Creative nonfiction seems to have existed for as long as poetry, fiction, and drama have, but only in the last forty years or so has the term become common as a label for creative, factual prose. The length is not a factor in characterizing this genre: Such prose can take the form of an essay or a book. For this chapter’s discussion, we will focus on the essay, since not only will this shorter version of the form allow us to examine multiple examples for a better understanding of the genre, but also, you may have written creative nonfiction essays yourself. Looking carefully at the strategies exhibited by some successful essay writers will give us new ideas for achieving goals in our own writing.
First, let’s do what we can to more clearly define the creative nonfiction essay. What is the difference between this kind of essay and a…well, what shall we call essays outside this category? Non-creative nonfiction essays? This title does not work very well for our purposes; the distinction is a muddy one, since even a researched academic essay can exhibit creativity. However, we can make some general observations about the differences between creative nonfiction and works that do not fit neatly into this genre: Although written in prose form (prose is writing not visually broken into distinct lines as poetry is), the creative nonfiction essay often strives for a poetic effect, employing a kind of compressed, distilled language so that most words carry more meaning than their simple denotation (or literal meaning). Generally, this kind of essay is not heavy with researched information or formal argument; its priority, instead, is to generate a powerful emotional and aesthetic effect (aesthetic referring to artistic and/or beautiful qualities).
Virginia Woolf’s 1942 “The Death of the Moth” is an illuminating example of such a work. While the essay does not present a stated argument and proceed to offer evidence in the same way conventional academic argument would, it does strive to persuade. Consider this piece carefully at http://gutenberg.net.au/ebooks12/1203811h.html#ch-02 and see if you can detect the theme that Woolf is developing.
The title of Woolf’s essay, “The Death of the Moth,” offers us, from the start, the knowledge of the work’s theme of death. Woolf’s choice of tone for an essay on this topic is, perhaps, what distinguishes it from the many other literary works on the subject. The attitude is not one of tragedy, horror, or indignation, as we might expect. Rather, through imagery and diction, Woolf generates a tone of wistfulness. By carefully crafting the reader’s experience of the moth’s death, through the author’s own first person point of view, she reminds us of our own human struggle against death, which is both heroic and inevitable.
While this piece is not a poem, what aspects of it are poetic? Consider the imagery employed to suggest the season of death, for all of nature. The writer describes her experience sitting at her desk next to the window, observing the signs of autumn: the plow “scoring the field” where the crop (or “share”) has already been harvested. Although the scene begins in morning—characterized by energetic exertions of nature, including the rooks, rising and settling into the trees again and again with a great deal of noise, “as though to be thrown into the air and settle slowly down upon the tree tops were a tremendously exciting experience”—the day shifts, as the essay progresses, to afternoon, the birds having left the trees of this field for some other place. Like the moth, the day and the year are waning. The energy that each began with is now diminishing, as is the case for all living things.
The writer is impressed with the moth’s valiant struggle against its impending death because she is also aware of its inevitable doom: “[T] here was something marvellous as well as pathetic about him.” As is common in poetry, Woolf’s diction not only suggests her attitude toward the subject, but also exhibits a lyrical quality that enhances the work’s effect: She introduces words whose meanings are associated with youth and energy, as well as sounding strong with the “vigorous” consonants of “g,” “c,” “z,” and “t”—words such as “vigour,” “clamour,” and “zest.” Yet, the author counters this positive tone with other words that suggest, both in meaning and in their softer sounds, the vulnerability of living things: “thin,” “frail,” “diminutive,” and “futile.” In a third category of diction, with words of compliment—”extraordinary” and “uncomplainingly”— 233 Creative Nonfiction, the Fourth Genre Woolf acknowledges the moth’s admirable fight. In addition to indicating the moth’s heroism, the very length of these words seems to model the moth’s attempts to drag out its last moments of life.
What impression does the essay, as a whole, convey? The writer acknowledges that watching even such a small creature as the moth struggle against death, she sympathizes with the moth and not with the “power of such magnitude” that carries on outside the window—that of time and inevitable change, for this power is ultimately her own “enemy” as well. In her last line, “O yes, he seemed to say, death is stronger than I am,” what lesson has she internalized regarding herself, a human being who at first observed the autumn day with no immediate sense of her own mortality?