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.
As I have traveled the memoir writing path, I have faced a number of “what if” questions. Perhaps you are beginning to write your story or are midway through. It’s possible these same questions have haunted you. Let me share with you how I have resolved some of these stumbling blocks.
WHAT IF I don’t know what to write?
Not everyone knows what they are going to write when they begin a book. That’s why we write the first draft without pausing to edit or correct as we go. This “stream of consciousness” writing will allow the memories or family stories to come back to you.
If you have a central subject, such as abuse, violence, grief, or illness, to build on, it will be easier to begin. But not everybody starts this way. Perhaps you have a diary or journal from some important time in your life. That will be a great help.
WHAT IF my memories are not 100% clear?
Memories are like photographs. Some fading occurs over the years. But items like photos, letters, diaries, or journals will sharpen those memories. Talking with family or friends about times past will also benefit in calling up memories for you. And, believe it or not, certain smells, colors, or places will do the same. Give it a try.
WHAT IF someone challenges my truth? WHAT IF family members object to my writing my story?
Your story is your story. Therefore, what you recall about your story is your truth. Not everyone in a family, workplace, group, or community remembers every incident the same. Not everyone in a family will be excited about your project. We are attuned to what goes on around us in different ways. We don’t perceive the same visuals or audibles, nor do we have the same abilities of recall. If someone questions your truth or recall or reason for writing, remind them this is how you remember it and if they don’t remember things the same, they’ll need to tell their own story.
WHAT IF family members don’t want to be included in my story?
This is a difficult question and a difference of opinion on this point is best handled on each particular writer’s watch. In my case, I have two brothers who could play major roles in some of my memories. I have asked their permission to include them by name; they have not responded. I have decided to include them with only generic references to who they are, i.e. “my older brother” and “my younger brother.” However, I’m writing under my name, using my family name and my parents’ full names, and people are going to know who those brothers are. I do not, however, include any stories of which I do not have first-hand knowledge.
If this is an issue in your writing experience, you will need to discuss this with your family members. Some may ask to see what you’ve written about them and if they ask politely, you may choose to cut any references unpleasing to them.
WHAT IF my story is the same story someone else has written?
My story is similar to many memoirs written before and some written in the future will be similar to mine and many others. It is a story of parental abuse. Yet, I am able to get beyond this “what if” because I believe my story is able to offer hope to victims in similar circumstances. It is my belief that each story resonates for at least one person who reads it. If that reader gains a miniscule grain of hope, then my writing has not been in vain.
WHAT IF no one wants to read my story?
Every writer faces this question. We have no way of knowing who, if anyone will want to read our stories or books. Writers usually write because they love the written word. Many cannot go a day without writing. We can only hope our articulation of our stories is capable of moving into the mainstream of books written. In so doing, they will perhaps make it to a bookshelf in a retail setting, a stack in a local library, or if digitally published to a site where traffic brings an interested reader our way. Don’t fret over whether someone will read your story. Write it first and then see what happens.
I hope these have been helpful to anyone facing some or all the “what if’s” I have addressed. If there is one I haven’t listed, and there are some, please let me know and I’ll add them to a later post.
WHAT ABOUT YOU? If you have faced some of these or other “what if’s” in your writing, how have you handled them?
Lately I feel like a hamster must feel on his little wheel going round and round. Edit, revise, repeat. And again. And again. And again.
What if you’re only on your first round of this dizzying cycle? Think how it will be when you get farther along!
Let me share with you five simple steps I’ve found helpful and hope will help you get started on the right track. These are not all-inclusive for self-editing, but they at least give you something to think about as you begin. Many resources are available in book form, on the web, or through your library.
Please keep in mind engaging a professional editor or editorial team to make certain your manuscript is ready to publish. These simple steps are offered to get started when your manuscript is as far as you can take it. Once you feel comfortable that your manuscript is as clean of simple errors as possible, it’s time to hire an editor.
When you hear the word “beta,” what comes to mind?
A variety of uses are made of the word “beta,” and it’s not always what you think:
In today’s world, built primarily on technology, a beta may be an individual or company testing a proposed software, a new type of computer, a high-tech phone system, or any number of other devices.
