Here at UMHB, I teach a class called Creative Writing: Prose. This upper-level course focuses on reading and writing the short story as well as creative nonfiction. Students are always familiar with the former genre but not necessarily so with the latter. Inevitably on the first day of class, some confusion surfaces about so-called “creative nonfiction.”
So again, what is it?
Telling the Truth
The most efficient answer I can offer is that creative nonfiction focuses on telling the “truth” (note the small “t”) while using many techniques associated with fiction, more specifically, scene, plot, narrative, setting, character, theme, dialogue, and even symbol, among others.
Even with that answer, questions raise their hands, with one of the most common being this: how is the writer supposed to remember exactly what was said (and all the particulars of a situation or situations) two years ago, let alone five or ten or fifteen? Then there’s the follow-up: isn’t telling exactly what happened (and where, and when, etc.) what nonfiction does?
A brief aside: As an elementary-aged kid, I remember reading a biography of Mozart from the junior section of the library. On the car ride home, I distinctly recall asking my parents how the writer of the book knew what young Mozart had said to his father. While I can’t recall how my parents responded, that moment was an epiphany for me. (The dialogue had to be “made up” to resemble what we know of Mozart and his father.)
We’re familiar with biographies, with autobiographies. They focus on the retelling of true stories about the individuals involved. I tell my students that in writing about their own lives they are trying to offer approximations (or they should be trying to do so). No one’s memory is flawless.
One of the most important discussions we have is regarding the binary of fiction versus nonfiction. I tell them that perhaps it’s more helpful to think of those distinctions as ends on a continuum, a spectrum. Every narrative—fictional and nonfictional—is shaped and constructed to some purposes, some ends. Some works of creative nonfiction are more true than are others.
But when does the writer of creative nonfiction invent too much? In other words, when does the work of creative nonfiction move towards the fictional end of the continuum? Some writers eliminate characters from scenes, combine two people into one character, alter slightly (and sometimes more than slightly) what happened. As could be expected, writers of creative nonfiction vary widely in their creative license with “what happened.”
What else makes this genre interesting, challenging, and fun? Real people are characters, and because they are, we discuss students’ motives and their portrayals of those individuals. Using creative nonfiction for the opportunity to enact revenge (albeit via story) is not a wise use of words. Writer Bret Lott, in his essay “Toward Humility” suggests that creative nonfiction writers need to be humble and generous in their portrayals of others and of themselves. That’s good advice.
I tell my students to tell their “true” stories as truly as they can, with as much humility as they can, with as much skill and artfulness as they can. I tell them that it’s my job as a writer and as their professor to help them in those pursuits. It’s one of my great privileges to help and to watch them become comfortable and skillful in writing well about their lives.