When I introduce myself as a writer, the person I’m talking to typically asks, “What do you write?”
After I reply, “Creative nonfiction,” I usually hear, “Oh…” and my new friend’s eyes focus somewhere beyond my face as if I’ve responded in a foreign language. I understand the confusion.
Essayist Scott Russell Sanders claims that the term nonfiction was coined by librarians to show their libraries weren’t filled with frivolous things. The genre’s name says more about what it isn’t, than what it is. It’s like saying that classical music is non-jazz or wine is non-beer. Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction Magazine, describes what creative nonfiction is in detail, but also offers this succinct and accurate definition: “True stories, well told.”
And that’s where the creative part comes in. A well-told story, whether true or made up, relies on literary craft techniques of characters, scenes, dialogue, setting, and description. It’s just that with true stories—nonfiction—the writer can’t exaggerate or lie about what really happened, can’t create characters that don’t exist, wouldn’t (or shouldn’t) falsely describe a setting. Or, as Gutkind says, “You can’t make this stuff up!”
What creative nonfiction writers do, though, is shape their stories—personal essays, memoirs, narrative nonfiction—just as novelists and short story writers do. They (we) use a range of storytelling techniques and tools. Recently, the editors of Spry Literary Journal undertook the task of compiling descriptions of some elements of the genre and, with the help of twenty-six writers, launched The ABCs of Creative Nonfiction.
Linsey Jayne, poet and founding co-editor of Spry, began the series this way:
“Reading the work of a gifted author in the genre suddenly gives you the feeling of being swept into your closest friend’s dream. Notes meet rhythm to become symphonies. Something about the artful way in which such a writer paints the universe invokes a sense of empathy. Her stories make you feel all the more human, connected to yourself and to the world. She sweeps you up into something that once seemed as ordinary as walking across your living room floor, but now is laden with the meaning that builds in the hundreds of times you’ve walked across that floor while holding the hand of your child or laughing with your loved ones late into the night.”
What followed Linsey’s introduction were twenty-six mini craft lessons to correspond with the letters of the alphabet. There was A is for Accoutrements by Spry co-editor Erin Ollila, B is for Bravery by fellow Whidbey Writers Workshop classmate Chels Knorr, and E is for Ethics. One of my favorites was Q is for (Not) Quitting. As a contributor to the journal’s Issue 2 with my essay Cycles, I was invited to participate in the series; my offering was S is for Setting.
Linsey concluded the ABCs of Creative Nonfiction posts with this reflection:
“Writers in the genre need to offer journalistic honesty, interrogating the elements of their pasts (or the pasts of their subjects) to the point of pain and often at the risk of their emotional stasis for the sake of their craft. They have to swear. A lot. (Honestly, I can understand why.) They need minds that are equal parts surrealist, absurdist, realist, magician; they need to care so much that when their worlds sweat, they sweat.”
Whether you’re a reader or writer (or both) of creative nonfiction, I think you’ll enjoy Spry’s A-Z compendium about the genre. If you get hooked, as I did, you can also check out the magazine’s ABCs of Writing for Beginners and ABCs of Fiction Writing. Up next from Spry will be the ABCs of Flash Fiction.