Taking second place is often where beta finds itself, especially in the Greek alphabet where beta is the second letter, β. Then there is the capitalized form of Beta representing the second brightest star in a constellation or in chemistry where it means the second in any series of compounds in an atom.
And, of course, there is the beta fish, sometimes spelled betta, an often savage and warrior-like fish sold in pet stores. Our son raised some of these in his teens, and their beauty does not make up for their rude personalities.
But what if we add the word “reader” to the word “beta” to invoke the name of one of the most important members of your writing team?
You may be asking the definition of that name or label, a job description of this new team member, and other questions. Hopefully, the tips below will answer your questions.
But first, the definition of a beta reader:
A beta reader reviews a writer’s manuscript elements such as plot development, character descriptions and motivations, general readability, grammar, and logical inconsistencies. The writer may ask the beta reader to do all these things or limit the read to certain specific elements.
Note that beta reading is the step coming before the pre-publication edit done by someone with excellent professional editing skills.
With that definition in mind, what should a writer expect a beta reader to do?
Below are the 7 tips mentioned in the post title and promised earlier. These are taken from beta reading requests I have responded to, and they are what I would expect a beta reader to do for me:
Present in a considerate, tactful and diplomatic manner recommendations and feedback. This is an area where the reader should not be too direct or action-oriented in choosing words in preparing his opinions. A good beta reader makes suggestions, not directions, instructions or complaints. Recommendations or comments sent back to a writer should not produce negative reactions on the part of the writer.
Make personal observations as “asides,” if appropriate. These comments are helpful only if the writer understands they are not a part of your recommendations/feedback and are your personal reactions and feelings. Let’s say a particular character behaves in such a way you feel sorry for him. Tell the writer about the empathetic response you feel toward this character and why. Perhaps the writer did not intend the character to come across in this way. The reader’s personal reaction highlights this issue and in making this comment, the reader has alerted the writer so changes may be made. Or perhaps a certain scene wasn’t working for you. Passing this along with a good explanation will be helpful to the writer in reviewing that scene.
Perform a second reading and focus on specifics requested by the writer, making notes along the way. Recently, a writer requested “thorough” read, i.e. reviewing the elements above (see definition), and additionally based on my comments back to her, she queried me about some changes she was considering. Another writer pointed out she wasn’t looking for copy edits or proofing and provided a concise list of what she did want me to do. Each writer will have a particular process for moving the book toward publication. Each one will present a beta reader with different needs and requests.
Read the manuscript through for fun. That’s right — I said FUN! During this reading, a beta reader should get lost in the story or in the purpose if reading a nonfiction book. After all, this allows the reader to report back accurately on how the book may or may not be received by the reading public. Here, the reader captures a general feel for the story line and characters while looking for any issues that disturb the reader’s ability to follow the story. Example: A character makes a sudden appearance on page 125 and is mentioned as having done a particular thing. Yet, the reader doesn’t recall having met that character in the earlier 124 pages.
Tell the writer when a particular character resonates with the reader or if a scene is especially moving. We all need to know when something is working well, and it costs us nothing to share the goodness along with the potential criticisms and errors that might be found and included in a reader’s response back to a writer. A good beta reader begins and ends his opinions with some of these good points and positives.
Point out issues not included in writer’s requests, when suitable. If the reader notices an issue not included in the writer’s requested actions, it is permissible to it in the feedback. Example:Perhaps POV wasn’t included in the list. Suddenly, the writer is switching back and forth between first and third person. Or it takes too long at the beginning of the book to sense any action.
Here come’s the test of a goodbeta reader — the ability to be as tactful and diplomatic as anyone serving as the U.S. Ambassador to a foreign country. The reader is respectful in explaining what he discovered and why it is included it in the feedback provided. And this is the perfect segue into the next point.
And then, sit on recommendations, comments and/or feedback for at least two days before sending to the writer. This allows the reader time to step away and then re-read the work product. The reader can then assess her reactions if it were her work being read and commented on: Does anything raise negativity? Is anything too harsh? Are comments clear and to the point? How would I feel reading these comments about my work?
