What is Creative Non-Fiction?

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by Kori Miller

Creative non-fiction, also known as, literary or narrative non-fiction, is a fast-growing genre that includes:

  • personal essays (small idea story based on the author’s experiences; short form; limited audience)
  • literary journalism (big idea stories – anyone can research and write these; mass appeal)
  • memoirs (small idea stories based on the author’s experiences; long form; more limited audience than literary journalism)

Some editors only want literary journalism pieces because of their mass appeal, but a number of creative non-fiction journals, on-line and in print, want both.  Skirt Magazine and Brevity are two examples, but a simple search of Writer’s Market (a Writer’s Digest subscription service) yields many more opportunities.

How can non-fiction be creative?

The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. – Lee Gutkind, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up

Why write creative non-fiction?

We all know that “truth is stranger than fiction,” and it draws the reader in. And the advice, “write what you know,” is a perfect fit for this genre! Personally, I find it easier to write creative non-fiction than fiction, because I know the story so well!

A great starting point for more information and useful examples is  Creative Non-fiction.

What’s next? 

Sit down. Describe one scene, a conversation, a person, a moment in time or some other small experience that you think contains some larger meaning (you might not know what it is, that’s okay.) Capture as many details as possible. Set it down. When you return to the piece, analyze it. Is there an image that resonates or repeats? What is the emotional core of the piece? What “feels” like the beginning or the end? Do you see anything — ideas, emotions, attitudes — changing, developing, or evolving over the course of the draft? Make a note of these.

Ask yourself:

  • Why, of all the things I could have written about, did I write about this?
  • Where and how might readers identify with the larger meaning of the piece?

Start cutting and rearranging. What you should end up with is a piece that demonstrates the careful thought, controlled language, and limited focus of a personal essay. – Prof. John T. Price at University of Nebraska-Omaha

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