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
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.