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Writing Creative Nonfiction
“Creative nonfiction tells a story using facts, but uses many of the techniques of fiction for its compelling qualities and emotional vibrancy,” according to Theodore A. Rees Cheney in his book “Writing Creative Nonfiction: Fiction Techniques for Crafting Great “Nonfiction (Ten Speed Press, 2001, p. 1). “Creative nonfiction doesn’t just report facts, it delivers facts in ways that move the reader toward a deeper understanding of a topic. Creative nonfiction requires the skills of the storyteller and the research ability of the conscientious reporter.”
Nonfiction informs. Fiction entertains. Creative nonfiction seeks to do both.
Creative nonfiction is a genre that straddles the line between fact and fiction-the former because everything must be accurate and correct and the latter because the author presents it in an interesting, associative, dramatic way that suggests the novel.
As a virtually hybrid genre, it combines the elements of traditional nonfiction with those of fiction.
“Creative nonfiction writers invest their articles and books with the feeling of real life, life as it’s lived, not as we think it might be or should be, but as close as possible to the various realities that exist simultaneously in this world,” continues Rees Cheney (ibid, p, 59).
In fiction, the writer must remain true to the story he creates.
In nonfiction, he must remain true to the facts which create the story.
CREATIVE NONFICTION DISCUSSED:
Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, defines the genre as “true stories well told,” but, like jazz, it can be a rich mixture of flavors, ideas, and techniques. Compared to standard nonfiction, which can be monotone and one-note, it can incorporate the full spectrum of scales. It can run the gambit from the essay to a research paper, a journal article, a memoir, and a full-length book, whether it be autobiographical or about others in nature.
As the fastest growing genre, it includes such books as Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, The Immortal Life of Henriette Lacks by Rebecca Skloot, Growing Up by Russel Baker, and The Glass Castle by Jeanette Wall. It was their very “creativity” that led to their productions as major motion pictures.
Their elements should be approached with caution, however. The words “creative” and “nonfiction” only describe the form itself, while the first of the two terms refers to the use of literary craft-that is, the techniques fiction writers use to present nonfiction-or factually accurate prose about real people and events told in a compelling, vivid, and dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that their readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. If creatively done, they can be considered examples of “painless learning.”
Creative, however, is a term some writers have interpreted too creatively. They sometimes erroneously believe that it grants them license to pretend, exaggerate, and embellish, crossing the line between nonfiction and fiction in more than technique. It does not. Take the well-known case of James Frey’s memoir, A Million Little Pieces. It may have been compelling, but it was an exaggeration, to put it mildly, and hence more fiction than fact.
Although creative nonfiction books, such as memoirs, provide a personal, behind-the-scenes glimpse into the lives of political, sports, and film figures alike, one of their appeals is the exposure of their own imperfections, foibles, misdeeds, and errors, enabling readers to relate to the kindred-spirit humanity they both share, despite their larger-than-life notoriety and successes. In other words, they are people too.
While standard and creative nonfiction must both be well-researched, accurate accounts of factual people and events, they differ in their portrayal and delivery methods. The latter recreates moments of time, presents fully realized settings, characters, actions, and dialogue, and weaves all of these elements into a story that reads like fiction.
In the end, standard nonfiction pieces are driven by facts. Creative nonfiction ones are driven by their presentation.
PSYCHOLOGY OF CREATIVE NONFICTION:
While nonfiction records, reports, and teaches facts to readers, it can be dry and devoid of feeling and emotion. Yet the reader’s learning experience can be considerably enhanced when that “lesson,” like the contents of fictional pieces, serves to entertain, since he employs higher emotional levels to partake of the experience, creating enjoyment and fostering greater memory retention.
What, for instance, would you rather do: read a chapter in a history book or see a live play on Broadway? Which would you find more entertaining?
