What Makes Good Creative Non-Fiction?

Creative non-fiction takes the techniques and elements of fiction and poetry and applies them to a non-fiction story. It is, as the name suggests, a true story told using creative devices.

Creative Non-Fiction Definition

The Macquarie Dictionary defines ‘creative’ as ‘resulting from originality of thought or expression’. This may seem at odds with the concept of non-fiction, but it is the combination of these two extremes that has made creative non-fiction the fast-growing and popular genre that it is.

When done well, it is the perfect blend of the factual and the personal. Lee Gutkind, editor of the magazine Creative Non-fiction, likens the form to jazz: ‘It’s a rich mix of flavours, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself’.

Taken at its broadest definition, this genre has many names, such as literary non-fiction, narrative non-fiction and literary journalism, and takes many forms – travel writing, personal essays, feature stories, memoirs, journals and letters, to name a few.

Essentially, anything factual can be used as fodder for a creative non-fiction piece. As Annie Dillard said in her essay, To Fashion a Text,

Literary non-fiction is all over the map and has been for three hundred years. There’s nothing you can’t do with it. No subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own form every time.”

Creative non-fiction
Creative non-fiction can take many forms, but all involve true stories told with a creative flair. Image credit: Leeroy via StockSnap Creative Commons.

Creative Non-Fiction vs. Literary Journalism

If we were to narrow our definition of the genre slightly, we might remove literary journalism and consider this a genre of its own.

Creative non-fiction focuses primarily on the private spheres, stories that come from experiences and memories unique to the author. In comparison, literary journalism wears a more public face.

While the author inevitably injects themself into the piece through virtue of their own unique voice, the story itself is about someone, somewhere or something else. Regardless of whether they are separate genres or not, the goal is always the same: true stories, written beautifully.

Creative non-fiction
What stories will you tell through your creative non-fiction? Image credit: Stokpic.com.

What Makes Creative Non-Fiction ‘Good’?

It would be a mistake to assume the word ‘creative’ in the title suggests there is any room to move with the truth in this genre; the facts, the research, the memories, the experiences – they all have to be there and they all have to be true.

Obviously, memoirs and personal stories are at the mercy of the author’s memories and recollections, but at the very least, the author of any non-fiction piece, creative or not, should be striving for accuracy. The reader expects nothing less (something James Frey discovered the hard way, after it was shown that much of his ‘memoir’, A Million Little Pieces, was – to put it mildly – an exaggeration).

In many ways, the rules for creative non-fiction are similar to regular non-fiction: they must be well-researched and accurate accounts of the subject matter. Where the two genres differ greatly is in the actual portrayal of this subject matter.

Rather than applying the journalistic practice of who, what, when, where and how, creative non-fiction uses literary techniques to create a vivid and engaging story.

It recreates moments in time, presents fully realised settings and characters, and weaves all of these elements into a story that reads like a piece of fiction. Where non-fiction uses the facts to drive the piece, in creative non-fiction it is the writing and the way in which the facts are presented that serve as the vehicle for the story.

Creative non-fiction
Even though you’re working with facts and truth, don’t be afraid to let your creativity flow while writing non-fiction. Image credit: Milomir Topic via StockSnap Creative Commons.

While it is true that any fact, event, situation or person can be turned into a great piece of writing, with creative non-fiction it is especially important that the subject matter is something that inspires and interests you.

The facts of the story must be injected with life and colour, and this will always be easier to do if you are starting from a place of passion.

Likewise, choosing which elements of the story to reveal and when to reveal them is crucial to the success of creative non-fiction. In a journalistic piece, the reader wants all the facts right at the start, but in a creative piece, you can let the story simmer a bit, bringing the reader along with you as you eke out the details. It’s all about finding the perfect balance between the factual and the fictional.

As with all writing, one of the best ways to perfect your skills in a genre is to study the way other people have done it. To help you on your way to writing great creative non-fiction, below is a list of recommended reading. Happy truth-telling.

Creative Non-fiction
Let the work of others inspire and inform you while working on your own creative non-fiction. Image credit: Mikhail Pavstyuck via StockSnap Creative Commons.

Recommended Creative Non-Fiction Reading

Memoirs/Narrative Non-fiction:

  • Me Talk Pretty One Day by David Sedaris
  • Bear is Now Asleep by William Verity
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed
  • Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
  • Zeitoun by Dave Eggers
  • Into the Wild by Jon Krakauer
  • In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
  • Friday Night Lights by H. G. Bissinger
  • Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil: A Savannah Story by John Berendt
  • This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff

Features/Personal Essays/Travel Writing:

  • This is the Story of a Happy Marriage by Ann Patchett
  • Down Under by Bill Bryson
  • To Fashion a Text by Annie Dillard
  • Shooting an Elephant by George Orwell
  • Unspoken Truths by Christopher Hitchens
  • The White Album by Joan Didion
  • The Great Railway Bazaar by Paul Theroux
  • Speaking in Tongues by Zadie Smith
  • In Patagonia by Bruce Chatwin

Laura Marshall

Laura wore her 'I'd rather be reading' t-shirt with pride all through her young years, and while the t-shirt is long gone the sentiment still rings true. She started writing short stories as a precocious teen and has never lost the desire for writing to be a big part of her life. Since completing a Post-Grad Diploma in Writing, Editing and Publishing in 2010 she has been working as an editor, and recently started a blog where she writes about all things books and reading, which you can find here.

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