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Non Fiction Essay Definition En

What is Creative Nonfiction?

The banner of the magazine I’m proud to have founded and I continue to edit, Creative Nonfiction, defines the genre simply, succinctly, and accurately as “true stories well told.” And that, in essence, is what creative nonfiction is all about.

In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonfiction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these.

The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.

The word “creative” has been criticized in this context because some people have maintained that being creative means that you pretend or exaggerate or make up facts and embellish details. This is completely incorrect. It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.

"Creative” doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: “You can’t make this stuff up!” 

The Fastest-Growing Genre

Creative nonfiction has become the most popular genre in the literary and publishing communities. These days the biggest publishers—HarperCollins, Random House, Norton, and others—are seeking creative nonfiction titles more vigorously than literary fiction and poetry. Recent creative nonfiction titles from major publishers on the best-seller lists include Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle.

Even small and academic (university) presses that previously would have published only books of regional interest, along with criticism and poetry, are actively seeking creative nonfiction titles these days. In the academic community generally, creative nonfiction has become the popular way to write.

Through creative writing programs, students can earn undergraduate degrees, MFA degrees, and PhDs in creative nonfiction—not only in the United States but in Australia, New Zealand, and throughout the world. Creative nonfiction is the dominant form in publications like The New Yorker, Esquire, and Vanity Fair. You will even find creative nonfiction stories featured on the front page of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

The Memoir Craze

In the 1990s, the controversy over the publication of a half dozen intimate memoirs triggered what the publishing industry and the book critics referred to as the “memoir craze.” Angela’s Ashes (1996) by Frank McCourt and This Boy’s Life (1989) by Tobias Wolff were both made into major motion pictures; the British actress Emily Watson starred as McCourt’s mother, Angela, and Academy Award winner Robert De Niro played Wolff’s stepfather, Dwight Hansen. The Liars Club (1995) by Mary Karr, another of these best-selling tell-all memoirs, rode the new interest in the genre, as did Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss.

Memoirs are not new to the literary world. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is a classic of the form as is Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, first published in this country in 1938. Today the memoir craze continues in full force. Celebrities, politicians, athletes—victims and heroes alike—are making their private lives public. And readers can’t get enough of these books. The literature of reality, with all of the pain and the secrets that authors confess, is helping to connect the nation and the world in a meaningful and intimate way.

Literary Journalism

Memoir is the personal side of creative nonfiction but there’s a public side as well, often referred to as narrative or literary journalism—or “big idea” stories. Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire) captures big ideas, for example, as does Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat) through creative nonfiction.

One distinction between the personal and the public creative nonfiction is that the memoir is the writer’s particular story, nobody else’s. The writer owns it. In contrast, the public side of creative nonfiction is mostly somebody else’s story; anybody, potentially, owns it, anybody who wants to go to the time and trouble to write about it. These pieces, although narrative, focus on fact, leading to a bigger and more universal concept.

In every issue, Creative Nonfiction publishes “big idea/fact pieces”—creative nonfiction about virtually any subject—from baseball gloves to brain surgery to dog walking to immortality or pig roasting. There are no limits to the subject matter as long as it is expressed in a story-oriented narrative way. These are stories almost anyone could research and write.

Because they’re so personal, memoirs have a limited audience, while the public kind of creative nonfiction—when authors write about something other than themselves—has a larger audience. These “big idea/factual essays” are more sought after by editors and agents and will more likely lead to publication.

The Building Blocks of Creative Nonfiction 

Scenes and stories are the building blocks of creative nonfiction, the foundation and anchoring elements of what we do. This is what I tell people who want to write but have no experience writing. And I tell the same thing to the graduate students in my writing classes—and PhD students. Writing in scenes is one of the most important lessons for you to take from this book—and to learn.

The idea of scenes as building blocks is an easy concept to understand, but it’s not easy to put into practice. The stories or scenes not only have to be factual and true (You can’t make them up!), they have to make a point or communicate information, as I have said, and they have to fit into the overall structure of the essay or chapter or book. It is often a daunting task. But it’s essential.

Writing in scenes represents the difference between showing and telling. The lazy, uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonfiction writer will show that subject, place, or personality, vividly, memorably—and in action. In scenes.

Lee Gutkind 


Excerpted from: 

YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS STUFF UP: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between

You Can't Make This Stuff Up is "the essential and definitive guide to creative nonfiction," according to New Yorker writer and author of The Orchid Thief and Rin Tin Tin, Susan Orlean. "It's as engaging to read as it is useful. Any writer or reader will find it indispensable and, frankly, inspiring."

READ MORE ABOUT CREATIVE NONFICTION—HOW TO READ IT, WRITE IT, UNDERSTAND IT AND PUBLISH IT—IN LEE GUTKIND’S NEW BOOK, YOU CAN’T MAKE THIS STUFF UP

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.


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