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Five Writers Explore the Question: “What Exactly is Creative Nonfiction?”

Writer and teacher Karen McElmurray asked five writers to contribute their thoughts regarding creative nonfiction for an informal e-mail exchange. How would they define the genre? What qualities are present in the best nonfiction pieces? Here are the responses she received in our roundtable e-mail exchange. The writers who contributed are Greg Bottoms, Patricia Foster, Rebecca McClanahan, Dinty Moore, and Sue William Silverman.

Dinty Moore:
SHORT ANSWER: Creative nonfiction focuses on this human desire to tell – and be told – compelling stories. The term nonfiction means that real people, actual events, genuine places, and the author’s authentic thoughts and observations are being described. The word creative relates to the method of storytelling – a careful and skillful application of literary techniques.

Creative nonfiction focuses on this human desire to tell – and be told – compelling stories. The term nonfiction means that real people, actual events, genuine places, and the author’s authentic thoughts and observations are being described. The word creative relates to the method of storytelling – a careful and skillful application of literary techniques.   Though creative nonfiction writers employ considerable imagination in shaping the form of what is being written, in choosing the right words and sharpest metaphors, and in deciding which elements of a story best reveal the significance of a situation, the facts presented by the writer are not imaginary or invented.  They are true.

Of course, since much of what is classified as creative nonfiction falls under the memoir category – past events examined through a present lens – questions as to whether absolute accuracy is even possible are inevitable.  Authors of memoir are almost always required to utilize “remembered” dialogue and details, yet scientific studies show that memory is never as reliable as we would like to think. Certain details slip away over time, while others become polished in our minds until they shine a bit brighter than the reality. Each author of creative nonfiction struggles with this problem of memory and accuracy, and there are no hard and fast rules. Readers understand this, and for the most part simply expect that you are doing your best to remember accurately (and where possible, perhaps you have checked with others who were there to see what you have missed.) Though you may not remember your mother’s exact words to you as you walked into the orthodontist’s office in eighth grade, chances are pretty good that you remember your mother’s usual speech patterns, the expressions she tended to use, and the general idea of what she was trying to tell you. If you combine these elements to portray an honest representation of that conversation, most writers and readers would agree that you have played fairly with memory, even if your version is not a “court transcript.”

A helpful way to approach the question of memory in creative nonfiction is to occasionally investigate your own motives. Are you remembering something a certain way in order to make yourself look more like the hero of the situation, or in order to cast your lazy brother-in-law in an even more unpleasant light? If so, you are being dishonest. Moreover, you will probably find that the less straightforward, more complex truth, where you are not “all good” and your brother-in-law is not “all bad,” makes for a richer, more interesting story.  If, however, you can look yourself in the mirror (and your reader in the eye) and say “This is my honest memory, and though my recollection certainly isn't perfect, I've done my absolute best to get it right,” you've done your job, even if in the end the color of your sister’s dress was yellow not blue on that summer day twelve years in the past.

Questions of what constitutes truth in nonfiction go beyond just memoir. Even if the nonfiction account you are writing concerns an event which occurred only two days before, and you took painstaking notes, the fact remains that we human beings can observe events right before our eyes and still overlook key details. Moreover, once we decide to write our account of the event, we are making the decision where to “point the camera,” what moments to stress and which to pass over because they are unimportant.  The fact that creative nonfiction offers one author’s view of the story is a strength of the genre, not a weakness or a disadvantage. In shaping the story, finding the proper starting point and ending point, and choosing which moments or ideas are important for you to emphasize, you are invariably presenting one version of the truth–your version. Make your version as honest, and interesting, as you possibly can.

Rebecca McClanahan:
Literary nonfiction (see *note below) is nonfiction that aspires to the condition of art. This aspiration may reveal itself in many ways--in close attention to language, for instance, or in an elegant, original structure, or in a well-paced narrative or in a surprising voice or in a new, unusual take on an old subject. Literary nonfiction uses the materials of the ordinary world in extraordinary ways. It pays attention and attempts to find what one of Henry James's characters calls the "the figure in the carpet," the design that is woven into even the most everyday events. It notices collisions and intersections, and uses these as opportunities into the deeper story, holding as its highest task what Faulkner called, in his Nobel acceptance speech, the search for "the human heart in conflict with itself." This conflict of heart, this place where the nonfiction writer is divided--intellectually, perhaps, or emotionally--is the center of nonfiction writing, even if the writer herself is only the "eye" that is present, peripherally, rather than the "I" at the center of the storm.

