33. Creative Nonfiction Part 1: What Is Creative Nonfiction?

Author: Nola Published: over 2 years ago.
Tags: humour, nonfiction, exaggeration, Lee Gutkind, true stories Category: Writing tips

When my husband and I were in Rome, we saw girls with no protective clothing riding Vespas in between buses. One of our tour guides used to stand behind the bus driver and hold on with one hand. I was worried she’d fall and hurt herself.

Although what I’ve just told you is true, it’s not presented in a particularly interesting way. Here’s an extract from the version I had published:

Driving around Rome was an experience in itself. If there were two tour buses travelling side by side with a six-inch space between them, an Italian girl wearing a mini skirt, high heels and no helmet would whizz through the gap on her Vespa.

By this time, we’d picked up a local tour guide who told us to call her the Gucci lady on account of the Gucci scarf she waved above her head ... She teetered precariously on the step behind Mario the driver, holding on with one hand and gesturing wildly with the other every time he failed to follow one of her instructions. Mario was a handsome young buck who thought the tour bus was a Ferrari and that Rome was his own personal Grand Prix. Every time he braked, I expected the Gucci lady to hurtle through the side door and join the girl on the Vespa. The fact that she didn’t was testament to her staying powers rather than Mario’s skill behind the wheel.

I think you’ll agree that’s an improvement. It has humour and gives you a feel for what it was like to be there. Hopefully it draws readers in and makes them want to learn more.

We come across examples of creative nonfiction all the time—magazine and newspaper feature articles, biographies and memoirs, devotional writing—but what are the distinctives of this genre?

Lee Gutkind defines creative nonfiction as ‘true stories well told’. The ‘creative’ part refers to all of the usual literary techniques that creative writers employ (e.g. show don’t tell, the five senses, vivid imagery, engaging dialogue, action, character development, use of scenes), but the ‘nonfiction’ part tells us that these stories could be verified in much the same way a reporter would fact-check a news story. It’s not the same as a novel or screenplay ‘based on a true story’, where the reader or viewer knows some poetic licence has been taken. Creative nonfiction is true, but the stories are told in an engaging way.

In the example above, I used exaggeration as a humorous device to describe driving in Rome. Is that okay? Didn’t I just say that creative nonfiction has to be true? In the coming weeks, I’ll look more specifically at techniques used in creative nonfiction and give guidelines for navigating some of the grey areas.

In the meantime, I'd be interested in hearing about your favourite nonfiction books or articles and what made them so appealing?

(N.B. A slightly longer version of this post appeared on the Australasian Christian Writers site on 2nd March 2015. To read the longer version, click here.)

Sources:

Gutkind, L. (2012). You can’t make this stuff up: The complete guide to writing creative nonfiction from memoir to literary journalism and everything in between. Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.

Passmore, N. L. (2014). Vespas, wheelchairs, and the metamorphosis of Alberto. In J. Cooper, B. Morton, J. Spencer & C. Tuovinen (Eds.), Tales from the upper room: Tabor Adelaide anthology 2014 (pp. 12-19). Saint Marys, South Australia: Immortalise.

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