Approaching Nonfiction Creatively

Absolute Blank

By Mollie Savage (Collage)

Creative nonfiction. Peculiar term, isn’t it? The first time I ran across it I thought, “Get out! What is this a joke, an oxymoron? An apologia for lying in print?” I swatted it away like a pesky mosquito. And like a pesky mosquito, it kept coming back; in articles and news programs attacking memoirs such as Gore Vidal’s Palimpsest and the biography Dutch: A Memoir of Ronald Reagan by Edmund Morris. Then, I began noticing ads for university graduate programs in Creative Nonfiction: what a contrast; journalistic outrage and academic codification. It didn’t look like a purple martin was going to swoop out of the sky and gobble up this pesky mosquito. So I figured if it’s going to keep buzzing around, I might as well learn about this thing called creative nonfiction.

So what is it? An easy definition is that creative nonfiction is a hybrid of literature and nonfiction; combining the literary elements of fiction with the facts and information of nonfiction. I like to think of writing creative nonfiction as an adventurous quest. Imagine going on a dream vacation, what would you do as a writer? Absorb every moment. Immerse yourself in the setting. Record every detail, every person, every conversation and, when you are home, regale your friends and family with stories so complete and engaging they think they’ve been there. As long as you don’t make anything up to enhance the story, you have the essence of creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction (also called literary nonfiction, or literary journalism) uses a global, or holistic approach to explore and relay information. The writer engages the reader by including the details, scenes, action and dialogue of real life. The elements more often associated with fiction, poetry and drama. Resources are available, here at TC and elsewhere, on the elements of effective fiction. What frequently isn’t discussed is combining those with nonfiction. Just as we all had the three “R”s in elementary school, here are three elementary “R”s for creative nonfiction.

Reliability

Put aside your creative hat for a moment and remember you are writing nonfiction. There is a basic trust on the part of the reader that nonfiction contains reliable, valid information. The reader is relying on you to be honest, no matter how artistic or literary your style of presenting the facts. It is a disservice to both the reader and to you as a writer to manufacture or alter the truth. I remember reading an article in The New Republic about teenage computer hackers being hired by software companies to help prevent other hackers from breaking into their databases. (Washington Scene: Hacker Heaven, Stephen Glass,The New Republic, May 18, 1998). I thought it was so wonderful. I told several folks about how industry was putting the intelligence and energy of young miscreants to positive use. In the next issue, the editors of the magazine announced they had fired the author because he had manufactured the entire article. I felt disappointed and embarrassed. I’d been sharing this great information, from a magazine I trusted, and it wasn’t true! If there is one thing that continues to make creative nonfiction an annoying mosquito it’s authors who forget that the basic tenets of accuracy, validity and truth are the foundation of creative nonfiction writing. Your literary style and creativity are adornments based on and supporting those facts.

Research

This is the fun part. Research helps bring life to your creative nonfiction. Be excessive in your research. Include everything in your notes, even what it’s like pouring over musty archives in the basement of the library. Nonfiction is about life, whether you are writing about history, a City Commission Meeting, cellular biology, or a memoir. Intimate details, like the spindly, dusty begonia on the loan officer’s credenza or the Democrat County Commissioner’s collection of porcelain elephants, humanize and bring alive a nonfiction piece. Allow your research to include every aspect that surrounds your subject: color, texture, sound, space, weather, or the nuances of body language.

In the course of your research adventure, an equally important element in your research is ferreting-out appropriate sources. They may not always be reliable: in print or on the Internet. Let me give you an example from my own experience. This year I grew a tremendous amount of garlic. As June rolled around I knew it was about time to harvest the bulbs. I decided to do some research about the optimum moment for pulling them out of the ground. I checked my notes from an organic garlic production workshop I had attended a couple years ago: “Ted harvests in June”—great. I scratched my head wondering why I attended that workshop. Then I looked up garlic in three Rodale Press gardening books. I found the following: “harvest when all leaves are brown and dying” or “harvest when half the leaves are brown” or “harvest when one third of the leaves are brown and dying”—now what? Time for an Internet search. After about fifteen contradictory sites I found some real information, “harvest when the top leaves are brown and 5 or 6 lower leaves are still green, as they will form the papery skin around the bulbs when dry.” Don’t be satisfied with one or two references; dig deep, dig far and dig wide. It often takes extensive research to find real and relevant information. Which brings us to our third R.

Relevance

You may be able to recount your visit to the Bahamas with great literary flair, but if it doesn’t contain some observations or insights to which the reader can relate your writing won’t have a strong voice. Writing about the stunning hotel, the glittering white sand, the romantic starlit nights, would only result in one more travelogue. What would resonate with relevance is discussing the unpainted homes of the hotel workers within walking distance of the glitz and glamour of the hotels, or your conversations with local Bahamians about life “on the other side” of glamour. Let life fly into your non-fiction, not only with creative literary devices but let it take wing with relevant slices of life. Nonfiction writing is an adventuresome outlet (and excellent market) for your creative talents. Explore a slice of life and enjoy writing reliable, well researched, relevant creative nonfiction.

I’ll end with an excerpt from an article by Emily Hiestand about a waste water treatment facility near Boston (can you think of a more exciting topic)? 😉

“The Sri Lankan engineers were almost bubbly with excitement about the facility. Me too. The operation room rivals the deck of the Starship Enterprise; there are monster pumps, and in the dome of each egg a lovely oculus, a functional cousin of that calm, all-seeing eye in the Pantheon. But what really sends me is the transformation this plant is working on Boston’s once sullied harbor, restoring it to a sparkling realm clean enough to please bluefish and seals. And people, who are rediscovering the harbor islands-a sapphire necklace of tide pools, wild roses, swimming coves, and ruins of, for instance, the Asylum for Indigent Boys. From the catwalk windows now the view was of sailboats and water taxis, the Boston skyline ghostly in the distance, and, directly below, the plant itself-a sprawling Rube Goldberg number with Corten-steel stacks, clarifying ponds, and pipes galore, all of it surrounded by the Atlantic and coursed by fresh sea breezes.”

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