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.

Seeing Memories Through a New Lense

A couple of weeks ago I was contacted in response to a nonfiction essay I submitted last year. The essay’s status fell to the bottom of my pile when 12 months passed since submission.
Yet, an email popped in explaining the delay and telling me the essay on how my parents met would be published in an anthology in 2016. Still some minor adjustments were needed. These “fixes” sent me digging through boxes of memories. You do keep your memories in boxes, don’t you?

Photo by jarmoluk (Pixabay)
Photo by jarmoluk (Pixabay)

I quickly found what I was looking for, but the minutes and hours slipped by as I got caught up in examining other items in the box. An interesting thing happened while digging the day away. I remembered how things had happened in the past, generally. But I sensed something different.

As I sifted through memories, I sensed a shift, a change. An awareness of something different.

The change is in the value placed on memories when seeing them through a new lens.

Photo by Pezibear (Pixabay)
Photo by Pezibear (Pixabay)

For me, the new lens is the passage of time. Cousins, nieces, and nephews look so young and small in the images now yellowing in the box. Handwriting so solid and steady in old letters and cards now looks less solid and steady. Has it been that long?

Sadly, some of the memories are of times spent with family and friends now gone. Images of visits to their homes in the last three decades bring back cherished childhood memories as well. Has it been that long?

Each memory found, seen through a new lens, and tucked back in the box will be the basis for a post here, an essay submitted somewhere, or the genesis for a second book.

An absolute treasure trove awaits us as each few years pass by. We grow older (sorry, but we do!). We grow wiser and sometimes forgetful. We experience the sour taste of losing friends and relatives, yet know they are in a better place. And miraculously, what seemed strange or silly when we were in our teens or young adult years becomes a gift, a treasured memory seen differently.

How about your memories in a box? Have you brought them out lately? Wonder what you would find looking through a new lens? Maybe it’s time to find out!

A Day in the Life | Retirement 2006 (Episode #3)

Continuing with creative nonfiction shorts in my series, A Day in the Life.


Retirement 2006

Recent events involving the family of my former managing attorney brought back many memories of my almost 15 years spent working with him and watching his family grow. At the same time, I was treated to casual reminiscences with other attorneys and their wives I came to know while working at the firm.

Prior to retirement, I was given sage advice by a brother-in-law. He cautioned, “When you retire, walk away not expecting friendships to continue. Some may. Some will. Many won’t. Don’t be surprised. After all, the friendships made on the job have an essential focal point–the workplace. Other friendships in your life have varying focal points. Don’t be disappointed by this turn of events. Go make new friends or get reacquainted with old ones.”

My brother-in-law was right to a point. The attorney and his family with whom I grew close during the workdays over 15 years have made it possible to stay closer than I expected. We’ve been included in recitals, concerts, weddings, memorial services, and more. A bonus was getting to know this attorney’s parents with whom we became close friends.

Steve (best managing partner ever) and me on party day. Image in background was my first day on the job.
Steve (best managing partner ever) and me on party day. Image in background was my first day on the job.

On the day I retired, February 6, 2006, the firm hosted a party in my honor with gifts, a trip down memory lane, some hugs, and some tears. I left thinking on my brother-in-law’s wisdom and advice.

I never expected to experience such family like feelings with my managing attorney and his family by the time 2015 rolled around.

A kinship exists going beyond explanation. Truly it has been a joy to have been “adopted” by their family.


Have you experienced this kind of extended relationship beyond a structured environment, whether at work, during college, or elsewhere? If you have, share your story with us, won’t you?

Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery by Janet Singer with Seth Gillihan

Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recover
Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recover

Daniel Singer hadn’t eaten in a week. Hunched over with his head in his hands, he’d sit in his safe chair for hours, doing nothing but shaking, mumbling and moaning; he was in the throes of severe obsessive-compulsive disorder. Dan went from seven therapists to ten medications to a nine week stay at a world renowned residential treatment program. His parents worried he’d never again be able to function in society, or even worse, survive. Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery is a mother’s account of the courage and perseverance of a young man who at times was hindered by the very people who were supposed to be helping him. It is a story of hope and the power of family, as well as a useful guide for all those whose lives have been touched by this often misunderstood and misrepresented disorder. Weaving expert commentary and useful information about OCD and its treatment throughout, the authors are able to offer not just a personal account of how the disorder can affect sufferers and families, but also a glimpse into the possibilities for diagnosis, clinical approaches, and successful outcomes. Today, thanks to Exposure and Response Prevention (ERP) therapy, one of the available treatments for OCD, Dan is a college graduate working in his chosen field and living life to the fullest. He is living proof that even those with the most severe cases of OCD can not only recover, but triumph.

(Image and synopsis via Goodreads)

My Thoughts:

Janet Singer has accomplished more in her book, Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recovery, than a hundred scientific publications filled with facts, figures, and charts. To live with OCD yourself or in your family, the ordinary human needs lay speak. Janet does that in her book with authenticity, emotion, and compassion.

Janet lives knowing her adult son has OCD and is challenged in many ways to cope and engage in a normal existence. Most frustrating to Janet and her husband, Gary, are the many attempts by professionals at treating Dan’s symptoms. Trying one drug after the other, sometimes prescribing one on top of the other. Often there were interactions between drugs which were unbearable for Dan. Despite their conversations with his doctors, Janet and Gary never seemed to be able to get through to the medical community that they really know who Dan is.

