Creative Non-Fiction

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.

Creative Non-Fiction Creative Non-Fiction

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Contents
Table of contents

    Principles

    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.

    Elements

    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:

    • Descriptive and figurative language: this is one of the defining features of the genre.
    • Point of view: often this will be the author's own point of view.
    • Voice: the voice is often personal, intimate and colloquial.
    • Tone: what is the author's attitude towards the subject and the reader? Are they sincere? Ironic? Satirical?
    • Style: the author's own personal style – is it flowery and verbose? Sharp and witty? Do they veer towards certain techniques?
    • Character: the real people depicted in creative non-fiction can be seen as characters.
    • Setting: not all creative non-fiction will have a setting, but setting is a key element of the memoir and travel writing, for example.
    • Structure: the structure could be linear or non-linear.

    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).

    Techniques and purpose

    In creative non-fiction, the purpose of literary techniques is to convey:

    • the significance, quality, and psychological and emotional impact of real-world events.
    • a person's character.

    Figurative language

    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'

    Narrative and character arcs

    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:

    1. Exposition
    2. Inciting incident
    3. Rising Action
    4. Climax
    5. Falling Action
    6. Resolution.

    Works of creative non-fiction can also have character arcs. A character arc looks like this:

    1. A state of order and stasis
    2. The character faces challenges
    3. The character overcomes those challenges and learns about themselves and or/the world and changes for the better.

    Creative non-fiction types

    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

    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.

    Biography and autobiography

    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.

    Memoir

    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.

    Personal essay

    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

    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

    Non-fiction novel or 'faction'

    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.

    Examples of creative non-fiction

    Let's take a closer look at some key works of creative non-fiction, so we can see the creativity at work.

    Essay: A Room of One's Own (1929) by Virginia Woolf

    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.

    Autobiography: I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou

    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.

    - Prologue

    The use of a rusting blade metaphor here effectively communicates the psychological and emotional impact of Angelou's experience of racism.

    Poetry: Citizen: An American Lyric (2014) by Claudia Rankine

    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.

    Prose poetry

    Prose poetry is poetry written in sentences and paragraphs, instead of verse, without line breaks. Like conventional poetry, prose poetry is centred around vivid imagery and wordplay, rather than narrative.

    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.

    - IV

    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.

    Brief history and context of creative non-fiction

    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.

    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 - Key takeaways

    • Creative non-fiction is a subgenre of non-fiction. It refers to the imaginative representation of reality through the use of literary devices, styles and techniques, through which the author provides thoughtful insights into their subject, life and the world.
    • The main principles of creative non-fiction are that the writing must 1) be about the real world and 2) it must make observations about the real world.
    • The key techniques of creative non-fiction are figurative language (imagery, similes, metaphors and symbolism), and narrative and character arcs.
    • The key forms of creative non-fiction are life writing forms, such as biography, autobiography, memoir, personal essay and travel writing. Non-fiction novels, also known as 'faction', can also be considered a form of creative non-fiction but this is contested.
    • Some of the examples of creative non-fiction texts we have looked at are A Room of One's Own (1929) by Virginia Woolf, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings (1969) by Maya Angelou, Eating Animals (2009) by Jonathan Safran Foer, and Citizen (2014) by Claudia Rankine.
    Frequently Asked Questions about Creative Non-Fiction

    What is the meaning of creative non-fiction?

    Creative non-fiction is the imaginative representation of reality through the use of literary devices, styles and techniques.

    What are the elements of creative non-fiction?

    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.

    What are the principles and techniques in creative non-fiction?

    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.

    What are examples of creative non-fiction?

    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.

    How do you review creative non-fiction?

    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.

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