Monday, 2 March 2015

Creative Nonfiction Part 1 - Nola Passmore





If It's Creative and Nonfiction, Does That Mean We Make It Up?

I once went on a mission trip to Mexico as part of Youth With A Mission.  Our first outreach in Guadalajara was organised by a group of Christian women who wanted to share the gospel in their neighbourhood.  We performed some dramas to a crowd of about forty to fifty.  Then one of the local pastors preached a short message and asked people to indicate if they’d like to receive Christ.  The entire group came forward for prayer.  It was an incredibly moving experience and we were full of praise and thanks to God. 

Although everything I’ve just told you is true, it’s not presented in a particularly interesting way.  The version I had published in one of the Aussie Stories books began like this:

‘It was hot and humid; the air so thick we got puffed just walking around.  Our heavy black tracksuit pants didn’t help.  Every movement was an effort.  We were about to do our first street performance in Mexico.’

Do you think that opening is an improvement?  We know how the weather affected the people and that helps us visualise the scene.  But if it’s so hot, why are they wearing heavy black pants?  Oh they’re about to do a street performance.  So are they a drama team?  A flash mob?  Buskers?  What are they doing in Mexico? Hopefully those questions draw the reader in and make him or her want to learn more.

We come across examples of creative nonfiction all the time—magazine and newspaper feature articles, biographies and memoirs, devotional writing—but what are the distinctives of this genre?

Lee Gutkind defines creative nonfiction as ‘true stories well told’.  The ‘creative’ part refers to all of the usual literary techniques that creative writers employ (e.g. show don’t tell, the five senses, vivid imagery, engaging dialogue, action, character development, use of scenes), but the ‘nonfiction’ part tells us that these stories could be verified in much the same way a reporter would fact-check a news story.  It’s not the same as a novel or screenplay ‘based on a true story’, where the reader or viewer knows some poetic licence has been taken.  Creative nonfiction is true, but the stories are told in an engaging way.

Let’s start with an exercise.  Think of an event from your past that has some significance for you and write a ‘no-frills’ version that just covers the facts.  Then revise it using some of the literary tools noted above.  Consider the following tale:

‘My husband and I went on a bus tour of Italy.  Our first stop was Rome and we couldn’t believe how dangerous it was to drive down the streets.  Girls with no protective clothing would ride Vespas in between buses.  One of our tour guides used to stand behind the bus driver and hold on with just one hand.  I was worried she might fall and hurt herself.’

Boring!  How could it be jazzed up, while still getting across the facts?  Think about it first and then click here to find the actual excerpt from a travel story I had published.  One of the things you’ll notice is that I’ve used exaggeration as a humorous device.  Is that okay?  Didn’t I say earlier that creative nonfiction has to be true?  In the next two weeks, I’ll look more specifically at techniques used in creative nonfiction and give guidelines for navigating some of the grey areas.   

In the meantime, I’d be interested in hearing about the best nonfiction pieces you’ve read and what made them so appealing?

Sources:

Gutkind, L.  (2012).  You can’t make this stuff up: The complete guide to writing creative nonfiction from memoir to literary journalism and everything in between.  Boston, MA: Da Capo Press.
 Passmore, N. L.  (2009).  Mexican encounter.  In D. Dixon (Ed.), Aussie stories (pp. 145-148).  Sydney: Strand.
 Passmore, N. L.  (2014).  Vespas, wheelchairs, and the metamorphosis of Alberto.  In J. Cooper, B. Morton, J. Spencer & C. Tuovinen (Eds.), Tales from the upper room: Tabor Adelaide anthology 2014 (pp. 12-19).  Saint Marys, South Australia: Immortalise.



Nola Passmore is a freelance writer who has had more than 140 short pieces published, including devotionals, true stories, magazine articles, academic papers, poetry and short fiction.  She loves sharing what God has done in her life and encouraging others to do the same.  She and her husband Tim have their own freelance writing and editing business called The Write Flourish.  You can find her weekly writing tips blog at their website: http://www.thewriteflourish.com.au

18 comments:

  1. Hi Nola,
    There's a huge difference, for sure. The second version isn't merely jazzed up but brings the scene to life so that we readers may put ourselves in the picture too, as if we're there. It actually made me remember a bus trip through Europe when I was in my teens, and my time in Rome. Any writing which can make readers feel as if we are drawn from our chairs is powerful indeed. I agree that both fiction and non-fiction can (and should) benefit from these techniques.

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    1. Thanks for that Paula. If you've been to Rome, you know what I'm talking about! I think people understand about 'show don't tell' when writing fiction, but that can sometimes be lost when writing nonfiction. It's a lesson I'm still learning myself. Thanks for your encouragement.

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  2. Good idea for a series of posts, Nola. I guess in many ways a lot of the blog posts we write fall (or can fall) into this category. I read more non-fiction books than fiction and it's typically those that engage via superior storytelling that I find more compelling.

    I'm looking forward to these posts, Nola.

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    1. Thanks Ian. I agree. I've read some fantastic biographies where the author has really told the story well and drawn me into their world (e.g., The Hiding Place, God's Smuggler). But I've also read others that just relay the facts and have made an interesting story boring. I guess that's one of the reasons Jesus used parables to teach people. Definitely stays in your mind more. I really appreciate your comments.

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  3. Thanks Nola.
    To wrap up a non fiction event in the smell, feeling and visual impact it had surely enhances the actual event to the reader and helps them to understand what you (or other writers) experienced. Why should truth be presented in a mundane fashion when it is actually vibrant or demanding and challenging.

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    1. That's so true Ray. If we're excited about the people, events or topics we're writing about, that should be reflected in the writing. It might be more of a challenge in nonfiction, but it's worth the effort. Thanks for your comment.

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  4. Loved reading your post Nola. I've never thought about creative non-fiction before (never had any reason to I suppose) and found it fascinating. Your before and after examples illustrate your point beautifully - very much appreciated by this visual learner :)

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    1. Thanks Andrea. Having come from an academic background, I think I learned that nonfiction had to be dry and scientific. But I kept reading wonderful biographies and articles that were really creative. It sometimes takes more thought to work out how to jazz up a nonfiction piece, but it's worth it. Boring our readers should be a crime with a custodial sentence :) Thanks for your comments.

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  5. I suspect the reason I don't read a lot of non-fiction is because too much of it is like your first example ...

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    1. LOL Iola - that's probably right. I used to read a lot of biographies. If they're well-written, they can be as good or better than a novel. But I've also read some that have turned interesting lives into dreary reads. Nonfiction writers can have fun too :) Thanks for your comment.

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    1. Only deleted this comment because I found a rascally typo :)

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  7. Yes, second time around they definitely sound better.

    Some writers though, take this to an extreme and I'm sitting there wondering when they are ever going to get to the point! I think I must be an impatient reader. Perhaps this is why I read more non-fiction than fiction.

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    1. Hi Susan - Yes you're right. Some writing can be too flowery which takes away from the point. I don't like books, including novels, that go overboard on description and don't move the plot along. I guess it depends what the purpose of the article or book is too (e.g., whether it's mainly to entertain, provide information etc). Though hopefully the two aren't mutually exclusive. Thanks for your comment.

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  8. Excellent post, Nola! Thanks so much for sharing your expertise with us :)

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    1. Thanks Narelle. I find I always learn more myself when I write these sorts of posts. Now just have to practise what I preach :)

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  9. Awesome. I look forward to seeing the next parts. Thanks, Nola.

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    1. Thanks Lisa. Appreciate your feedback.

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