I like Dinty's definition very much and agree with it, except that I would enlarge his statement regarding "stories" to include alternate structures. He was probably speaking in broader terms than just narrative when he used "stories" but at any rate, I would want students and nonfiction writers to be encouraged to try many different modes, not just narrative. Storytelling is only one way to tell the nonfiction truths of our lives.
There are also, of course, lyric modes; segmented, "follow the brush" structures; the memoir; the profile; the travel piece; the personal essay fueled by argument or voice; and any number of hybrid forms. And this list just grazes the surface of structures that can be used in literary nonfiction.

I also like Dinty's notion of truth in nonfiction being related not only to getting the facts straight--or as straight as any facts can be gotten--but also to the "author's authentic thoughts." I just read a book (which I almost didn't finish for reasons I will only partially explain) that bothered me a great deal. I had no problem with the facts of the story; they were, I was convinced, highly researched and reliably accurate facts. However, I did not trust the author's "take" on the events. Specifically, I did not believe that the event she so scrupulously and accurately described actually meant as much to her as she made it out to mean. No one will take her to court on this charge. No one will scream, "you lied" about facts, timeline etc. Still, something about the book felt untrue to this reader; something kept saying to me that the emotion felt trumped up. Maybe I didn't trust the author’s motives. Or perhaps I am just too critical a reader. For whatever reason, I do not consider her book an example of artful literary nonfiction. Writers can get the facts right—and it goes without saying that getting the fact right is an essential job of nonfiction writers--and still miss the truth of the heart.

Another way to distinguish literary nonfiction from non-literary nonfiction regards not so much the definition of "finished" nonfiction--the text itself, I mean, and what we might glean from that finished text--but rather the process of that text's making. The process of writing literary nonfiction is closer, I feel, to the process of writing other forms of literary art (fiction, poetry, drama) than it is to the process of writing traditional, academic, or strictly journalistic forms of nonfiction. The literary nonfiction writer often proceeds without knowing what she will discover or what form the final work will take. Words are not just containers into which she places her already conceived notions, plots, or structures; words are her partners in the journey to discover the pattern hiding within the facts. Writing begets more writing; meaning grows on the page. So the literary nonfiction writer writes into the question, into the mystery, and the writing process itself is part of the journey.

*I prefer the term "literary nonfiction" to "creative nonfiction" mostly because whenever my students, or readers, talk to me about "creative nonfiction," they seem always and only to focus on the truth/fact issue, while ignoring the hundreds of other ways in which nonfiction can be creative/literary. Creative becomes a synonym for invention; invention, as in, well I guess I can make things up, right? I mean, I can be creative! Creativity, to the nonfiction writer, does not consist in making things up but rather in making things from.

Sue William Silverman:
Creative nonfiction is a genre of writing that uses many devices associated with fiction such as dialogue, plot, narrative arc, character development, and setting to tell true stories. Increasingly, CNF writers are drawing upon the imagistic power of poetry to make their prose more immediate as well. By recognizing the impossibility of being objective, CNF writers, nevertheless, bring to their craft an examination of actual lived experience. Although some critics have pointed to the “fudging” of facts (think James Frey), these shortcomings of individual writers should not discredit the whole genre. No one suggests that journalists should stop writing because of frauds committed, for example, by Jayson Blair. And, of course, to write CNF is to explore events metaphorically—not just state the facts of them. CNF seeks to make the personal universal, just as in poetry and fiction. In this sense, it is an equally important art form.

