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?