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.

24 thoughts on “What Is Creative Nonfiction Anyway?

  1. Wow, Sherrey, you’ve stripped this topic down to the essence with your own delightful creative approach, i.e., “The best memoirs I have read were filled with creations as delicious as a cold glass of iced tea on a hot summer afternoon.”
    This post reminds me of a quest I undertook fifteen years ago to define the difference between memoir, lifestory and autobiography — a quest that led me to nest in the cozy, less formal lifestory niche. I also discovered Lee Gutkind and the Creative Nonfiction site on my quest. BarrieJean Borich was not yet on the map. Her emphasis on “actual” versus truth and fact rings my bells.

    1. Hello, moving lady! Surprised to see you here, but then with laptops and wifi you can pop in from anywhere along the highway. I love, love, love that first paragraph in your comments. Made me feel oh so good this morning.
      You have an edge on me with your 15-year ago quest, but I still love the word “lifestory.” So authentically descriptive of what we’re telling. I practically stumbled upon BarrieJean Borich, but enjoyed perusing her site. If you haven’t yet, spend some time reading her blog. I think she really gets it.

  2. So does that make my African Memoirs creative nonfiction, or do they need to be better written to qualify?

    1. Ian, nothing you’ve written could be written better, and yes, your African Memoirs are creative nonfiction. You know I think this may be your first visit in a long time to my blog. I miss the interactions between Belinda Nicoll and you on her blog, but she’s busy being a grandma. Good to “see” you!

  3. Right on, Sherry. I love the mag from Creative Fiction and went to one of their conferences two years ago. Great people and had a wonderful time.

    1. I have yet to attend one of their conference, but I love the magazine too. Glad you stopped by and added your affirmation to my post today. I always enjoy your presence here.

  4. I had never heard the term creative non-fiction before but I suspect James Frey’s books could have been described that way, avoiding public humiliation from Oprah!

    1. Poor James Frey could have done a lot of things to avoid his public humiliation from Oprah! Thanks for adding that little taste of humor to the rest of my day. Hadn’t even given his foray into “nonfiction” while writing this. Appreciate your visit.

  5. Fabulous and informative article Sherrey! Aptly described, there’s nothing wrong with being creative in our descriptions, but making up stories for dramatic effect, isn’t nonfiction. I love Lee Gutkind’s books. 🙂 Thanks for the magazine share.

    1. I love his books too, especially “You Can’t Make This Stuff Up!” I try to read as much as I can of what’s available on the magazine site but don’t always have time. I so appreciate your comments, Debby, and the shares you always find time to do. 🙂

  6. I’m still around, Sherry. I’ve been quite busy writing a couple of novels and being a granddad too, but I’m still writing. I haven’t seen anything from you for a while, but that may be because I lost a few contacts through a computer glitch and they take a while to find again. Still writing, working on another African memoir now – the early years this time!

    1. Novels, you say? Please keep me posted when those come out and the early years memoir too. And I think I remember something about your having a new name, Grandpa! You’re not alone in computer glitches. My husband lost a large number of design drawings for his music stand business during a computer glitch not long ago. It’s hard to watch a grown man cry! Take care and don’t be a stranger.

      1. Yes, novels. After six African Memoirs, I had a number of other authors nagging me (in the nicest possible way) to do some fiction, so I did. CHINESE TAKE-OUT was the first and it came out last year in both print and e-book. It was quite well received by those in the know, but needs to get better noticed. You can find it at: http://amzn.com/B00JSTZI4M The second one (The Rorhart Inheritance) is written and is currently with my publisher, but it may have to wait a while as he is in the process of formatting the sixth African memoir, and that gets priority. He in turn has been nagging me to write another African book, about the early years. I’ve started that, and got about 50,000 words done so far. It’s quite fun reliving my childhood!

    1. Lara, I dare not take credit for defining creative nonfiction. I look to Lee Gutkind as the holder of that defining moment. If you go to the website for the Creative Nonfiction magazine (http://creativenonfiction.org), you will see that the four words, “true stories well told,” appear in the magazine’s masthead. I studied an essay written by Lee explaining his founding of the magazine for months while this post sat in dry dock waiting for me to complete it. If I have made it more understandable, I am honored by your words.

  7. Wow, Sherrey, what a great job you’ve done capturing the essence of creative non-fiction! I love Lee Gutkind’s magazine and call to write “true stories well told.” That’s the beauty of memoir–we get to put our creativity and unique voices to work in honoring our truths and shaping our life stories in a way that connects and moves our readers. Thank you for this excellent post.

    1. You know, Kathy, I began working on this post months ago. I think I had to reach a certain point in my own storytelling to really understand it. Lee’s words, “true stories well told,” have become the driving force behind the finishing of my memoir. Each time I sit to work on it I think on those words. Thank you for your gracious words.

  8. “True stories well told.” It’s certainly what I try to do. I recently won an award for an essay that was classified as creative nonfiction. I almost didn’t enter the contest because I wasn’t sure if it fit. But I will now take that four word description to heart.

    1. Victoria, those four words comprise the tagline for Gutkind’s magazine, Creative Nonfiction. Since reading them the first time, I sit down to work on my memoir focusing on those four words. Congratulations on your creative nonfiction essay award!

  9. Sherrey,Thanks for these definitions…the one that stood out to me was: “True stories well told.” I was thinking how memory shifts so all one can do is be as truthful as one can remember. Blessings to you 🙂

    1. Those four words are the iconic tagline of the magazine Gutkind founded. They resonate with me each time I sit down to work on my memoir. First, I have told my truth as I remember it, and second, I have told my story well. Keeps a writer of nonfiction in line! Thanks for the blessings, Dolly, and I send you blessings as well.

  10. I’ve always been curious if you can write a story that is a combination of both (non-fiction/fiction).

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