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?
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.
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