The beta reader and writer relationship is different from almost any other writing relationship and where it comes in the process of a writing project and how it performs depends on what the writer wants from the beta reader and what the reader is capable of offering. As in any working relationship, this is negotiable between the parties.
What I have offered today is based on my own opinions and beta reading process seeded in what I would expect from a beta reader if it were my book being read and what I want to give to writers who seek me out as a beta reader.
Inherent in the relationship between beta reader and the author are seen the reasons every good writer needs to engage one or more beta readers.
Let’s close this post with a couple of quotes on beta readers:
“Basically, the more eyes the book goes through before publication, the fewer issues you will have later; and hopefully, the better the reviews are.” ~ Joanna Penn, Writer, Speaker and Blogger
“Beta readers provide us differing viewpoints and show us flaws in our own work that we were incapable of seeing ourselves.” ~ Chuck Sambuchino, Writer and Editor
If you have had any experiences using beta readers, how has it worked for you and your beta reader? Did you offer a list? Did you receive what you expected, or perhaps not? Anything you can share will help those reading this post.
In the last issue of my newsletter, I included a post on achieving balance between your writing life and the crush of holiday festivities and responsibilities. But what about other times? Don’t writers need balance in their lives during the rest of the year?
The answer is YES! The larger question, however, may lie deep in the “how to” part of the balancing equation.
Much like the gymnast in this image achieving balance is no easy task. For the gymnast, it means hours of training, concentration on each move, and maintaining a fit and healthy lifestyle. This adds up to total commitment on her part.
To stay healthy in body and mind, our gymnast likely still has a life outside gymnastics. So her commitment is to balance both in the gym and away from it.
Here are a few ways that we as writers can create balance in our lives like our focused gymnast friend:
Begin now reviewing your accomplishments in 2014. Follow that up with establishing your goals for 2015.
Once you have your goals established, fill in an editorial calendar with blog posts, podcasts, guest posts and interviews, and whatever applies to your writing.
As part of your editorial calendar, be sure to leave some time open for social networking, i.e. Twitter, Facebook, LinkedIn, Tumblr, Pinterest, etc. This time should also include reading and commenting on blog posts by those you follow regularly.
Now it’s important to insert time for working out, going to the gym, taking a walk with the dog, yoga, whatever you use to relax and get your mind and body in a state of contemplation for writing.
Don’t forget to plug in some time for your family or friends. This is all important for you as much as it is for them. You can’t be a writing hermit forever, although those days when you can it feels really good, doesn’t it?
I can hear what you’re saying: “She has no idea what I have to do every day.” “When am I going to get the grocery shopping done?” “What about the laundry and taking the kids to after school activities?” And more!
I know what you’re saying. I used to work full-time and more, am a mother and wife, participated in volunteer activities, and ran the ever popular athletic bus route. And I know the sense of pressure the every day demands of life can bring to your already packed schedule.
Nothing I suggest here is written in stone. These are just that … suggestions. Massage them, manipulate them, keep what you can use, and toss the rest. Add your own ideas. What I have offered is how I manage my time and calendaring.
For example, as I’ll be sharing in a post coming up in a few days, I set a goal for myself that by the end of December 2014 (only a few days away), I would have finished my memoir manuscript. I cannot mark that off my goals or to do list as completed. Why?
In December 2013, my husband injured his back and was completely disabled until surgery in March 2014. At the same time, I was suffering from a respiratory issue, and life around home got miserably behind.
I had to clear my calendar, push things out, forget about deadlines and guest posts, etc. I had only one focus and that was taking care of my husband, myself and our home.
Adjustments can and often are made to anything we set up. Do not think that any calendar, goal list, or deadline is always firm.
There’s an exchange in my memoir Any Road Will Take You There between my father and me as we sit at my kitchen table late one night. My young child, my first, and their mother are in bed. The two of us are alone drinking bottles of beer and talking about my new role, fatherhood. It’s a key scene in the book. Still, no one else but the two of us could have remembered that conversation.
I wrote about that moment after my father had died. So, I had to recall a decade old dialogue the best I could and rely on only my shaky memory. I didn’t expect to recall our exact conversation, of course, and honestly didn’t need to, but I was determined to write about that night in the truest, most authentic way. I wanted to capture the essence of that evening. Of course I had only my own recollections. But is that fair? Doesn’t Dad have a say here? And how could he have a say now?
