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What is Creative Nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction is a literary genre that emerged in the early 20th century. The purpose of this style of writing is generally to entertain the reader – albeit with a purpose beyond pure entertainment! In other words, readers will glean something from your stories, even if the stories are humorous or lighthearted in tone. Let’s delve into more detail about this interesting style of writing and how you can incorporate it into your own creative work.

Character Development

Unlike more traditional narrative forms of writing, such as straight fiction or creative nonfiction, which are generally organized around one or two central characters and focus on those characters’ development over the course of the story, creative nonfiction is typically character-less. This doesn’t mean that there aren’t specific characters that the author wants you to focus on – quite the opposite, in fact! The absence of a central character in creative nonfiction allows for more room to develop other characters. As a result, you can produce a much more layered and intricately developed tale than you could with a traditional, character-driven narrative.

Consider the work of Ernest Hemingway, whose A Farewell to Fish is a completely character-less account of his last fishing trip. That doesn’t mean that there aren’t specific characters that we should focus on. We should focus on the tension between Hemingway and his daughter, Margot, as well as between the old and the new ways of fishing, respectively. While the author’s point of view is not completely objective, it is still firmly rooted in his family relationships, which significantly contributes to the overall cohesiveness of the work and prevents it from being completely characterized as “character-less”.

George Orwell’s famous novel, Animal Farm, similarly lacks a main character, but this is largely because the author wished to focus on the animals, rather than on the people. In fact, in the interests of establishing a believable world and imbuing the narrative with a sense of objective reality, Orwell inserts significant amounts of concrete detail regarding animal behavior and biology. This serves a dual function: on the one hand, it makes the animals seem more realistic and, on the other, it gives the narrative a semblance of “realism” that is lacking in more traditional forms of literature.

Theme Development

As the previous example suggests, one of the defining features of creative nonfiction is its thematic content. In other words, while you may use anecdotal evidence or real-life experiences to write your fiction, in creative nonfiction the focus is on the underlying themes that the events of the story are meant to evoke – not on the specifics of how the events actually unfolded.

Consider the work of John Steinbeck, whose emblematic novella, Of Mice and Men, is a dark comedy that deals with racial themes. The specific historical details, although important to the overall narrative, are there primarily to evoke the era in which the story is set – the Great Depression – and the various societal structures that the author perceives to be holding the country back. Moreover, in what is probably the most famous example of using concrete details to evoke a specific era, Steinbeck’s novel is interspersed with passages in the form of actual letters written by his protagonists during this time. These details not only give the story a sense of authenticity, but they also function as a sort of thematic counterpoint, highlighting the dualities that Steinbeck believes exist in the country at that time: on the one hand, the innocence and resourcefulness of the “little people,” and on the other, the corruption and avarice of the “big people,” who are portrayed as more animal-like, in both appearance and behavior.

Apart from evoking specific historical periods and situations, many writers choose to write about contemporary events because they feel that these are the topics that more people are interested in. For example, William Goldman’s The Princess Diarist is a memoir about the author’s obsession with the Columbian Queen – an identity that he felt was not being represented in the media at the time – and the subsequent backlash that he experienced, which in some ways prefigures the rise of the “alt-right” movement in the United States. The Princess Diarist is also notable for its interspersed scenes, which are entirely made up of emails and other communication artifacts relevant to the main narrative. These scenes act as a sort of meta-commentary on the very process of writing a memoir, as Goldman discusses the various drafts of the book, multiple extended family crises, and the self-doubts that he experienced while completing this work.

Style Development

The previous two points suggest, respectively, that the content and theme of your creative work will determine the style in which you write. Unlike more traditional modes of writing, such as fiction or non-fiction, where the style is often determined by the content (i.e., if you are writing about, say, World War II, then your prose will take on a more formal and/or objective tone), in creative nonfiction the style is generally determined by the author. For example, if you are writing for a general audience, you may wish to write in an entertaining manner, perhaps even making some lighthearted wisecracks about the topic at hand – though you should still maintain some semblance of objectivity, as your audience will expect you to – but it is still your story, after all!

Or, consider what happened when Stephen King began to write about baseball. For years, King had written mostly horror and fantasy novels, but in the 1990s he decided to branch out, writing and subsequently publishing several non-fiction books about the sport. What is interesting about these books is that, while they contain abundant amounts of scientific data about baseball, they are presented in such a way as to immerse the reader in the experience of watching a game – arguably one of the most immersive, and, at the same time, least objectifying styles of writing that you can apply.

There are various other elements that you could incorporate into your creative work, such as symbolism, metaphor, or alliteration. As you can see, there are many different ways in which you can put these elements together, which could end up being a very fun exercise, especially if you are looking for something different!

Why Should You Try Creative Nonfiction?

Apart from the obvious fact that it’s a great way to exercise your creative mind, why should you try creative nonfiction? Here are a few reasons why you might enjoy the challenges that this genre presents and the rewards that it may bring:

1. A Change of Pace

One of the things that we crave as readers is a change of pace. If you have a tendency to get bored of reading the same kinds of books over and over again, then creative nonfiction is a great way to change things up. You are not going to be writing about the same kinds of events and/or people, so you may become disconcerted by repetition. This is not meant to be a knock on your subject matter; quite the opposite, you could write a penetrating and brilliant analysis of, let’s say, the French Revolution for all I care – but why would I want to read that when I am in the mood for something quick and fun? Your readers and your audience will thank you for changing things up, even if it is for the better!

2. A Chance To Be Creative

Creative nonfiction allows for a higher degree of freedom, both in terms of content and style. You have the freedom to decide what you are going to write about and how you are going to write about it. As a result, you have the chance to exercise your creative mind and produce something that is both unique and engaging. Moreover, you have the freedom to be as creative as you want, provided that you do not infringe upon the copyright of others.

3. A Way To Work On Your Craft

Because creative nonfiction is not bound by the same rules as other forms of fiction or non-fiction, it is a great place to practice your writing craft. You can take a stab at something new and challenging – and, if you succeed, you might find that your work ethic has improved, as well. Think of all of the hours that you have spent writing and revising fiction and non-fiction. Now, imagine doing the same thing, only this time, you are not writing about events that you perceive to be real. You are writing about something that is rooted in your own personal experiences, yet it is not necessarily verifiable by others. The great thing about this option is that it gives you a chance to work on your craft, to find your voice, and to determine how you want the end product to sound. Moreover, by the time that you are finished with this exercise, you will have a polished product that can be sent out into the world, which is both engaging and unique, the very definition of creative nonfiction.