Updated: May 6, 2020
Recently, I was giving my PowerPoint presentation on memoir writing to a small audience of residents at a retirement community. When I said that memoir is a form of creative nonfiction, gentle laughter trickled around the room. “What?” I said. “Creative nonfiction? Does that sound weird?” Some thought I’d made up the term. One woman said what the others were thinking—creative nonfiction sounds like an oxymoron. How can writing be creative and nonfiction simultaneously?
Poor misunderstood creative nonfiction. Let’s explore this genre further.
Creative + Nonfiction
Everyone knows the distinction between the two major categories of writing: fiction and nonfiction. In regard to writing, creative typically means that people, places, and events in the prose have been invented. Therefore, fiction comprises imaginary events and imaginary people in an invented story. Creative writing requires using one’s imagination to craft every aspect of the story and its characters.
Nonfiction is writing based on facts, real events, and real people. Nonfiction itself has two main categories: informative nonfiction and literary nonfiction. When most people think of nonfiction, they think of informative nonfiction books or articles: self-help, how-to, academic, scientific, technical, and more. Creative nonfiction is literary nonfiction.
What do you get when you merge the mechanics of creative writing with factuality of literary nonfiction? Creative nonfiction, or CNF. Here are a few of the CNF categories:
Journals and diaries
Nature, city, and travel writing
In its simplest terms, CNF involves the application of the elements of creative writing—plot, conflict and resolution, character development, setting, voice, dialogue, and point of view—with the telling of true events featuring real people and places.
The two most closely related of these CNF categories are the personal essay and memoir.
Personal essays are usually written in the first person, as are memoir. But the focus of a personal essay is a topic (or subject) pertinent to the author and, unlike memoir, that topic is current or recent. The subject matter of a personal essay is typically a single contemporary issue as opposed to the recounting of a life event or series of related events that constitutes a memoir.
This category of CNF is often referred to interchangeably with autobiography. Memoir and autobiography are not the same. The simplest distinction I can offer is this:
An autobiography is the story of a life.
A memoir is a story from a life.
Autobiographies explore the details of a person’s life in chronological order. You would read an autobiography to learn about the person. Autobiography is not a form of creative nonfiction.
Memoir, while a story from a person’s life, is constructed in the same way fictional prose is. But the plot (or story) is factual, the main character is the author, the other characters are real people from the author’s life, as is the setting (the locations where the story take place). The purpose of a memoir is to reveal what a person has learned after what they have been through.
With a personal essay and a memoir, the author’s challenges, struggles, and failures are laid bare. It’s one thing to create a fictional character who makes mistakes and suffers pain and loss. But with these two forms of CNF, the author must have the courage to expose their good and bad times.
While journalism is about being objective and factual, literary journalism takes the position that people cannot be objective because anything they have seen, heard, or experienced has been changed through their personal, subjective filters. For this reason, literary journalism uses the techniques of journalism (observation, interviews, and reviews) to look beyond the straightforward facts to probe meaning outside of the facts.
The lyric essay is much like the personal essay; it deals with a topic that has affected the author. As the word lyrical means musical, melodic, or poetic, this type of writing relies heavily on descriptive imagery to tell the story.
Journals and diaries are written to document the day-to-day events of a person’s life. But, as you know if you have kept a journal or diary, feelings are a vital component of these, and observation and reflection are welcomed.
Nature, city, and travel writing are popular forms of CNF. Again, the author describes the facts of the environment, but must make the reader share the experience of the places. Reality mingles with subjectivity and the result entertains and informs.
What distinguishes a piece as creative nonfiction is writing that merges the real (the facts) with the mechanics of storytelling; real people, places, and events told in the style of fiction, employing character development, setting, voice, and tone.
If the author writes a piece of CNF, which deals with something and someone real, they have the freedom to take the storytelling in any direction they please.
CNF as a Career
Have you written creative nonfiction? Are you hoping to be published as an author of one of these CNF categories? Personally, I specialize is memoir, teaching memoir writing to residents of senior living communities. Please share your experiences with me.
In addition to my business, Strike The Write Tone, I am an editor, book coach, and ghostwriter for The Cheerful Word, a memoir publisher in Hendersonville, North Carolina.