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Writers of creative non-fiction draw on personal experience and/or evidence, conducting research and using documents such as newspaper articles, personal letters, etc. as their sources.
The principles of creative non-fiction are simple. A writer of creative non-fiction must write about a subject and events that have either taken place in, or refer to, the real world, and not an imagined subject and event – that's fiction!
If an author descriptively writes about a trip they had planned in their head for years, but never took, this is still creative non-fiction. Sure, they imagined it, but they are recording their real thoughts, so they are still writing about reality – their interior reality!
The other main principle of creative non-fiction is that the writing should make thoughtful observations on its subject, life and the world.
The basic elements of creative non-fiction are already familiar to you. These are the same storytelling elements present in fiction, except they are used to creatively write about reality:
In your analysis of creative non-fiction, it is helpful to consider how these elements might be used differently in creative non-fiction in comparison to other genres (non-fiction or fiction).
In creative non-fiction, the purpose of literary techniques is to convey:
Authors writing in this genre use similes, metaphors and symbolism in their imaginative representations of reality to create rich meanings.
Claudia Rankine's collection of prose poetry Citizen (2014) is about racism in the United States. Rankine uses the following metaphor to illustrate how people choose to ignore the reality of racism:
Years have passed and so soon we love this world, so soon we are willing to coexist with dust in our eyes.
- ''An American Lyric'
Works of creative non-fiction with pronounced narrative arcs form a subset of creative non-fiction known as narrative non-fiction. A narrative arc looks like this:
Works of creative non-fiction can also have character arcs. A character arc looks like this:
Writing non-fiction creatively is useful for authors who want to write about their personal experiences and lives. By taking a creative approach to writing about reality, using figurative language and other literary devices, authors can convey a truth about their subjective experience of real-life experiences - to convey a sense of 'what it was like'.
Let's go over some of the main forms of creative non-fiction.
Life writing is a broad genre of non-fiction writing about a person's life, about the author's own life or someone else's.
A biography is a book documenting a person's life. An autobiography is an account of one's own life.
Some examples of autobiographies are The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank and I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou.
A memoir is a written first-person reflection on an important time in the author's life that allows the author to reflect on their memories.
Some notable memoirs are Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking (2005) and Reading Lolita in Tehran (2003) by Azar Nafisi.
The informal or personal essay can be distinguished from the formal essay, which involves a knowledgeable person making a convincing argument about a certain topic.
In the personal essay, the author writes about their own experiences and knowledge in an intimate way, that reveals their personality and how they think. Personal essays are often published as collections.
Virginia Woolf's A Room of One's Own and The Death of the Moth (1942) are two famous informal essays.
Travel writing is writing about the author's journeys to and experiences in different places.
In the early 18th century, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu wrote letters, The Turkish Embassy Letters (1763), about her travels to the Ottoman Empire that were published as a collection upon her death. London From a Distance by Ford Madox Ford. A contemporary example is Bill Bryson's Notes from a Small Island (1995), a comical travel book written by an American about England.
She collected and revised them throughout her life, circulating the manuscripts among friends, and they were first published in 1763 after her death
The term 'faction' emerged in the 1960s to describe novels that blend 'fact' and 'fiction'.
This was the term used to describe Truman Capote's In Cold Blood (1965) which was about the 1959 murders of the Cuttler family.
The book follows the stories of the victims, the murderers and other people affected by the incident. Capote conducted a series of interviews and labelled his book as non-fiction.
Recently, there has been a move away from non-fiction novels and toward the more personal, life-writing forms we have covered above. Maybe this is because of the difficulty of writing a non-fiction novel without slipping into fiction.
In addition, the validity of Capote's book as non-fiction and the validity of faction as a non-fiction subgenre have been subject to debate.
Let's take a closer look at some key works of creative non-fiction, so we can see the creativity at work.
This is how Virginia Woolf describes a thought at the beginning of her feminist essay, A Room of One's Own (1929):
Alas, laid on the grass how small, how insignificant this thought of mine looked; the sort of fish that a good fisherman puts back into the water so that it may grow fatter and be one day worth cooking and eating. I will not trouble you with that thought now, though if you look carefully you may find it for yourselves in the course of what I am going to say.
- Part One.
Woolf's essay is bursting with metaphors and imagery like this. The thought that she refers to is likely the thesis at the centre of her essay: that for a woman writer to be successful, she needs money and a room of her own. She invites the reader, in this very visual way, to 'catch' her thesis, making the reading experience exhilarating and joyful.
Woolf likens the wasted potential of women, who were unable to become writers due to gender inequality, to rust, creating vivid imagery:
and then the thought of that one gift which it was death to hide--a small one but dear to the possessor--perishing and with it my self, my soul,--all this became like a rust eating away the bloom of the spring, destroying the tree at its heart.
