What Is Creative Nonfiction?

What Makes Creative Nonfiction Creative?

Creative nonfiction may seem at first glance to be a rather slippery term, referring to an elusive set of standards that are tough to pin down in any precise way.

Trying to decide when a first person essay goes beyond an ordinary narrative of “what I did over my summer vacation” and crosses over into the realm of creative nonfiction is like trying to decide when a picture is ‘art’ and when it’s just a picture. To a certain degree, that decision is all in the eye of the beholder.

Yet people who love literature and who love creative nonfiction will often tell you that, like art, while they might not be able to define it with precision, they know it when they see it.

Quality of language and novelty are central to deciding when a text qualifies as creative nonfiction and when it must be regarded as just another text. The creative part of the term ‘creative nonfiction’ is the defining element.

Truly creative nonfiction does more than spruce up the adjectives in a piece of straight reporting; it adds fresh, original insights to a topic that might otherwise seem mundane or formulaic.

In other words, anyone can write about their summer vacation. Unless you do it in a way that takes those events and recounts them in a creative way with language that is exceptional and provocative and that sheds entirely new light on what a summer vacation was... you won’t be writing creative nonfiction, you’ll just be writing an essay.

First person nature writing of the caliber produced by contemporary writer Barry Lopez, and reflective writing that incorporates elements of great nature writing such as the prose created by Annie Dillard are two good examples of contemporary creative nonfiction at its best.

Jack Kerouac’s stream of consciousness narratives continue to provoke and inspire, making them perfect early examples of creative nonfiction.

Academics to this day alternately praise and slam Kerouac’s prose because of it’s first person obsessions; an ongoing controversy which proves that if nothing else Kerouac was indeed doing something creative and new with his writing. Kerouac captured the attention of readers and critics alike in ways no one else before him had been able to do.

Creative nonfiction also opens the door to literary autobiography: a genre that would have seemed unimaginable a century ago, (although the diaries of 20th century writer Anais Nin clearly show that creative nonfiction existed long before the contemporary term describing it as a separate genre was coined).

Mary Karr’s autobiographical memoir The Liar’s Club won critical accolades when it took a sensational and overwrought subject (child abuse) and turned it into a haunting and complex personal reflection on damage, love, and loss set in a distinct and unforgettable Texas landscape.

Creative nonfiction often defines itself (as it did in the case of Karr’s memoir) by standing out against a sea of sensational or cliché first person narratives on the same topic. The single story in a forgettable group of similar stories becomes creative nonfiction when it illuminates that specific subject artfully and in a totally new way.

In striving for the sweet spot that elevates nonfiction to the level of fine art, creative nonfiction often pushes against the boundaries that separate narrative from poetry, the personal from the universal, and the merely newsworthy from the timeless.

By doing so, creative nonfiction is constantly creating new ways for writers to tell their stories with grace and style.

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