CREATIVE NONFICTION APPLICATIONS:
3). Autobiography/Personal History
5). Travel/Sense of Place
6). Personal Reflections
7). Human Nature
8). Journalism (Think 60 Minutes)
Although the creative nonfiction genre must remain loyal to what occurred, it does so by means of fictional writing elements, including the use of the active as opposed to the passive voice, bringing characters to life, generating dialogue, using narrative versus expository writing to create scenes, and evoking drama, all to engage and almost entertain the reader.
Tom Wolfe, of The Right Stuff fame and an early user-if not inventor-of this mixed-genre, once commented, “What interested me was not simply the discovery that it was possible to write accurate nonfiction with techniques usually associated with novels (and) short stories. It was that plus. It was the discovery that it was possible in nonfiction, in journalism, to use any literary device… to excite the reader both intellectually and emotionally.” (Theodore A. Rees Cheney, ibid, p. 3).
CREATIVE NONFICTION METHODS:
Creative nonfiction implies borrowing or using fiction methods and giving it the structure or appearance of one genre when, in fact, it is another-or, ironically, fact.
Because it is built upon more than just the reporting of facts, it often employs the narrative method of writing-that is, it consists of a string of important scenes to evoke vibrancy, just as the novelist does in composing his books.
“Writing in the dramatic method (in scenes) is appropriate in creative nonfiction. As fiction writers know, scenes give vitality, movement, action-life-to a story. Scenes show people doing things, saying things, moving right along in life’s ongoing stream.” (Theodore A. Rees Cheney, ibid, p. 11).
While a journalist or newspaper reporter may report on the immediacy of an event, conducting interviews for supporting quotes, the creative non-fictionalist may report an event or episode in history years after it occurred, requiring much more and in-depth research to do so. Its greater impact will most likely be known by this time.
“For the nonfiction writer, advice to show rather than tell means put more drama into your nonfiction writing. Show the reader what’s happening. We believe what we see; we distrust what we’re told. That’s the secret to writing, whether fiction or nonfiction. Capture our reader’s attention through the eyes and ears-the senses.” (Theodore A. Rees Cheney, ibid, p. 12).
It becomes, after all, more effective when the reader can watch a story unfold before his eyes than just reading what he is told.
WHAT IS TRUTH?
Since the journalist and creative non-fictionalist both strive for truth and accuracy, is there any difference between the two? It depends upon the filter.
Journalists stick to the facts and concrete details, employing expository writing.
Creative non-fictionalists may do the same, but the “creative” portion of the designation can only be achieved through an emotional filter, which breathes life into the incidents and characters, and he may employ both expository and narrative writing.
“They feel the whole truth has not been told unless the emotional context is there. Both traditional and creative nonfiction writers aim for the same thing-truth-or the accurate portrayal of life. They differ, however, on what truth means and what such accuracy involves.” (Theodore A. Rees Cheney, ibid, p. 36).
CREATIVE NONFICTION BUILDING BLOCKS:
The standard and creative nonfiction genres can be contrasted as follows.
Standard nonfiction uses and incorporates facts and interviews for accuracy, completeness, and objectivity.
Creative nonfiction is respectful of facts, but is usually structured more like fiction, employing scenes, dialogue, and characters.
“The scene is the dramatic element in fiction and creative nonfiction. (It) is the fundamental block around which the writer forms the story. A story usually has a number of scenes, and the method best used in creative nonfiction is to develop the story scene by scene. A scene reproduces the movement of life: life is motion, action.” (Theodore A. Rees Cheney, ibid, p. 54).
It also imitates life-that is, how it plays out.
CREATIVE NONFICTION WRITING TIPS:
1). Always use and never change fact: Creative nonfiction always embraces facts and never releases its grip. The writer of this genre must connect the dots with plausible action and/or dialogue, but never remove or tamper with the dots themselves. He must resist any temptation to allow his creativity or imagination to modify, distort, or ignore truth. A person who writes a creative nonfiction piece about the War of 1812, for example, but believes that it sounds more plausible to round out the date to 1815, is writing fiction.
