What Is Creative Nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction tends to be defined by what it is not. It is not, to begin with, fiction. Or poetry. Or drama. But neither is it simply writing about facts, like news reporting or research. (Although many journalists and academics write very well.) And it’s not the kind of writing that goes on in the professions, or the sort of argumentative prose that appears in op-ed columns.

So what is it, then? Here’s how Lee Gutkind—a writer, teacher, and the founding editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine—explains the term:

The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. . . .It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time. (“What Is Creative Nonfiction?“)

For me, the key terms here are honest and craft. In writing nonfiction, you don’t get to make stuff up. We expect nonfiction to be accurate and researched. But we don’t read creative nonfiction simply to learn about people and events. (I’d add texts, issues, and ideas as subjects for nonfiction, too.) We also read for the perspective that an author brings to her subject—for the pleasure of listening to her voice as a writer, of following her mind at work. We read, that is, as much for the writer as for the subject.

Most creative nonfiction thus has a personal feel. At times this leads to questions about how to tell if a piece actually is nonfiction—especially when a writer retells events from his past that readers have no way of confirming. The line between memoir and fiction can sometimes feel hard to draw. In such cases we need to trust the integrity of the writer, to assume that he is trying to be as true to his memory of what actually happened as possible. And nonfiction writers need to do everything they can to earn that trust from their readers.

But memoir is only one type of creative nonfiction. Often what makes a piece of writing feel personal is not its subject but its style—the sense we have of hearing an engaging voice on the page.  Many nonfiction pieces focus not just on personal memories and experiences, but on public events, texts, or issues. To make this more journalistic sort of nonfiction creative, a writer needs to figure out how to highlight her own perspective on her subject. This challenge is almost the opposite on the one faced by the writer of a personal essay: One writer needs to convince her readers that she is describing what actually happened; the other needs to work to give her readers something more than just the facts.

Since students are asked to write both personal essays and fact-based pieces, we’ll look at both types of creative nonfiction. You’ll then need to decide what kind of nonfiction you want your students to write, and how to guide them in doing so. I’m eager to help you with this project!