Creative Nonfiction: What it Is and Isn’t
By: Kori Marshall
“True stories, well told.”
Lee Gutkind, creator and editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, defines the phrase easily as if there is no question or no other definition. It seems simple enough, but why is the genre just now emerging? What’s the difference in the nonfiction picture books we read in middle school for book reports and creative nonfiction, the rapidly growing genre with a hard-to-pin-down feel?
Gutkind, a master in his craft, says, “In some ways, creative nonﬁction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of ﬂavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonﬁction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these.” Later in Issue #0 of his magazine, he says, “The goal is to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.”
There are bits of literature we could consider CNF, memoirs from David Sedaris, James Frey, Joyce Carol Oates, or Susanna Kaysen; however, the true guts of the stuff lies in the balance of truth and lie. It is a difficult balance and not as easy to achieve as one may think – sometimes lies just sell better.
James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, has recently come under serious fire for his novel, published as a memoir or true story, which ultimately had huge holes in truthiness. Of the false statements in the book, Frey’s jail time, girlfriend’s suicide, and the ins and outs of his addictions, are perhaps the most major and upsetting. The truth is that the truth is enough more often than not and people get their feathers rather ruffled when you market them something as “absolutely true” instead of “mostly true with a few big holes.”
When people consider writing anything CNF, automatically, they assume memoir. In my English 500 course at Missouri State University, we recently received our first essay assignment. My professor, in the first paragraph of the assignment said, “I don’t need to know your deepest, darkest secrets.” A memoir, a large portion of the creative nonfiction literature, is defined as “an essay on a learned subject,” which for some reason makes writers and readers assume tragedy immediately.
The truth is, the exposed innermost workings of your mind are not a requirement to write a true story in a creative way. Waves of fiction with made up characters, monsters, and settings in places never visited, are not required for high quality reading material. Well-written and incredibly well-crafted works in CNF exist as essays, poetry, and cultural criticism. There are biographies (auto and not) and memoirs too, of course, that fit the bill, but don’t be afraid to venture into the topic because you feel like you have to bare your soul. In fact, creative nonfiction can be easier than fiction to write because all that it requires is a life experience and maybe a thesaurus.
There are essays outside of your marketing textbook, true works without pictures that are worthwhile and inspiring in a completely new turn. Consider reading Into the Wild by Jon Krakuer or pick up a copy of The Best American Essays 2016, edited by Jonathan Franzen, and venture into the (sometimes) dark world of true writing, just as capable of inching into your skin and brain as the newest Stephen King novel. The truth is alluring in a way you may not have considered. The genre is rapidly gaining publicity. Don’t be afraid to test the waters; read and write something new to you and start with something true to you.
It’ll be good for you!
Excellent creative nonfiction essays:
Roxane Gay’s “What We Hunger For” – http://therumpus.net/2012/04/what-we-hunger-for/ (caution, rated R for sexual themes)
Amitava Kumar’s “Pyre” – https://granta.com/pyre/
Mark Grief’s “Against Exercise” – https://nplusonemag.com/issue-1/essays/against-exercise/
Gutkind, Lee. “What Is Creative Nonfiction?” Creativenonfiction.org. Creative Nonfiction Magazine, n.d. Web. 3 Mar. 2017.