Greg Bottoms:
Over the last quarter century, as the din of contemporary life has become exponentially louder, there has been a steady increase in, I’m going to say a Renaissance in, both interest and output in the personal  voice in literature and in what has been called literary nonfiction, the fourth genre, narrative nonfiction, the literature of  reality, or, more plainly and sometimes problematically, creative  nonfiction. The genre isn’t new. Artful journalistic narratives date back at least to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Years; 
autobiographical meditation back to St. Augustine’s Confessions;  literary, expressionistic nature and science writing back to Robert  Burton’s The Anatomy of Melancholy and beyond, but some of the debates  surrounding it about “truth,” genre borders, and the prevalence of  confessional in our society seem to be.  It is, I think, a very good time to be an aspiring writer reading and composing creative nonfiction.  There is much to think and talk about on both the textual and extra-textual level.

Subgenres of creative nonfiction include memoir, personal essay, travel writing, nature writing, literary journalism, autobiographical art and cultural criticism, as well as more experimental forms such as the lyric essay and the nonfiction short shorts. And, of course, there is cross-breeding and gray area between and across these subgenres; for instance, some works may well be both lyric essay and travel piece, short short and nature essay, memoir and cultural criticism, personal essay and literary journalism). 

What all creative nonfiction has in common is a life beyond information and mere facts, an intention to tell the truth (understanding that that is not as easy as one might assume), a poetic attention to  language, and an aspiration to be art.  It goes deeper into human experience than a newspaper report or essayistic radio commentary or special-needs confessional or dashed-off arts review ever tries to do (there is a place and audience for these things--me,  for one--but they are not, it is important to understand, creative nonfiction).  Such work belongs, because of its artistry, seriousness, humanity, and  intelligence, on the same shelf as fine poetry, novels, short stories,  and plays.

Patricia Foster (excerpted from an essay called “Sideswiped”):
It’s been said that trauma is often the engine for memoir. But what exactly is trauma? Is it any bad thing that happens to you – the shrieking siren of the ambulance, the suffocating humiliation of desertion, divorce, the sudden downsizing of your coveted job?
No. Not necessarily.
Trauma, according to critic Cathy Carruth, is the response to an unexpected or overwhelming violent event or events that are not fully grasped as they occur but return later in repeated flashbacks, nightmares and other repetitive phenomena ( 11). The crux here is repetition and incomprehensibility. What makes trauma trauma is the coming back to the “not knowing,” the sense that the event takes place too soon, too suddenly, “too unexpectedly to be fully grasped by consciousness” (4). It’s a lurching, drifting process, a “break,” Carruth says, “in the mind’s experience of time.” You aren’t expecting it, can’t see it coming, and recall only its exaggerated symptoms or miscellaneous consequences. Because the traumatic experience can’t be assimilated, can’t be fully known, it sneaks back with all its pinches and bruises, following a rather predictable cycle of forgetting and return. The plot is the gap between knowing and not knowing, a stick sharpened to prod you again and again. Or perhaps it’s a double plot: knowing and not knowing as it oscillates between death and survival, the “story of the unbearable nature of an event and the story of the unbearable nature of its survival” (6).
But how do you write such a plot? What structure, what point of view can you possibly use? In fact, how do you find a point of view when after trauma you often don’t know where to turn, don’t know how to see things, don’t even have a position from which to see?
Narrative structure seems to depend on your model of selfhood and how that self makes sense of the past. One model – the archeologist conceit -- suggests the metaphor of excavation: dig deep enough and the past can be rediscovered by the remembering subject who, through extensive work, excavates the secret buried in the psyche and -- wah-la!-- the root of the trauma is revealed: the illegitimate birth, the generational incest, the prolonged exposure to violent death.
A second model favors the metaphor of layering, implying that awareness is a continuous and provisional process, snapshots of past and present selves overlapping in a kind of collage that reveals not tunneling deeper and deeper toward awareness but the repetitive shock of dislocation. In this case, structure might mimic the symptomatology of traumatic events at the formal level, which means such books are thick with repetitive re-enactments and interruptions, the point of view frequently shifting. Such narratives tend to have no epiphany, to skew chronology, to be circular and paradoxical, subverting linear plot.
Or to be more specific, writers who mimic the symptoms of trauma often use fragmentation, repetition, and disruptive chronology, insisting on circling rather than progression, process rather than epiphany.

The Music of Sentences
The Art & Craft of Nonfiction

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