In my opinion, Janet has done a tremendous favor for those living with OCD or with a loved one who has OCD. The picture offered is a realistic image of their family’s struggles with Dan’s illness and treatments. Janet does not spare anything in laying out the facts of their life, their struggles with the medical and psychological communities, their attempts to help Dan.

Standing alongside and contributing to Janet’s book is Seth J. Gillihan, Ph.D., a clinical assistant professor of psychology in the psychiatry department at the University of Pennsylvania. The beauty of Dr. Gillihan’s contributions is found in their placement in the book. As Dan and his family face another crisis, Dr. Gillihan writes information on drugs, treatment plans, and other scientific information in lay terms. This balance between the realistic story and the medical information available provides a perfect resource based in truth for coping with and treating OCD.

Janet Singer has written a poignant and powerful memoir plus a resource to guide others to an understanding of OCD and how to manage it. This book shares encouragement and enlightenment in equal measure, a powerful combination indeed.

My Recommendation:

Overcoming OCD is a story of struggle for Dan and for his parents. Janet and Dan’s love for him and their wish to improve his life is palpable. In sharing their story, Janet has gifted to many a measure of hope in coming to terms with OCD and its many crises. Anyone living with loved ones suffering OCD, or who know someone with OCD, or who could give a copy to a local library will help spread Janet’s words an unknown number of people may benefit from the Singers’ story. Share a ray of hope, a glimmer of better days, and new and innovative treatments.

5 star rating
5 star rating

I rarely rate books on this blog. And when I’m forced to give a star rating on Amazon, Goodreads, or other book sites, I rarely give a 5-star review. The book must be exceptional to garner five stars.

Today I’m pleased to give Janet Singer’s book, Overcoming OCD: A Journey to Recoverya powerful and well-written work, a 5-star rating.

DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for a fair and honest review. The opinions expressed are solely my own.

Meet Janet Singer:

Janet Singer is an advocate for OCD awareness, with the goal of spreading the word that OCD, no matter how severe, is treatable. At the age of eighteen, her son Dan suffered from OCD so debilitating he could not even eat. Today, thanks to exposure and response prevention (ERP) therapy, he is a college graduate working in his chosen field and living life to the fullest. Janet writes regularly for Psych Central as well as Mentalhelp.net, and has been published on many other web sites including Beyond OCD, Anxiety and Depression Association of America, and Mad in America. She has also been an invited speaker at OCD conferences. She started her own blog, ocdtalk (www.ocdtalk.wordpress.com) in 2010 and it currently reaches readers in 162 countries. She uses a pseudonym to protect her son’s privacy. (Via Goodreads)

Meet Seth J. Gillihan:

Seth J. Gillihan, PhD, is a licensed psychologist with a practice in Haverford, Pennsylvania. He specializes in the treatment of anxiety, depression, and related conditions. Dr. Gillihan is also a Clinical Assistant Professor of Psychology at the University of Pennsylvania, Department of Psychiatry and a visiting assistant professor of psychology at Haverford College.

Prior to opening his practice, Dr. Gillihan was an Assistant Professor at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety in the Psychiatry Department at the University of Pennsylvania where he carried out research on anxiety disorders (primarily posttraumatic stress disorder) and smoking cessation, provided treatment for anxiety and depression, and supervised psychology trainees and psychiatry residents in the delivery of cognitive-behavioral therapy for OCD, PTSD, depression, and other conditions. (Via Dr. Gillihan’s website)

Book Details:
Publisher: Rowman & Littlefield
Published: January 22, 2015
Hardcover, 240 pages
ISBN: 1442239441


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A Day in the Life | Easter (Episode #2)

Welcome to the second installment in my A Day in the Life series of short creative nonfiction pieces drawn from days gone by. I hope you enjoy them.


Easter

One Easter Sunday stands out in my mind above all others. I was around age four. Dressing up was a highlight for me as it was for most little girls, especially around Easter.

Via Google Images
Via Google Images

Easter meant a visit from the Easter Bunny with baskets filled with eggs and jelly beans. It almost always meant new clothes and this particular Easter it meant a new pair of black patent leather Mary Janes. I was so proud and excited to wear them. I thought Sunday would never come.

Finally, Sunday came. Up early to check out what was left by the Easter Bunny, eat breakfast, brush our teeth, and then dress for church.

That’s when it all fell apart. I heard Mama and Daddy talking.

“She cannot wear those shoes. Can’t you see it snowed last night?”

Oh, no! Mama was telling Daddy I couldn’t wear my new shoes. If I hurried, I could get dressed and have my new shoes on before they finished arguing.

“Honey, the snow isn’t that deep.” Hurray for Daddy! But Mama was having none of it.

Finally Daddy saved the day. He told Mama if she felt it was too messy to wear the new shoes, he would carry me from the house to the car, from the car to the church, and reverse his plan when it was time to come home.

I’ll never forget wearing those shoes, but most importantly, I’ll never forget how important I felt when Daddy reached down with his long arms, picked me up, and carried me in his arms.

Do you have a special Easter memory from childhood or perhaps another stage of life? Perhaps you can use this as a prompt to write a short piece sometime over the next few days. If you’d like to share it here as a guest post, please contact me.