also encourages the writer to become a part of the story or essay being written. The personal involvement creates a special magic that alleviates the suffering and anxiety of the writing experience; it provides many outlets for satisfaction and self-discovery, flexibility and freedom.

Our kind of writing has been called the essay or New Journalism in the past, but both are somehow wrong too. Too narrow for what we’re talking about.

I, for one,  used to think of creative non-fiction as “real” writing (juxtaposed in my mind to academic writing, where I always felt like I was in costume, faking it).

In any case, whatever we call it it, this genre of prose sits comfortably with me and feels like home.

What is real writing to you?

NB: Click here for a follow-up posting called “Take Two: What is Creative Nonfiction?”

[Photo: Sudhamshu]

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6 thoughts on “What is “Creative” or “Literary” Nonfiction?

  1. Great definition. I, too, struggle to find the right term for what I’m writing. I’m too young for it to be “memoir” and “personal essay” sounds too, well, personal, and it’s not journalism. I love your definition for creative non-fiction, I just wish there was a less clunky term.

  2. Great question. I like the term “creative non-fiction” because the events I’m describing are real but I’m telling them in a creative way, exactly as you explained above, with character building, atmosphere, etc. I’m also selecting carefully from all the details of what happened, using only the ones that are relevant to the story, or rather, only the ones that tell the story the way that I want it to be received. I don’t know if this is “creative” or if it’s manipulative, or if, when it comes to writing, those words sometimes describe the same thing.

    It’s interesting and relieving to hear that you consider creative non-fiction to be “real” writing. I do a lot of it, but I have always thought that “real” writing is fiction, which I find infinitely more difficult. Lately I’ve been wondering if I diminish creative non-fiction because it’s more commercial (I can sell a personal essay but I practically have to beg to have a short story published), or just because it comes easily to me, and because some part of be believes that anything that I’m good at must be worth less.

    There must be a lesson in that.

  3. Sarah, I guess I think of “real” writing as writing that grapples with form, so fiction would absolutely fall into that category for me. Real writing also means (for me) texts that strive for literariness first, whether they be factual or fictional. Because of my academic background and baggage, I imagine real writing as being in opposition to academic writing. Real writing is the primary stuff, whereas academic writing is the secondary commentary. What’s interesting to me about your comment is that you too oppose two kinds of writing, though slightly different ones (I might call them journalism and fiction) that reflect your own coming to writing.

    I’m with you: I think creative and manipulative can mean exactly the same thing in this context. “Manipulation” of course has the same root as “main” (hand). So it’s the hand of the author at work in the text to guide her reader to whatever place she’s trying to get to.

  4. Nathalie, I’m interested to read that you think you’re too young for memoir (though I would think of memoir as a subcategory of creative nonfiction). I’ve thought about this issue too — there’s a sense of “who do you think you are” if you embark publicly on writing a memoir. But on the other hand, a memoir can tell about a very specific period of one’s life, and need not reflect on all of it. One good example is Alice Eve Cohen’s book What I Thought I knew, about her amazing and strange pregnancy that was misdiagnosed as cancer! I’m trying to be more generous and open-minded about memoir these days. Maybe it still has a lot of potential as a form…

  5. I’m another that has been wondering about the definition of Creative or Literary Nonfiction and found your response very informative and, may I say, delivered in a very literary nonfictiony sort of way. : ) It is a genre that greatly appeals to me and I wonder if it will, one day, choose me as well.

    I’ve suspected and now ( upon reading this blog post) have confirmed, that some of the work that I have become aware of recently and have so enjoyed, ( yours being at the forefront ) has indeed been this genre. I so enjoy the cadence of your writing. It’s almost lyrical in the way it conveys the story or, even at times, conveys the information as story.

    So, is it real writing? To that I join you with a definite yes and I ask it to Choose Me, Choose Me!!!

  6. Pingback: Take Two: What is Creative Nonfiction? « Writing. Life.

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