What Is Creative Nonfiction Anyway?

Creative Nonfiction vs. Memoir
Creative Nonfiction vs. Memoir

As my writing and blogging gained momentum, I would see the phrase "creative nonfiction" used to classify an essay which, to me, was clearly memoir, or a book similarly characterized. For the life of me, I could not understand the need for separation of the two.Until . . .

I began to dig for an explanation of differences between creative nonfiction and memoir. What I learned is vastly important to how I'm refashioning my latest revision.

As I combed the Internet, local libraries, and writing publications, I found an online and in print magazine, Creative Nonfiction. When landing on a new or unfamiliar site, the first place I visit is the "about" section.

To my surprised pleasure, I came upon an article entitled "What is Creative Nonfiction?" written by Lee Gutkind, lovingly referred to by "Vanity Fair"  as the "Godfather behind creative nonfiction."

Gutkind begins his articlewith the following:

The banner of the magazine I’m proud to have founded and I continue to edit, Creative Nonfiction, defines the genre simply, succinctly, and accurately as “true stories well told.” And that, in essence, is what creative nonfiction is all about.

And Gutkind's words clarify what creative nonfiction is--"true stories well told." Aren't we told to share the truth in our memoirs? Isn't it the truth we are seeking as we write about our lives?

I suppose I should have been satisfied with Gutkind's definition, but I kept digging. Discovering a site hosted by Barri Jean Borich, I read with interest her post entitled "What Is Creative Nonfiction?" In her opening paragraph, Borich provided an extension of the answer found in Gutkind's article:

There are many ways to define the literary genre we call Creative Nonfiction. It is a genre that answers to many different names, depending on how it is packaged and who is doing the defining. Some of these names are: Literary Nonfiction; Narrative Nonfiction; Literary Journalism; Imaginative Nonfiction; Lyric Essay; Personal Essay; Personal Narrative; and Literary Memoir. Creative Nonfiction is even, sometimes, thought of as another way of writing fiction, because of the way writing changes the way we know a subject. (Emphasis added.)

If we take the two definitions and combine them and agree with the simple use of the word "nonfiction" to mean we only write what is true, not fictional, we have the beginnings of creative nonfiction. But what about the word "creative?"

Just because we write nonfiction and tell true stories from our lives' experiences does not mean we cannot and should not be creative in the process. The best memoirs I have read were filled with creations as delicious as a cold glass of iced tea on a hot summer afternoon. Others took me down dark, painful paths into lives of abuse and suffering, but they created the darkness for me, the reader, to experience and reach and understanding of the writer's story.

Never let it be said a writer writing creative nonfiction cannot paint a beautiful scene or imagine the garments and buildings of ages past in his/her family's life.

Even though we write nonfiction, our true stories must be "well told" as Gutkind suggests. And as Borich states a lot of what is written as creative nonfiction "depends on how it is packaged" and "who is doing the defining."

The only caveat to using your creativity in nonfiction writing is not to stretch the truth of your story.

We cannot overstep our bounds in using creativity to make up incidents which never occurred, or statements never made, or whatever else you could invent.

Are you finding opportunities to "paint" while you write your memoir or some other piece of creative nonfiction? Do you see other ways the two words, "creative" and "nonfiction," come together to define the genre or form we are writing? Let's find out in the comments section below.