Writing & Publishing Articles, Writing Craft & Tips

Creative Nonfiction: An Explanation of the Genre

Power of WordsI know what you’re thinking: “Woah, wait! How can nonfiction be creative? Isn’t it all boring, science-y stuff?” Well, get ready, because it is a real genre…and you’re reading it right now!

Do not despair. You are in good company. Several of my PhD-toting, know-it-all (non-English) professors have asked me what creative nonfiction is. As one particularly arrogant philosophy professor mused, “Isn’t creative nonfiction a misnomer? I just don’t believe it can be a real genre. Writing is either creative or nonfiction, not both.”

While I want to scoff at him, dear readers, I cannot. When I first heard of creative nonfiction, I thought the same thing. I remember looking at the requirements for my creative writing degree and thinking, “Oh, great. A whole class about technical writing. This will suck.” In retrospect, this is hilarious, as creative nonfiction is now my best (and one of my favorite) genres.

Now, if you still don’t know what the heck I’m talking about, sit back and relax. Here is Kate’s Creative Nonfiction 101.

What is creative nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction (abbreviated as creative non or CNF) is a genre of prose writing. In creative nonfiction, the writer recounts a true, personal experience, tells about true events from another person’s life, or conveys true information in an interesting way. The key word here is true — nonfiction means facts.

The creative component comes into play in the way in which the prose is written. Instead of writing a technical essay, the writer conveys the experience or information in a way that reads like fiction. In other words, creative nonfiction details actual events or factual information in a form that is meant for entertainment and education.

Emily_Dickinson_daguerreotype“Tell all the truth but tell it slant”

As Emily Dickinson wisely advised, creative nonfiction writers convey truth, but with a slant. In order to make a creative nonfiction essay entertaining, sometimes the writer must creatively explain the truth. This can be accomplished in several ways: skipping over parts of a story with little action, dramatizing events, re-ordering events, or filling in details with the “best guess” when the whole truth is unknown. While the goal is to present nonfiction, a little slant can make the story much more gripping and enjoyable for the reader.

What are some examples of creative nonfiction?

The interesting thing about creative nonfiction is that it is not marketed as “creative nonfiction.” Typically, it is marketed in more specific genres. In the same way that fiction is divided into “mystery,” “literature,” “romance,” etc., creative nonfiction is split into “memoir,” “biography,” “travel writing,” “literary journalism,” etc. On the internet, creative nonfiction is most commonly exercised as blogging, which conveys information but is also meant for entertainment. These myriad categories are the reason why most people do not even realize the genre exists, but it does — it is the umbrella that covers all of these smaller genres.

Here are some more specific examples of well-known creative nonfiction works:

You can also check out one of my many creative nonfiction pieces, Kate, Warrior Princess,” for a micro example of how creative nonfiction manifests in a university setting.

The Bottom Line

Creative nonfiction is an overlooked, but highly useful, genre. While its sister genre, fiction, may be given more literary notice, creative nonfiction does something fiction cannot: it gives the reader this world’s truth in the writer’s voice (as opposed to through a narrator, character, or metaphor). Creative nonfiction is the genre of the factual human experience, the genre of “based on a true story.” Now that you have this knowledge…

Go forth and write your truth.

When did you first hear about creative nonfiction? Is it a genre you like to read or write? Would you add any caveats to my description?