2). Extensively research events and people. Use primary sources, such as documents, police records, and transcripts first, and secondary ones, such as other published books, next, before you attempt to write creative nonfiction, or your imagination may “conveniently” fill in the blanks where information is lacking.
3). Create an outline: Because creative nonfiction’s appeal is the combination of a true story (yours or someone else’s) and a compelling, engaging narrative, which reads more like a novel, the most effective method of doing so is to create a clearly defined structure and objective. First develop the story’s skeleton (what happens, when, and where) and then flesh it out with the details obtained from first-hand research. Only in the case of gaps should the writer even consider employing reconstructed dialogue between actual characters.
4). Create scenes: Since fiction and creative nonfiction share the elements of scene, they become the engines that drive the story by means of events, characters, and dialogue. They incorporate the proverbial “Show, don’t tell” philosophy. While it will most likely be impossible to omit any expository writing (fiction also employs it), the narrative elements provide the “creative” aspect of the genre.
There are several ways a creative nonfiction book can be structured, as follows.
1). Chronological structure: The story or account is presented in the chronological order or sequence in which it occurred, whether it spanned several days or years.
2). Flashback structure: The story is related by means of flashbacks, discussing the events that preceded the author’s present-time narrative and explains, illustrates, or clarifies how and why the current state or event occurred.
3). Trip structure: Very much like an itinerary, the trip structure follows the journey it seeks to illustrate. A cross country trip, for example, may begin with a traverse of the George Washington Bridge and then describe the events that occur in the states passed through along the way.
4). Personal trip structure: The author describes his or her personal journey-that is, how the events and people he encountered changed him, his feelings, and beliefs-and the destination to which they led, which, in essence, is the person’s own transformation. This is a very applicable method for book-length memoirs.
5). Beginning at the end: Similar to the flashback structure, it entails, as its name implies, beginning the account at the end and then tracing how it all led to the present situation or circumstance. A typical example would commence: “I’m 45-years-old. My husband just asked me for a divorce. My kids have long ago flown the coop. And when I last checked, I had $100 to my name. I thought I’d done everything right. How did it all go so wrong?”
ANGLES OF APPROACH:
The content of creative nonfiction articles and books will considerably vary according to the author’s personal angle of approach to his subject, of which there are two principle types.
1). Objective: The author maintains a detached, factual approach. In the case of a train derailment, a railroad engineer might report on the type of locomotive, the number of cars, the track gauge, the speed, any maintenance infractions, and the number and severity of inquiries and casualties on board.
2). Subjective: The author, such as the ambulance driver who first arrived on the scene, employs more of a personal commentary, including his observations, feelings, and emotions as he dealt with and administered aid to the injured or deceased.
POINT OF VIEW:
The point of view entails determining and then uniformly employing the set of eyes through which the story will be related-that is, through the author’s own-“I” or the first person-or another’s–“he” or “she” or the third person. Determination can be optimally achieved by asking several questions.
1). Whose story is this?
2). Who could most effectively relate it?
3). Shall I use the first person (I) or the third person (he or she) as the narrator?
Scene writing offers several strengths.
1). It evokes sensual images in the reader’s mind, enabling him to immerse himself in the narrative.
2). t makes past present.
3). The events unfold before the reader, not to the reader.
4). Characters are experienced through dialogue, gestures, and feelings.
5). The reader partakes of, as opposed to observes, the experience.
Because creative nonfiction entails the inclusion of scenes to illustrate the story and there are most likely hundreds of them the author has to choose from, he must be selective. In order to ameliorate this task, he should consider the following.
1). Which major scenes, when viewed collectively, will most accurately and completely illustrate the story?
2). Which ones provide the greatest amount of drama and can serve as turning points, such as life-changing events, tragedies, births, deaths, arguments, divorces, epiphanies? The day your son changed his religion may qualify. The day he changed his socks would not.
3). Which ones provide the most visual and sensual impacts?