There is no other way to a write a personal story than to tell it like it is. But what if you can’t run the details by someone, check the facts? First of all, you are not writing journalism, but you do want to recreate the spirit of the truth. Be honest with your story, honest with what you remember, and even if others have passed on and you can’t verify, try to step away to consider other perspectives. I truly believe the reader will know when you are not being honest with yourself, and ultimately will sense when you are not being honest or mindful of how another may have remembered that moment, incident, or conversation.
And what about the living?
In my first memoir, Accidental Lessons, there are several scenes with my ex-wife. First, I must tell you, the two of us are good friends. It is far from the stereotypical friction laden relationship of former spouses. Despite this, my publisher insisted on signed releases from everyone mentioned in the book. When I presented the release to my former wife, this is what she said: I’ll agree with one condition. When it’s made into a movie, Susan Sarandon plays me.
Just for the record, no movie deal yet and nothing in writing from Susan.
In general, I believed everything I wrote about my ex-wife was quite flattering. It wasn’t that I necessarily set out to write all great things about her, it’s just that what was needed for the narrative, her part of it, did not need to be about the times of our lives that were entangled in disagreement. So, when she read the manuscript, she had little problem with any of it. Was it true? Yes. I needed to reveal only what was needed.
But what do you do when someone you write about is absolutely appalled by what you plan to publish or is outright angry about your words? Maybe their version of the same incident is much different in their eyes, and this creates serious tension, risking the relationship with that individual.
If possible, let all those who are main subjects in the story read your manuscript. Prepare them for what you have written; let them know it may not be easy to read and that you are writing about difficult matters. Then, allow them to tell you exactly what they think, to point out errors, minor or major, and permit them to suggest changes. And if possible, ask them to write down their version of the scene or incident in question. Our truths are completely our own. They are no one else’s, and you must be true to your story. But permitting input from others can help you understand their truth, and some version of their story might actually be very good material to add to a redraft. It could, and many times will make your story better.
In the end, the narrative is your responsibility and you alone should decide whether or not to include others’ suggestions, thoughts, or versions. In the end, no matter what, the story you have written is yours. Keep it yours.
Get to Know David Berner:
David W. Berner–the award winning author of Accidental Lessons and Any Road Will Take You There–was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania where he began his work as a broadcast journalist and writer. He moved to Chicago to work as a radio reporter and news anchor for CBS Radio and later pursue a career as a writer and educator. His book Accidental Lessons is about his year teaching in one of the Chicago area’s most troubled school districts. The book won the Golden Dragonfly Grand Prize for Literature and has been called a “beautiful, elegantly written book” by award-winning author Thomas E. Kennedy, and “a terrific memoir” by Rick Kogan (Chicago Tribune and WGN Radio). Any Road Will Take You There is the author’s story of a 5000-mile road trip with his sons and the revelations of fatherhood. The memoir has been called “heartwarming and heartbreaking” and “a five-star wonderful read.”
Any Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and SonsAny Road Will Take You There: A Journey of Fathers and Sons is a heartwarming and heartbreaking story told with humor and grace, revealing the generational struggles and triumphs of being a dad, and the beautiful but imperfect ties that connect all of us.
Recipient of a Book of the Year Award from the Chicago Writers Association, Any Road Will Take You There is honest, unflinching, and tender.
In the tradition of the Great American Memoir, a middle-age father takes the reader on a five-thousand-mile road trip–the one he always wished he’d taken as a young man. Recently divorced and uncertain of the future, he rereads the iconic road story–Jack Kerouac’s On the Road–and along with his two sons and his best friend, heads for the highway to rekindle his spirit.
However, a family secret turns the cross-country journey into an unexpected examination of his role as a father, and compels him to look to the past and the fathers who came before him to find contentment and clarity, and celebrate the struggles and triumphs of being a dad.
Paperback: 242 Pages Genre: Memoir Publisher: Dream of Things (September 17, 2014) ASIN: B00NVBMDZ0 / ISBN-10: 0988439093 / ISBN-13: 978-0988439092
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