Nonfiction isn’t high on my reading list. I’ll read it when I have to do research for my Shanghai Quartet. Or when my sons decide there’s something I need to know. But I prefer fiction that transports me to someplace I don’t know. Like Nigeria during the Biafran War or 1980s India.
But now I’ve discovered creative nonfiction. It’s a big tent for all kinds of circus animals: journalism, essays, research papers, memoir. Even this blog post is creative nonfiction, at least, that’s what I hope to achieve. So what exactly is creative nonfiction?
true stories, well told
To start with, the term has been in use for several decades now. This is odd because most people who write creative nonfiction hate the term. Dinty Moore thinks it should be up to the reader to decide whether a work is creative or not. And the term nonfiction is an attempt to define the genre by what it is not.
Quite a number of alternatives have already bitten the dust. Literary nonfiction (too pretentious). Narrative nonfiction (ok for journalism but not meditative or lyrical essays). New journalism (anathema to English departments). Literature of fact (what a mouthful). The debate continues as to who coined the term creative nonfiction but it is in any event here to stay.
true stories, well told.
The goal in all cases should be to write
factually accurate prose about real people and events – in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner.
Gutkind says that creative nonfiction is now more popular in literary and publishing circles than literary fiction or poetry. It is the mainstay of publications like The New Yorker, Esquire and Vanity Fair. This may be the reason why it’s easier for me to place essays with literary journals than my short stories.
Fiction and nonfiction have more in common than you’d think. Fiction is all made up, right? Well, the truth of the matter is that novelists work hard at getting the facts right. The weather, brand names, the music on the radio, what our characters eat, drink or wear. And if the fiction is set in an historical time and place, then we want to be sure the setting is accurate. These are the novelist’s tools in trade to make a story believable. You could say that the novelist imitates the journalist in her investigative rigor.
As it turns out, the door swings both ways. Roy Peter Clarke notes that nonfiction writers deploy the same tactics as novelists do.
They place characters in scenes and settings, have them speak to each other in dialogue, reveal limited points of view, and move through time over conflicts and toward resolutions.
I don’t possess two separate toolboxes, one for writing fiction and the other for nonfiction. When I write a blog post like this one, I look at language, rhythm, pacing and narrative arc, just as I would for a chapter in my novel. Am I then allowed to take my nonfiction work one step further and make shit up?
truth or consequences
The answer is no. Nonfiction must be true in both form and substance. Quotation marks are for speech actually heard or seen in writing. Composite characters are an absolute no-no, as is any conflation of time or place.
Of course, embellishment does happen. There have been plenty of journalistic scandals. Sports writers who make up quotes. Crime reporters who invent sources.
The term piping—making up quotes or inventing sources—came from the idea that the reporter was high from covering the police busts of opium dens.
Roy Peter Clark is strict about these things. He believes that all nonfiction writers must abide by two cardinal rules: do not add and do not deceive. He’s even got 4 supporting strategies to help folks out.
- Be unobtrusive (i.e. do not alter a situation by interfering)
- Let the story not only be true but also ring true.
- Fact check.
- Be humble.
I prefer John McPhee‘s way of parsing the line between truth and dare.
Creative nonfiction is not making something up but making the most of what you have.
forest for the trees
John McPhee is my hero. He writes long-form nonfiction for The New Yorker and has done so now for over 50 years. His topics rarely appeal to me. The US trucking industry, fly-fishing in Alaska, the history of oranges. Yet he manages to captivate me every time. This is an extract from “Oranges” in The John McPhee Reader.
In the seventeen-seventies Londoners developed a craving for Jesse Fish oranges. These had thin skins and were difficult to peel, but the English found them incredibly juicy and sweet, and Jesse Fish oranges were preferred before all others in the making of shrub, a drink that called for alcoholic spirits, sugar, and the juice of an acid fruit – an ancestral whiskey sour. More than sixty-five thousand Jesse Fish oranges and two casks of juice reached London in 1776, and sixteen hogsheads of juice arrived in 1778. It hardly mattered to the English who Jesse Fish was, and it didn’t seem to matter to Jesse Fish who his customers were. Fish was a Yankee, a native of New York and by sympathy a revolutionary. Decades before the Revolution, he had retreated to an island off St. Augustine to get away from a miserable marriage, and he had become Florida’s first orange baron.
You can study McPhee to learn how to write fiction or nonfiction. Or you can dive straight into his craft essays. The Art of Omission is about how to choose what goes into your piece and what doesn’t. McPhee is ruthless.
Writing is selection. Just to start a piece of writing you have to choose one word and only one from more than a million in the language. Now keep going. What is your next word? Your next sentence, paragraph, section, chapter? Your next ball of fact. You select what goes in and you decide what stays out. At base you have only one criterion: If something interests you, it goes in—if not, it stays out.
mind the gap
The building is carefully described in the book: one door, single storey, two windows, a stove with a chimney that pokes out through the shingled roof. But each drawing is different. Some have porches, others have back doors and many windows; sometimes even an upstairs. Each reader brings her own imagination, history and knowledge to the cabin she draws, just as each reader brings a different version of the novel to life as she reads it.
Yiyun Li likes to talk about the difference between an author who’s trying too hard to reach the reader (propaganda) and the author who’s not trying hard enough (whispering). Somewhere in between lies the sweet spot where author and reader can meet. Jeremy Gavron puts it this way.
Omission is a form of creation. Limit, constraint and the compulsions of the unknown – the excluded – are the true foundation of narrative art. A place for the reader to enter more fully into the book.
And wouldn’t you know, the same thing applies to nonfiction. Here, for the last time, is John McPhee :
The creative writer leaves white space between chapters or segments of chapters. The creative reader silently articulates the unwritten thought that is present in the white space. Let the reader have the experience. Leave judgment in the eye of the beholder. When you are deciding what to leave out, begin with the author. If you see yourself prancing around between subject and reader, get lost. Give elbow room to the creative reader. In other words, to the extent that this is all about you, leave that out.