Writing Short Creative Nonfiction
Poetry, fiction, and drama aren’t regularly assigned in high school and college courses, but essays certainly are. By the time most students sign up for an introductory creative writing class, they have written position essays, descriptive essays, comparison-and-contrast essays, argumentative essays, and research essays — in every discipline from anthropology to zoology. Midterms and final exams often include an essay-writing component. In fact, you have probably written so many essays in your life that just the thought of writing another one makes you a little queasy.
But before you reach for the Pepto-Bismol, wait just a minute. What you will be writing in this chapter is not the sort of essay you have written in the past — or not exactly that sort of essay. You may well use argumentation, comparison and contrast, and description. And it’s the rare essayist who doesn’t do at least a little research, even if the essay’s subject is very personal. In this chapter, however, you will be writing in a genre called literary nonfiction or, more frequently, creative nonfiction. Most students find that working in this genre is much more fun than traditional essay writing.
Literary writing that claims to be true.
So how do we distinguish creative nonfiction from the nonfiction you have been writing for so many years? There are almost as many answers to that question as there are creative nonfiction writers, but one way to define this genre is to do two things that essayists love to do: quote from other writers and make lists.
In their groundbreaking book The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction, Robert Root and Michael Steinberg identify a number of elements common to this genre. Root and Steinberg believe that creative nonfiction:
Requires a Personal Presence Whether working in formats like the memoir, in which they reveal a great deal about themselves, or in less immediately personal forms like the nature essay, essayists always insert themselves in some fashion in their own essays.
Demands Self-Discovery and Self-Exploration Essays allow, and even encourage, their authors to learn as they go. The essay form “grants writers permission to explore without knowing where they will end up, to be tentative, speculative, reflective.”
Allows Flexibility of Form and Takes a Literary Approach Creative nonfiction uses “literary language,” borrowing techniques from fiction and poetry. Creative nonfiction experiments with both linear and nonlinear structures; essayists sometimes wander and backtrack a bit or break the text into fragments.
Insists on Veracity The genre “is reliably factual, firmly anchored in real experience, whether the author has lived it or observed and recorded it.” Although writers of creative nonfiction may take liberties with the facts — for example, leaving out an unimportant detail to speed up the narrative, or leaving out an important detail to protect someone’s privacy — they must nevertheless maintain an “accuracy of interpretation.”
Blurs Boundaries between Genres “Creative nonfiction … brings artistry to information and actuality to imagination, and it draws upon the expressive aim that lies below the surface in all writing.” By “expressive,” the authors here mean the personal and the emotional: creative nonfiction tells us what an author feels.
Root and Steinberg’s The Fourth Genre, originally published in 1999, was one of the first college textbooks to deal exclusively and extensively with creative nonfiction. That may give you a sense of how recently this genre of creative writing has become popular, but right now it is a very hot market indeed. Aspiring writers used to turn automatically to the novel to achieve literary renown, but these days they are just as likely to pen nonfiction, which now routinely outsells fiction.
In fact, many essayists come to creative nonfiction from fiction and poetry. For John T. Price, “Personal essays bring together the best of both poetry and fiction, combining lyrical and imagistic language with narrative appeal.” Judith Ortiz Cofer also sees a thorough connection between fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction: “The point is to continue the emphasis on control of language and craft from poem to prose. The poem is as minutely planned as the creative nonfiction, which is nothing more and nothing less than a composite of the narrative poem and the finely crafted plotted story: a story as polished and economically constructed as a poem.” As Cofer pictures it, there is a fusion, a synthesis, a symbiosis that comes from crossing genres. Rather than distracting the author from the demands of one type of literature, writing in multiple genres helps the author identify what is best about each one of them.
In the introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, published in 1997, editor Philip Lopate acknowledges that the genre is “notoriously adaptable and flexible” — a comment that essayists make time and again about their field. Nevertheless, Lopate manages to isolate a number of qualities that most personal essays have in common:
The personal essay is conversational — often ironic, humorous, even cheeky — in tone.
It values honesty and confession — self-disclosure is a necessary component.
It has “a taste for littleness,” dwelling on the often ignored minutiae of daily life, while at the same time expanding the importance of the writer’s self.
It goes against the grain of popular opinion.
It wrestles with the “stench of ego,” trying to reveal the writer’s true self without seeming narcissistic and proud.
It demonstrates the author’s learning while distancing itself from the scholarly treatise.
Perhaps most important, it is a mode of thinking and being, an attempt “to test, to make a run at something without knowing whether you are going to succeed.”
Although Lopate focuses more on the writer and her or his distinctive and idiosyncratic voice, you can see similarities between his definitions and those of Root and Steinberg. They all emphasize the essayist’s independence and imagination. Writers of creative nonfiction, in short, are the opposite of the uninspired student grinding out a required essay. Instead, they are passionate about their subjects and committed to seeing them from as many angles as possible. Remember this key point as you begin thinking of the subject for your essay: it should be something that you truly want to explore rather than something you feel obliged to write about.
Let’s look at one more list by one more expert on the subject. Lee Gutkind has been given, and has embraced, the moniker “the Godfather of Creative Nonfiction.” He shares Lopate’s focus on the personality and style of the writer, but Gutkind is more concerned with the writer’s subject matter. In his journal Creative Nonfiction (issue no. 6, 1995), Gutkind describes “the 5 Rs” of creative nonfiction:
Real Life “The foundation of good writing emerges from personal experience.”
Reflection “Creative nonfiction should reflect a writer’s feelings and responses about a subject.”
Research “I want to make myself knowledgeable enough to ask intelligent questions. If I can’t display at least a minimal understanding of the subject about which I am writing, I will lose the confidence and the support of the people who must provide access to the experience.”