When I read Dancing in the Dark by Caryl Philips, I wasn’t quite sure what I was reading, as it was unlike any novel I’d read previously. But I was curious how the author crafted the “voices” or dialogue, which were so finely tuned and authentic it made me feel as though I was in the thick of the plot as it unfolded. Eventually, it dawned on me that the book couldn’t solely be classified as a novel per se, as the story was based on “real life”; because of its biographical and historical context it sat comfortably within the genre of creative nonfiction.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
The term creative nonfiction has been credited to American writer Lee Gutkin, who first coined the phrase in the journal he founded in 1993: Creative Nonfiction. When asked to define what creative nonfiction is Gutkin says simply “true stories well told.”
Expanding on Gutkin’s definition I would add that the main difference between creative nonfiction – also known as narrative nonfiction – and other genres is that in creative nonfiction the focus is on literary style, and it is very much like reading a novel, with the important exception that everything in the story has actually happened.
Essentially, creative nonfiction incorporates techniques from literature, including fiction and poetry, in order to present a narrative that flows more like story than, say, a journalistic article or a report. In short, then, it is a form of storytelling that employs creative writing techniques including literature to retell a true story, which is why emphasis is placed on the word creative. I would underscore that it is this aspect which distinguishes the genre from other nonfiction books; for instance, textbooks which are, as implied, recounting solely of facts – without any frills.
Types of Creative Nonfiction
The good news is that the expanse of creative nonfiction as a genre is considerable and there is ample scope for writers of every persuasion, in terms of categorisation and personal creative preference. Some terms you may be familiar with, and some are essentially the same, as far as content is concerned – only the phrasing may be interchangeable.
Memoirs are the most commonly used form of creative nonfiction. It is a writer’s personal, first-hand experiences, or events spanning a specific time frame or period. In it you are essentially trying to evoke the past… and by the end you will, no doubt, hope to have successfully conveyed the moral of your story. Not in a preachy kind of way but in a manner which is engaging, informative or entertaining.
You should note that there are important differences between a biography and a memoir: in writing a biography you need to maintain a record of your sources – primary or secondary – that will stand the rigours of being fact-checked.
A memoir, by contrast, is your recollection or memory of a past event or experience. While they do not necessarily have to be underpinned with verifiable facts in the same way as a biography, there’s more scope for your creative or imaginary interpretation of an event or experience.
In the early days of the genre literary journalism hogged the headlines; it was, according to The Herald Tribune, “a hotbed of so-called New Journalism, in which writers like Tom Wolfe used the tools of novelists — characters, dialogue and scene-setting — to create compelling narratives.” The way this fits into the creative nonfiction genre is that it uses the style and devices of literary fiction in fact-based journalism. Norman Mailer and Gail Sheehy were exceptionally skilled exponents, though, arguably, critics contended that both could, on occasion, be so immersed that some of their writing was tantamount to an actor who inhabited their character via method acting.
Reportage and Reporting
Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter. If you choose to pursue reportage it is imperative that you pay close attention to notes and record-keeping as reporting is not – as with other elements of creative nonfiction – based on your personal experiences or opinions and, therefore, has to be scrupulously accurate and verifiable.
Other types of creative nonfiction include personal essays whereby the writer crafts an essay that’s based on a personal experience or single event, which results in significant personal resonance, or a lesson learned. This element of creative nonfiction is very broad in scope and includes travel writing, food writing, nature writing, science writing, sports writing, and magazine articles.
Personal essays, therefore, encompass just about any kind of writing. They can also include audio creativity and opinion pieces, through podcasts and radio plays.
The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction
In Lee Gutkind’s essay, The Five R’s of Creative Nonfiction, he summarised the salient points of successfully writing creative nonfiction and, if you followed these instructions, you’d be hard-pressed to go wrong:
1. Real Life
I daresay this is self-explanatory although as a storyteller, instead of letting your imagination run riot you must use it as the foundation. Your story must be based in reality – be that subject matter, people, situations or experiences.
I can’t emphasise strongly enough that conducting extensive, thorough research is of paramount importance and, not to put too fine a point on it, this is not an area you can gloss over – you will be “found out” and your credibility is at stake. And, no, Wikipedia doesn’t count – other than perhaps as a starting point. Interestingly, by the company’s own admission: “Wikipedia is not a reliable source for citations elsewhere on Wikipedia. Because it can be edited by anyone at any time, any information it contains at a particular time could be vandalism, a work in progress, or just plain wrong.”
Not technically an “R” but we get his point… Put succinctly by William Faulkner: “Get it down. Take chances. It may be bad, but it’s the only way you can do anything good.”
