There are many ways to define the literary genre we call Creative Nonfiction. It is a genre that answers to many different names, depending on how it is packaged and who is doing the defining. Some of these names are: Literary Nonfiction; Narrative Nonfiction; Literary Journalism; Imaginative Nonfiction; Lyric Essay; Personal Essay; Personal Narrative; and Literary Memoir. Creative Nonfiction is even, sometimes, thought of as another way of writing fiction, because of the way writing changes the way we know a subject.
As a devotee of this form I like to define the genre in as broad a way as possible. I describe it as memory-or-fact-based writing that makes use of the styles and elements of fiction, poetry, memoir, and essay. It is writing about and from a world that includes the author’s life and/or the author’s eye on the lives of others.
Under the umbrella called Creative Nonfiction we might find a long list of sub-genres such as: memoir, personal essay, meditations on ideas, literary journalism, nature writing, city writing, travel writing, journals or letters, cultural commentary, hybrid forms, and even, sometimes, autobiographical fiction.
Creative nonfiction writing can embody both personal and public history. It is a form that utilizes memory, experience, observation, opinion, and all kinds of research. Sometimes the form can do all of the above at the same time. Other times it is more selective.
What links all these forms is that the “I,” the literary version of the author, is either explicitly or implicitly present—the author is in the work. This is work that includes the particular sensibility of the author while it is also some sort of report from the world. Be it a public or a personal world. Be the style straightforward like a newspaper feature, narrative like a novel, or metaphorical like a poem.
One of my favorite words to attach to the art of creative nonfiction writing is the word “actual.” I prefer the word actual to the word truth. Fiction writers insist that they too write the truth, and that they must invent in order to tell this truth. I prefer the word actual to the word fact. Facts alone are too dry, and too absent of association. I prefer the word actual to the word real. What is and is not real is continually up for grabs. Do we know, for instance, what is a real woman? A real man? The word real is too laden with assumption. I prefer the word actual because it refers to simple actuality. We begin a work of creative nonfiction not with the imaginary but with the actual, with what actually is or actually was, or what actually happened. From this point we might move in any direction, but the actual is our touchstone.
Different writers have said very different things about why they write in this form. Lee Gutkind, the editor of the magazine Creative Nonfiction, has described the form as a quest for understanding and information. The cultural critic bell hooks has said she wrote her memoir Bone Black in order to “recover the past.” Essayist, memoirist, and diva of nonfiction prose style Annie Dillard has said she writes to “fashion a text.” Dorothy Allison has used the stories of her life in both fiction and nonfiction in order, she’s written, “to save my life.”
The various roots of this form are quite widespread. The practice of narrative and social witness reportage can be traced all the way back to Daniel Defoe’s (fictional) Journal of a Plague Year as well as to 18th century “disaster journalism.” In the 1960’s the New Journalists revolutionized modern journalistic form by insisting on inserting the first person into their reportage. These writers, such as Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, were interested in bringing the presence of an individual awareness to the work, acknowledging that the writer is incapable of complete subjectivity and is constantly interpreting what he or she observes. From this tradition we inherit countless models of the ways to translate interviews and research into a style that resembles the storytelling and dramatic movement of fiction and the language and rhythms of poetry.
The personal essay form is much older. It dates back, according to some, to 16th century French writer Montaigne and to the French root of the word “essay,” which means to “attempt” or “try.” Others suggest we might date the essay form back even further, and include such works as The Pillow Book of Sei Shonogan, the eloquent musings of a 10th century Japanese lady of the court. The personal essay reflects the mind at odds with itself, and some of the most beautiful personal essays ask questions they cannot hope to answer. It’s the meander through ideas and stories that make the work wonderful to read.
We can look, also, to St. Augustine’s Confessions, written in the 5th century, as a model for writing out of our own life and experience. Sometimes referred to as “the first memoir” St. Augustine’s story is one of conversion and rebirth, not unlike today’s familiar recovery-from-addiction narrative. Personal memoir is a form that has slowly evolved into the sort of the book commonly found on the contemporary bookstore new release table. At one time the actual memoirist was considered insignificant to the memoir. When a soldier described the battle, for instance, it was the battle that mattered, not the soldier. Public events were considered historical, while private life was seen as inappropriate to the written word, unless you were a person considered of singular historical importance—Winston Churchill, or a Kennedy, for instance.
All this has changed in our postmodern day-to-day. Feminism has privileged the personal, changing the paradigms of what is worthy of cultural notice and recovering the stories of lives previously absent from history. Identity and cultural politics redirected attention to people of color, gays and lesbians, the disabled, and anyone else who was up to that point missing from the public record. The mainstreaming of psychoanalysis and related disciplines suggested that our conscious and unconscious motivations and feelings are no longer considered strictly private matters.
A negative interpretation of these cultural changes suggests we are interested in the private story and the personal vantage point only because we are held hostage by talk show and “reality TV” culture. While it is true that it’s often difficult to fully comprehend how commercial culture has influenced our tastes and cravings, I believe that these phenomena are coupled with what has become a healthy intellectual and emotional curiosity about the world as it actually exists. We want to know what really happened. What distinguishes quality literary endeavor from media manipulation has as much to do with intention and artistry as it does public confession.
Beyond the hype and exploitation of the worst of the commercial personal forms, what I continue to value is one person’s story—the world as seen through the scrim of each of our personal experiences. For better or worse, we are more aware than we once were of the role the personal plays in everything we do. These changes in literary nonfiction grow out of parallel changes in our world.
The report, the critique, the rumination, the lyric impression and the hard fact are all found in contemporary creative nonfiction writing. It is the mix of all these elements that make creative nonfiction an illuminating and moving form of historical documentary, as well as lovely literature.
Finally, I’m with Annie Dillard when I say creative nonfiction writing is first about the formation of a text, the creation of piece of art, just like any painting or musical composition. Your life and the life of the world is your raw material, as much a part of the mix as is the paint, the chords, the words. Your subjects might be any part of this world.
Accounting for the fluid lines of tradition streaming into the creative nonfiction of today can be overwhelming, but also freeing. We creative nonfiction writers can make form out of whatever containers we are capable of imagining, and still be working within the wide parameters of the actual.
I end with my favorite words on the subject of creating creative nonfiction literature. This is a quote from Annie Dillard, from her famous essay “To Fashion a Text.”
“When I gave up writing poetry I was very sad, for I had devoted 15 years to the study of how the structures of poems carry meaning. But I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme. The range of rhythms in prose is larger and grander than it is in poetry, and it can handle discursive ideas and plain information as well as character and story. It can do everything. I felt as though I had switched from a single reed instrument to a full orchestra.“