Human beings both drive the story and are what the story is usually about. Whether they are real or fictitious, they are always more than meets the eye—that is, it is not how they look that makes them who they are, but their ways, mannerisms, gestures, poses, views, beliefs, feelings, and personalities that do. They can either be directly described or subtly illustrated.
When genres are compared, fiction entails character development and focus, since they serve as the players of the story and their lives often intertwine, while traditional nonfiction involves an accurate recounting of factual events, almost like an extremely long, 200-or-so-page news story. Because creative nonfiction marries elements of both, the character element of it takes on new importance. It is not possible to fully understand, in human terms, the events without them, since characters are the ones who create, shape, and resolve those events. By including them, the author can offer a far more complete and accurate picture. In creative nonfiction, of course, they are real people, not contrived composites devised in the author’s mind.
“The creative nonfiction writer does not ‘create’ characters; rather, he or she reveals them to the reader as honestly and accurately as possible. Like most contemporary fiction writers, creative nonfiction writers reveal character much as it happens in real life-bit by bit.” (Theodore A. Rees Cheney, p. 134).
Think real life, especially since creative nonfiction characters come from real life. If you met someone today who eventually became your best friend, you would not be handed his or her resume or autobiography. Instead, you would gradually become acquainted with him through successive conversations and interactions until all your quality matches bonded you and led to that “best friend” status.
Here is a sequence of events likely to occur as you get-to-know someone.
1). Your mind takes a snapshot of this person’s physical appearance-not an x-ray or MRI-so that the next time you see him, you will be able to identify him as “Larry.”
2). You learn about his background, education, and career, seeking commonalities. “I graduated from Hofstra,” Larry says. “What a coincidence,” says Sharon, “I did my undergraduate work there.”
3). You test the waters. Is the person very structured, stern, and serious, or does he have sense of humor? Will he take what you say as something carved in stone or see it as a joke?
4). You notice mannerisms and frequently used expressions. Is he very proper or does he use slang and even curse words?
5). The more you get-to-know him, the more impressions you have, revising, perhaps, the earlier ones. “I first thought that he was like my cousin-very reserved. But I see he can let loose once in a while.”
Writers choose those elements which optimally describe and illustrate their major characters.
“They reveal the bits in a sequence that is reasonably connected with the unfolding narrative and simulates life in its nonlinear, unpredictable revelations, spreading pieces of characterization through the article or book… ” (Theodore A. Rees Cheney, p. 135).
Nothing brings a piece of writing to life more than dialogue between two or more characters.
“Whether you’re writing fiction or creative nonfiction, the most effective technique for involving readers-making them feel as though they are right there-is well-written dialogue.” (Theodore A. Rees Cheney, p. 93).
Because most dialogue is not necessarily recorded, research can provide the topics discussed and these can be transformed into realistic, inter-character conversations. The types of dialogue included should be the most evocative, important, transforming, and scene-moving. Sources can range from reminiscences to memoirs, historic letters, court documents, journals, newspaper articles, and other books.
In order to improve the dialogue’s realism, capture the characters’ accent, dialect, colloquialisms, tone, rhythms, and moods.
The author can employ one of two types of dialogue.
1). Captured conversation-dialogue recorded or preserved.
2). Recreated dialogue-converting exposition writing into narrative writing.
“If you can develop a robust list of historical details, establish meaningful set pieces, and construct accurate points-of-view, you will end up with a narrative that does more than simply relate historic information,” according to Todd James Pierce in his article, “Preparing to Write: Research and the Art of Narrative Nonfiction, (The Writer, April 2017, p. 19). “You’ll have a manuscript that allows readers the vicarious sensation of experiencing the past. Such books use language and research to transport readers to another place, to another time, to a realm where history opens in miraculous and memorable ways.”
Rees Cheney, Theodore A. “Writing Creative Nonfiction: Fiction Techniques for Crafting Great Nonfiction.” Berkeley, California: Top Speed Press, 2001.
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