Creative nonfiction is a relatively new genre, so perhaps it shouldn’t be so surprising that many people attempt it without really understanding what they’re attempting. Though essays have a rich history, creative writing as we understand it has moved away from the essay to break new ground and in doing so has apparently confused many of those who are interested in writing it. Reading creative nonfiction submissions is like panning for gold: sifting through a collage of personal anecdotes to find one that shines.
First, let’s define what creative nonfiction is. The University of Vermont Writing Center’s website offers one of the more simple and concise definitions: “It is writing composed of the real, or of facts, that employs the same literary devices as fiction . . .” Clear enough, don’t you think? However, writing good creative nonfiction necessitates a deeper look.
So we’ve defined what creative nonfiction is. Let’s take a look at what it is not. Creative nonfiction is not a blog post and it is not a diary entry. Creative nonfiction has to have something more. Put bluntly, creative nonfiction has to matter to someone other than you and your best friend. While your high school experience, your first heartbreak, or your job might be interesting to you and those close to you, if you’re going to write a creative nonfiction piece about it, you need to find a way to make your experience universal. You need to find a way to put it in a larger context.
While it’s possible to be too casual and too personal, it’s also possible to make the opposite mistake and forget the “creative” part of creative nonfiction. A creative nonfiction piece should not be a news article and it should not be an academic paper. However well-researched your piece, it’s the elements of literary fiction that make it creative nonfiction. Perhaps you have read a beautiful, compelling feature in a newspaper. I’ve definitely read a few that I think would qualify as creative nonfiction. It is the ability of the writer to instill a sense of place, to handle dialogue, or to move us with lyrical language that will elevate these kinds of pieces beyond journalism. The point is, however well-done, creative nonfiction is more than just delivering facts.
So do yourself a favor and pick up some Maggie Nelson and some Joan Didion and some David Sedaris. See how they make their experiences important to their readers. See how they weave facts and research seamlessly into their subject matter. See what these writers and others like them are doing with their experiences and the literary forms they’re using. Creative nonfiction is a rich and rewarding genre that is worth exploration, so get in there and get busy.
Hilary Collins is a MFA candidate in Creative-Nonfiction at Roosevelt University and the Oyez Review 43 Editor in Chief.