“It’s not what you look at that matters, it’s what you see.”
- Henry David Thoreau
An Explanation on Literary Journalism, Memoir & Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind
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.
The words “creative” and “nonﬁction” describe the form. 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. The goal is to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.
The word “creative” has been criticized in this context because some people have maintained that being creative means that you pretend or exaggerate or make up facts and embellish details. This is completely incorrect. It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.
“Creative” doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonﬁction: “You can’t make this stuff up!”
The Fastest-Growing Genre
Creative nonﬁction has become the most popular genre in the literary and publishing communities. These days the biggest publishers—HarperCollins, Random House, Norton, and others—are seeking creative nonﬁction titles more vigorously than literary ﬁction and poetry. Recent creative nonﬁction titles from major publishers on the best-seller lists include Laura Hillenbrand’s Unbroken, Dave Eggers’s Zeitoun, Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, and Jeannette Walls’s The Glass Castle.
Even small and academic (university) presses that previously would have published only books of regional interest, along with criticism and poetry, are actively seeking creative nonﬁction titles these days. In the academic community generally, creative nonﬁction has become the popular way to write.
Through creative writing programs, students can earn undergraduate degrees, MFA degrees, and PhDs in creative nonﬁction—not only in the United States but in Australia, New Zealand, and throughout the world. Creative nonﬁction is the dominant form in publications like The New Yorker, Esquire, and Vanity Fair. You will even ﬁnd creative nonﬁction stories featured on the front page of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.
The Memoir Craze
In the 1990s, the controversy over the publication of a half dozen intimate memoirs triggered what the publishing industry and the book critics referred to as the “memoir craze.” Angela’s Ashes (1996) by Frank McCourt and This Boy’s Life (1989) by Tobias Wolff were both made into major motion pictures; the British actress Emily Watson starred as McCourt’s mother, Angela, and Academy Award winner Robert De Niro played Wolff’s stepfather, Dwight Hansen. The Liars Club (1995) by Mary Karr, another of these best-selling tell-all memoirs, rode the new interest in the genre, as did Kathryn Harrison’s The Kiss.
Memoirs are not new to the literary world. Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is a classic of the form as is Isak Dinesen’s Out of Africa, ﬁrst published in this country in 1938. Today the memoir craze continues in full force. Celebrities, politicians, athletes—victims and heroes alike—are making their private lives public. And readers can’t get enough of these books. The literature of reality, with all of the pain and the secrets that authors confess, is helping to connect the nation and the world in a meaningful and intimate way.
Memoir is the personal side of creative nonfiction but there’s a public side as well, often referred to as narrative or literary journalism—or “big idea” stories. Michael Pollan (The Botany of Desire) captures big ideas, for example, as does Oliver Sacks (The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat) through creative nonfiction.
One distinction between the personal and the public creative nonfiction is that the memoir is the writer’s particular story, nobody else’s. The writer owns it. In contrast, the public side of creative nonﬁction is mostly somebody else’s story; anybody, potentially, owns it, anybody who wants to go to the time and trouble to write about it. These pieces, although narrative, focus on fact, leading to a bigger and more universal concept.
In every issue, Creative Nonfiction publishes “big idea/fact pieces”—creative nonﬁction about virtually any subject—from baseball gloves to brain surgery to dog walking to immortality or pig roasting. There are no limits to the subject matter as long as it is expressed in a story-oriented narrative way. These are stories almost anyone could research and write.
Because they’re so personal, memoirs have a limited audience, while the public kind of creative nonﬁction—when authors write about something other than themselves—has a larger audience. These “big idea/factual essays” are more sought after by editors and agents and will more likely lead to publication.
The Building Blocks of Creative Nonfiction
Scenes and stories are the building blocks of creative nonﬁction, the foundation and anchoring elements of what we do. This is what I tell people who want to write but have no experience writing. And I tell the same thing to the graduate students in my writing classes—and PhD students. Writing in scenes is one of the most important lessons for you to take from this book—and to learn.
The idea of scenes as building blocks is an easy concept to understand, but it’s not easy to put into practice. The stories or scenes not only have to be factual and true (You can’t make them up!), they have to make a point or communicate information, as I have said, and they have to ﬁt into the overall structure of the essay or chapter or book. It is often a daunting task. But it’s essential.
Writing in scenes represents the difference between showing and telling. The lazy, uninspired writer will tell the reader about a subject, place, or personality, but the creative nonﬁction writer will show that subject, place, or personality, vividly, memorably—and in action. In scenes.