Do you love writing, but the idea of making up plot lines and building fictional characters doesn’t really excite you? Do you feel like there are so many amazing true stories to be told—whether they’re inside you or in the fascinating people that you meet? There’s a whole genre of writing just waiting for you—it’s called creative nonfiction.
Before I even really knew what it was, creative nonfiction was my favourite genre. Creative nonfiction writers pull from the best of both worlds to create true stories written with an emphasis on style and literary craft.
This genre includes categories like:
- Literary journalism
- Memoir + autobiography
- Profile + biography
- Travel + food writing
What makes it creative?
I took my first creative nonfiction class in university. Although at the time I took a few liberties with the whole factual aspect, it awakened me to the beauty of the genre. Although fiction is heavily influenced by the writer’s own experience, creative nonfiction is unapologetically so. You can write your story, share your experiences, but you don’t need to cloak it in a fictional story. And unlike traditional journalism or academic writing, there’s a focus on creative craft and the art of storytelling. Borrowing from fiction writing, it applies narrative arc, character development, and scene creation to true stories.
What makes it nonfiction?
This genre has faced its share of criticisms. Some argue that creativity requires an embellishment or skewing of the facts—making the idea of creative nonfiction an oxymoron. Others maintain that “It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.” A common description of creative nonfiction is true stories, well told. Transforming real events and people into a narrative is a delicate balancing act. Sometimes the facts get in the way of telling a good story and sometimes the story misrepresents the facts. Working with the restriction of reality can be a writer’s biggest challenge and greatest weapon. You can’t change the facts to make it easier to write the story, but you also have the framework of reality to guide your writing. Taking the grit of everyday life and making it into something beautiful on the page is an amazing art; faithfully representing the truth behind the facts is a great responsibility.
Why write it?
There are many reasons to write in this genre and they vary depending on the area you’re writing in. But there’s one thing I always try to keep in mind when approaching a new piece of creative nonfiction, and it’s something I’d love for you to hold close. One of my favourite things about this genre is not only that it’s based on real life, but that it’s filtered through a writer’s experience. Some of the categories are skewed towards less personal reflection, but all of creative nonfiction is a place where your experience as the writer is the guide for the story. The stories of others are told through your experience—what you learned in research, their responses to your questions in interviews, their appearance and mannerisms when you met them. The stories of foods and travel are written through your senses—the places you saw, the things you tasted.
There’s this beautiful quote by Martha Graham: “There is only one of you in all of time, your expression is unique. And if you block it, it will never exist through any other medium and it will be lost.” I know this isn’t the only reason to write creative nonfiction, but it is a beautiful one. It’s also a reminder that your writing doesn’t have to be the best, the smartest, the wittiest, the most profound—it just has to be yours. So get out there and tell the world’s stories. Explore, investigate, listen and learn. Then head back to your writing desk and put those thoughts on a page.
Where can you read it?
Creative nonfiction can be found in a lot of places, from books, magazines and newspapers to literary journals, anthologies and blogs. Some of my favourite writers in this genre are Elizabeth Gilbert, Anne Lamott, Susannah Cahalan, and Amanda Lindhout. Some I haven’t read but would love to: David Foster Wallace, Cheryl Strayed, Rachel Held Evans, and Joan Didion.
Do you want to dig deeper into this genre? Our free course, The Creative Nonfiction Primer, takes you through 5 of the main types of creative nonfiction: literary journalism, memoir, profile, essay, and travel and food writing. You’ll learn the definition for each of these, why you would want to write it, where you can read it, and get the tools to start writing.