No-one can negate your personal reflections, but you should be aware, given that what you’re writing is based on “fact” that someone mentioned in your article or book may not necessarily agree with your perspective. The fallout can be devastating and damage irreparable. A case in point was the debacle following publication of Ugly: The True Story of a Loveless Childhood by Constance Briscoe. In the best-selling “misery memoir” the author accused her mother of childhood cruelty and neglect; her mother rejected the claims and said the allegations were “a piece of fiction” and sued both her daughter and publisher for libel, and lost.
It goes without saying that when writing about people who are still alive you need to be especially cautious. Of course, you’re entitled to your own unique perspective but, as Buckingham Palace responded to the Oprah Winfrey interview with Meghan Markle and Prince Harry – which may yet find its way in book form – “some recollections may vary”.
It’s often said that the best writers are also voracious readers. Not only does it broaden your horizons but it’s a perfect way to see what works and what doesn’t. And, as William Faulkner admonished: “Read, read, read. Read everything –trash, classics, good and bad, and see how they do it. Just like a carpenter who works as an apprentice and studies the master. Read! You’ll absorb it. Then write. If it’s good, you’ll find out. If it’s not, throw it out of the window.”
How to Write Creative Nonfiction
We now know what kind of creative nonfiction exists, and what to bear in mind before writing, but when it comes to starting your story…where do you begin?
While it may be tempting to jump straight in and start writing, you will save yourself a headache if you begin by deciding upon the structure or form you want your work to be based on. This doesn’t need big whistles and bells, you just need an outline to begin with, something to shape your thinking and trajectory. It’s always worthwhile to know what direction you’re headed in. Nothing is set in stone – you can always add to it or amend accordingly.
For planning there are different models you can employ but I find it easiest to think along the lines of a three-part play: act one, I open by establishing the fundamentals of what I am going to present; act two, allows me to build upon the opening by increasing the dramatic effect of what’s unfolding; and act three, I bring my thesis together by pulling together different strands of the story to a logical, coherent narrative and, even better in some circumstances, a cliff-hanger.
In your outline you should bear in mind the main elements of creative nonfiction and the fact that there are some universal literary techniques you can use:
Plot and Setting
There are many things from your past that may trigger your imagination. It could be writing about an area you grew up in, neighbours you had – anything which can be descriptive and used as a building block but will be the foundation upon which you set the tone or introduction to your piece.
Using what may seem like mundane artefacts can be used effectively. For instance, old photographs, school reports, records and letters etc. can evoke memories.
The most effective way to ensure your characters are relatable is to work on creating a plausible narrative. You must also have at the forefront of your mind “Facts. Facts. Facts.” I can’t stress enough how your work must be based on fact and not fiction.
Also referred to as figurative language, when using one of the most effective ways to set the tone of your work, the language used in dialogue must be plausible. You simply need to step back and ask yourself, “Does this sound like something my character would say?” There’s no greater turnoff for a reader than dialogue which is stilted.
If you want your readers to be engaged, they have to “buy what you’re selling” i.e. believe in your characters.
Top Creative Nonfiction Writing Tips
Stick to the Facts
Even a mere whiff of fiction in your writing will automatically disqualify it as creative nonfiction. To make sure you haven’t transgressed it’s easier to avoid doing so altogether. Although it’s fine to incorporate literary techniques which include extended metaphor, allegory, and imagery, among others.
You will also need to make note of the references you have relied upon. Not only is this good housekeeping it is also what’s expected of a professional writer. There are a multitude of places you can begin your research: family recollections/oral history; my local library serves aspiring writers well with both a respectable catalogue of physical books and online resources such as the British Newspaper Archives; Ancestry; and FindMyPast, among them. These are invaluable tools at your disposal and the list is by no means exhaustive.
So, to conclude, what are the takeaways from this guide?
Firstly, methodically work your way through the checklist contained within the 5 R’s. Also, remember, whatever your interest, the extent of creative nonfiction dictates that there’s likely to be a market for your writing.
But, at all costs, avoid falling into the cardinal sin of making things up! It may be tempting to get carried away with being creative and miss that the finished product absolutely must be anchored in facts – from which, no deviation is acceptable.
Indeed, please ensure everything you’ve written is verifiable. You never know when someone is going to fact-check your thesis or challenge an assertion you’ve made.
Best of Both Worlds
All in all, creative nonfiction is a wondrous way of telling an important and real story. Never forget that even though you are writing about factual stories and scenarios, you can still do so in an imaginative and creative way guaranteed to bring your readers on a journey of exploration with you.
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