Creative non fiction: Get to know the genre

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Applying creative writing techniques is bringing a new lease of life to non-fiction, but how do you write in the popular genre?

Creative non-fiction is one of the most significant genres in contemporary writing. It’s popular with readers, agents and publishers are continually on the look-out for it, and many writers see it as the ideal form of literary expression in a society where the cultural focus is increasingly shifting towards individual and lived experience.

But what is creative non-fiction?

Very simply, it’s true stories, told in a way that reads like a fiction: factual writing that uses creative writing techniques. It encompasses life-writing, memoir, personal essays, diaries, travel writing, food writing, and more. It can, and often does, tell personal accounts, but it can equally tell any other kind of real-life story – crime, historical, biographical, whatever. So, it can be used to recreate very personal stories as well as ones that are in the public domain. It can be used to tell a little-known story or show a new aspect of a well-known one.

In all cases the story being told is likely to be one that’s important to the writer – perhaps because it’s their very personal emotional experience (Helen Macdonald in H is for Hawk; Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert), or because it reveals what happens when an individual’s life takes on a particular cultural or historical significance (Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks). It’s a wide-open genre that can encompass many varieties of factual storytelling, but what all creative non-fiction has in common is that it uses narrative writing techniques to tell factual stories.

Everything in a piece of creative non-fiction, whether about personal experience or a wider social context, will be factually accurate. Unlike fiction writing, nothing is made up or invented. The ‘creative’ part of creative non-fiction is the way that it’s written. The way the story is told is what sets it apart from straight reportage, or an academic essay. Creative non-fiction draws on the same techniques as fiction writing, using language to convey compelling, dramatic, emotionally engaging characters, events and impressions that entice the reader into the world the writer is presenting in the same way as a novel or short story.

Creative non-fiction is not new. Recounting the murders of four members of an American farming community, Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood was groundbreaking when it was published in 1966. But the genre has come to prominence in the last 25 years, with notable titles including Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, an exploration of grief after the author’s bereavement (2005) and Running With Scissors by Augusten Burroughs, an account of the author’s dysfunctional family (2002).

One of the reasons creative non-fiction is so popular with writers is that it’s a medium that allows them to find their own way of telling often very personal stories. It’s a genre that allows experimentation with form and style and gives the writer the opportunity to find the most appropriate way to tell their story. Creative non-fiction gives writers the option not just of telling a personal story, but doing it in the way that works best to reflect the content and get it across to the reader. In an age where people value the personal stories that they own, and that prizes authenticity and personal accounts, creative non-fiction allows these stories to be told in a raw, honest and individual way. Recent anthologies The Good Immigrant and Common People: An Anthology of Working Class Writers contain compelling and creative examples of own-voices writing and the way it is redefining the 21st century literary landscape in terms of the stories being told and the voices that tell them.

Here are some recent examples of creative non-fiction which demonstrate how the writer has tailored the style and delivery so that it conveys the experience of the events being told in the piece of writing.

How do you write creative non-fiction?

One of the most frequently-given pieces of advice to writers of creative non-fiction is to write in scenes. Storytelling is paramount, and scenes are a way to engage readers by creating vivid, cinematic impressions.

Imagine – for instance – that you’re writing a memoir about your childhood. You want not just to say that you were in your grandmother’s kitchen, but to evoke it in such a way that the reader can vividly imagine the sights, scents and textures of a past time. So perhaps you might create a scene that brings to life the grandmother preparing the food you associate with that period. You might describe the utensils – were they worn, faded with use? What were the cooking smells? How did your younger self experience that kitchen? Bring the picture in your mind’s eye to life for your readers by conveying sensory impressions and what it felt like to be your younger self.

One of the joys of writing creative non-fiction is that you can play with the ways you convey your scenes. What were the ingredients in your grandmother’s pantry? Perhaps you could write a list. Or you could concentrate on the flavours, or the writing on the tins and jars, or the colours of the different foods. If you’re writing from personal experience it’s useful to remember there’s no prescribed formula to creative non-fiction. Try different approaches to see what best conveys the mood and tone you want to create.

Foreground human experience. It might be your own personal experience, if it’s life writing or memoir, or it might be the experience of a person you’re writing about. If you were writing historical non-fiction about the Suffragettes, you might concentrate on dates, documents and facts. But if you were writing a piece of creative non-fiction about an ancestor involved in the Votes for Women campaign, you could write about the differences between her life and yours, and look at the gaps between what you know about her and what you can’t find out. You might imagine what her life might have been like based on what you know, and think about what you might like to ask her. The two stories, woven together, could result in a powerful piece of creative writing based on accurate facts but told as a narrative, like a story.

Remember that just as in fiction, characters and dialogue will bring your creative non-fiction to life. This is where your knowledge of fictional techniques will serve you well. The only difference is that you are applying them in a different context. You may be recalling or revisiting something that actually happened, but your fiction-writing skills will allow you to bring it to life. The characters in your creative non-fiction exist or existed in fact and the job of a creative non-fiction writer is to convey them, and the events and impressions surrounding them, so that they come back, vividly, to life.

Exercise: Think of an event in your childhood that had a lasting significance for you. It may have been a purely personal event, or it could be a younger you witnessing a moment of historical change, such as the Apollo moon landings, a Royal Wedding or the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Remember where you were when the event happened, what you were doing and wearing, who you were with. What were people saying? What did it feel like to you? What colours, sounds, sensations, or other memories stand out? Write it all down.

Now start on a new piece of paper, and write about yourself remembering this event, and how and why that event made a difference to who you are now.

 

Read what crime writer Nick Triplow has to say about the narrative non-fiction techniques he used in his acclaimed Getting Carter: Ted Lewis and the Birth of Brit Noir.