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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.

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