- Part Two
The use of vivid imagery, metaphors and symbolism in Woolf's essay builds a convincing case for gender equality.
I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is the first of seven autobiographies written by African American author Maya Angelou about her traumatic childhood and experiences of racism.
The prologue to the autobiography ends with the following quote:
If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat.
It is an unnecessary insult.
The use of a rusting blade metaphor here effectively communicates the psychological and emotional impact of Angelou's experience of racism.
Citizen belongs to the genre of creative non-fiction, as Rankine draws on real experiences and events of racism in the United States; such as the killing of Trayvon Martin, a young black man who was killed by a neighbourhood watch volunteer who thought he looked suspicious.
It is difficult to categorise Citizen by Claudia Rankine. It is a work of poetry, more specifically prose poetry, but it can also be read as a collection of essays on race written as poetry. To complicate questions of genre further, the book also incorporates images and works of art among the writing.
Rankine's book is a collection of personal anecdotes and anecdotes from other black Americans about what it is like to be a black person in America in the contemporary moment. Rankine uses a powerful metaphor to describe slavery's long-lasting impact on the lives of black Americans:
The world is wrong. You can’t put the past behind you. It’s buried in you; it’s turned your flesh into its own cupboard.
As with the other examples we've looked at, the use of metaphor in creative non-fiction provides an intimate insight into the author's subjectivities and experiences.
The New Journalism is a collection of creative journalistic writing put together by Tom Wolfe and published in 1973. This collection showcased and promoted a new style of journalism that encouraged the use of literary devices and styles.
Truman Capote, who wrote Breakfast at Tiffany's (1961) and one of the first 'faction' novels, In Cold Blood (1966), was a contributor, alongside Hunter S. Thompson, who started the 'Gonzo journalism' movement. Gonzo journalism placed the journalist's personality and experiences at the centre of the story.
The blending of non-fiction with fictional devices has also increased due to the influence of Postmodernism.
In literature, postmodernism is a late 20th-century movement that was characterised by a rejection of ideas of truth and objectivity, as well as neat identity and literary categories. These included the division between non-fiction and fiction.
Creative non-fiction prioritises creativity over objectivity, blurring the divisions between creativity and fact.
Creative non-fiction is the imaginative representation of reality through the use of literary devices, styles and techniques.
Creative non-fiction often has the basic storytelling elements present in fiction, such as point of view, character, descriptive and figurative language, style, tone, setting and structure.
The principles of creative non-fiction are 1) the author must be writing about reality, and not about an imagined subject or event; 2) the writing should make thoughtful observations on its subject, life and the world.
The famous extended essay A Room of One's Own (1929) by Virginia Woolf is an example of creative non-fiction text that uses figurative language and imagery to deliver its feminist message. Another example is Claudia Rankine's 2014's book-long poem, Citizen: An American Lyric, which represents real stories about racism in the United States through anecdotes, also relying heavily on imagery and figurative language.
One way that you can approach reviewing creative non-fiction texts is by paying attention to their literary elements, such as imagery, similes, metaphors and symbolism. You can focus on how the author uses these techniques as tools for reflecting on reality and how these capture the significance and emotional impact that real-world events had on the author.
What is creative non-fiction?
Creative non-fiction is the imaginative representation of reality through the use of literary devices, styles and techniques.
What is the purpose of creative non-fiction?
Creative non-fiction seeks to entertain as well as to inform. A deeper purpose of creative non-fiction is to convey a more profound layer of truth about real events and people by using literary techniques and styles.
What are the main principles of creative non-fiction?
What are the key elements of creative non-fiction to consider in your analysis?
What are the key techniques of creative non-fiction?
Figurative language and narrative and character arcs.
What are the key types of creative non-fiction?
How does Virginia Woolf use creative and literary elements in her essay A Room of One's Own (1929)?
Woolf describes a thought that feels insignificant to her as a 'fish', and invites the reader to catch it. She is referring to her thesis that for a woman to be successful, she needs money and a room of her own. She also compares wasted potential in woman writers to a 'rust eating away the bloom of the spring'. Woolf's use of vivid imagery drives home her feminist message.
How does Maya Angelou use creative and literary elements in her autobiography, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969)?
Maya Angelou uses the metaphor of a rusty razor to describe how the alienating effects of racism feel like a hurtful insult. Angelou communicates the psychological and emotional impact through creative elements.
How does Claudia Rankine use creative and literary elements in Citizen (2014)?
Rankine describes the bodies of African Americans as 'cupboards' of the past of slavery. This provides an insight into how black Americans like Rankine and those whose perspectives informed her book experience racism in their day to day life.
What is the history and context of creative non-fiction?
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