2.1: What is Creative Nonfiction?
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"Frederick Douglass" by Frank W. Legg (c. 1879) is in the public domain
Frederick Douglass' creative nonfiction account of the horrors of slavery and his escape from it was so powerfully written that it is largely credited, along with Douglass' speeches, as helping end slavery and empower African-American citizens (Ceasar).
“I shut my ears, averted my eyes, turning instead to what I thought at the time was pain's antidote: silence. I was wrong... Silence feeds pain, allows it to fester and thrive. What starves pain, what forces it to release its grip, is speech, the voice upon which rides the story, this is what happened; this is what I have refused to let claim me.”
― Tracy K. Smith, Ordinary Light
This textbook begins with creative nonfiction because most students find it the most accessible. Why? Because students encounter nonfiction every day. News stories, some Facebook posts, and documentaries are all examples of nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is the literary arm of nonfiction.
What is creative nonfiction? Currently, it is currently the most popular literary genre, with such titles as The Glass Castle by Jeanette Walls having more than 5 million copies in circulation (Cadden). Indeed, "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" (Gutkind). While generations past defined literature as poetry, drama, and fiction, Creative Nonfiction has increasingly gained popularity and recognition in the literary world.
According to the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction, this fast-growing and increasingly popular genre is defined as: "true stories, well told" (Gutkind). That is, creative nonfiction stories depict real-life events, places, people, and experiences, but do so in a way that is immersive, so readers feel emotionally invested in the writing in a way they probably are not as invested in, say, a textbook or a more formal autobiography. While "nonfiction" (without the creative designation) tells true stories as well, there is less emphasis upon and space for creativity. If regular nonfiction were a person, it might say "just the facts, ma'am." Creative nonfiction, on the other hand, might ask "and what color were her eyes as the moonlight reflected off the ocean into them, and what childhood memories did that moment dredge up?"
The best creative nonfiction tells a true story in an artistic -- or literary -- way. This means that the story has certain elements, such as descriptive imagery, setting, plot, conflict, characters, metaphors, and other literary devices. Usually, a work of creative nonfiction is narrated in first-person, though sometimes it can be written in third-person. It can be more lyric and personal, like Annie Dillard's nature essays, or representing important moments in history, like abolitionist Frederick Douglass' The Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass (1845) or Jo Ann Beard's "The Fourth State of Matter." They also might be more objective and scholarly, like many pieces of investigative journalism. Indeed, as long as humans have existed on this planet, we have been telling stories about our lives, and to make sense of our world.
To summarize the defining characteristics of this genre:
- True stories
- Prose (usually, though sometimes poetry)
- Uses literary devices/is more creative and artistically-oriented than "regular" nonfiction
- Often told in first person
- The narrator is often the author or a persona of the author, but not always
When reading a work of creative nonfiction, it is important to remember the story is true. This means the author does not have as much artistic freedom as a fiction writer or poet might, because they cannot invent events which did not happen. It is worthwhile, then, to pay attention to the literary devices and other artistic choices the narrator makes. Readers should consider: what choices were made here about what to include and what to omit? Are there repeating images or themes? How might the historical context influence this work?
Cadden, Mary. "Book Buzz: Memoir 'The Glass Castle' cracks No. 1 ceiling." USA Today, 16 August 2017.
https://www.usatoday.com/story/life/2017/08/16/book-buzz-memoir-the-glass-castle-cracks-no-1-ceiling/569422001/ Accessed 5 Oct. 2019.
Caesar, Rebecca. "Letters." University of Rochester Frederick Douglass Project, 2005. Web.
https://rbscp.lib.rochester.edu/4071 Accessed 14 Aug. 2019
Gutkind, Lee. "What is Creative Nonfiction?" Creative Nonfiction, 2012. Web.
https://www.creativenonfiction.org/online-reading/what-creative-nonfiction. Accessed 15 Jan. 2019.
Legg, Frank W. "Frederick Douglass." The National Archives, 1879. Web.
https://catalog.archives.gov/id/558770. Accessed 14 Aug. 2019.
Smith, Tracy K. Ordinary Light. New York: Knopf, 2015. Print.