What Is Creative Nonfiction?

By Alex Mika

Long River Review nonfiction panel editor Alex Mika unpacks exactly what creative nonfiction is, and how it can be done well. (illustration by author)

Last year, I enrolled in a course, as many irresponsible undergraduates do, not knowing what the hell I was getting myself into. It was called “Creative Writing: Poetry and Creative Nonfiction.” Poetry, I knew. Nonfiction, I knew. But creative nonfiction? It felt like a doublespeak term out of some Orwellian, post-truth horror story. On the first day of the unit, one brave student decided to speak up and ask the question we were all thinking, “What is creative nonfiction?” The instructor dodged the question. Determined to understand this elusive and increasingly popular genre, I waded through the literary swamps of other college syllabi, past the bogs of literary blogs, and arrived at the truth tattered and exhausted, yet content. This is creative nonfiction, as I understand it. 

It’s New

  • Creative nonfiction is a collection of prose poems by Claudia Rankine
  • It is the recollection of a dream. 
  • Creative nonfiction is a memoir arranged in a stream of consciousness format. 
  • It is a blog written from the International Space Station
  • It is a tweet consisting of two hundred eighty characters or less: a carefully crafted recounting of your day mixed with some sharp, witty social commentary that employs hyperbole, metaphor, and a few emojis for good measure. 
  • Creative nonfiction does not pretend that the author doesn’t exist; it welcomes the “I.” 

It’s Also Not That New

  • Autobiographies are creative nonfiction. 
  • Journalism is creative nonfiction (though not to be mistaken with fake news). 
  • Henry David Thoreau’s Walden is creative nonfiction. 
  • That five-paragraph expository essay from elementary school is creative nonfiction.  

It’s the Truth, Told Well

When writing creative nonfiction, creativity should come from the craft, not the subject. There have been many ethical debates about creative nonfiction, with myriad situations in which authors were too casual with the truth, favoring the poetic truth over fact. This has led to controversies, scandals, ruined careers and Broadway play adaptations. Ways in which authors can prevent such tragedies and make their nonfiction pieces more compelling (without bending the truth) could include: 

…Making the Author an Active Participant in the Story 

In his book, Draft No. 4: On the Writing Process, renowned essayist John McPhee discusses the importance of being present in the stories one tells. He immerses himself in the world he writes about, whether it is embarking on a treacherous rafting expedition or trying to understand the cryptic actor Jackie Gleason. These were his experiences, and he isn’t afraid to include that personal connection with his work. As McPhee puts it, “I’d much rather watch people do what they do than talk to them across a desk.” 

…Structuring the Story in the Most Compelling Way 

In the same book, McPhee writes about charting an 1,100 mile journey through Georgia through his encounters with a rattlesnake, a weasel and a turtle. If there is a narrative in your piece, be sure to create solid, concrete anchors to which the piece can be tied. They will provide a crucial foundation upon which you can build your metaphysical and abstract themes. 

…Metaphysical and Abstract Themes

While it is important to have something concrete in a piece so the reader can be grounded, a theme or overarching concept is equally integral. Of course, this does not mean you have to connect a story of a bicycle race to the grand vastness of the cosmos (though by all means go ahead if the piece calls for it). What separates a story told at an intimate family dinner from a story published in an international journal (among other things) is the question of whether or not it is more than an interesting story. Oftentimes readers are compelled to reread a piece because it reveals something deeper than the words on the page; there is subtext, nuance, pathos

…The Technicalities

This goes without saying, but pieces should be rhetorically interesting. Metaphors, similes, imagery, figurative language, alliteration, assonance all go a long way in making your language fresh and more interesting to read. 

Who Knows What It Is? 

I’m still learning about what creative nonfiction is, and as the artform grows, its definition will also inevitably change. That is the beauty of art: it’s messy and fragile and doesn’t like labels or dictates, preferring instead to be understood in fragments and representations like in the rocky recollection of a dream or a yellowing copy of Walden.

Alex Mika is the Long River Review nonfiction panel editor. He can be reached at alexander.mika@uconn.edu.

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