Ever since I was tiny, I’ve always been attracted to words, both as reader and writer. I made my own magazines and wrote story after story in my free time. I even wrote a play and got my class to rehearse and perform it as a leaving present to a teacher who was retiring. I would have been about 7 at the time. Later I wrote a story for another teacher and got my friend to illustrate it. But it was always fiction that I was drawn to. I always wanted to write a novel. And I have had so many ideas and false starts.
At some point in my teenage years I ventured into poetry and remained there for a while, comforting myself with dark, heart wrenching, pain filled verses. I would dip my toe into fiction again and again and then I started on my animal spirit posts and something clicked. I remember thinking that it was ok to be writing these even though they weren’t fiction or creative, because at least I was writing something. Eventually I would realise that there is no hierarchy of authors, that poets are equal to non fiction writers and non fiction is just as valid as fiction. I suspect that sounds silly to some of you but I don’t think I’m on my own in this.
As my animal spirit posts developed and turned into my nature and writing project, I once again faced this uncomfortable feeling. I was doing a nature and writing project but where was my creative writing? Where were the poems I intended to write? It seems obvious now, but even though I was reading amazing, creative, nature writing, I still hadn’t put non fiction into the creative category in my brain. This attitude slowly started to dissolve a little. I knew I was putting my heart and my voice into my writing and this, as much as anything, is part of creative writing. I knew my blog posts weren’t academic, they weren’t straight facts, relayed with a detachment. But what were there?
I don’t remember how I stumbled onto the term creative non-fiction but it feels like it has been a powerful moment in my writing history. It felt like I had a name for what I was doing, or attempting to do, and with that came validation. And it also gave me a way of finding other creative non fiction, after all, writers must read in order to write. And prompts and suggestions about techniques and structures and all of these wonderful things that I knew for fiction but had had no parallel for.
A common description of creative nonfiction is true stories, well told.
As a genre, it includes memoir, travel writing, essays, food writing…. It’s quite broad and definitely includes nature writing. It’s a style of writing which lets you, and to do it well insists you, write with your own voice. There is a very definite place here for crafting your own way of talking to the reader and this is something that I’ve found quite natural and, when I’m doing it well, it flows from me with relative ease. Creative non-fiction also lets me indulge the part of me that loves learning and researching!
I love the way creative nonfiction can weave together seemingly disparate topics and ideas and not feel forced or confusing. I find it satisfying when authors draw you to a point of almost realisation and then sit back and watch you join the dots and experience that moment of understanding or clarity. This sort of writing is exploratory, there can be a sense of playfulness, of adventure and seeking that you don’t get the same in fiction. There is also an intimacy and authenticity to this type of writing which I find very enjoyable, both as writer and as reader.
Creative non fiction is powerful. It is a way of sharing information, of teaching the reader, but it does so in a way that means they are more likely to remember it.
“We are, as a species, addiction to story. Even when the body goes to sleep, the mind stays up all night, telling itself stories.”
– Jonathon Gottschall
Lee Gutkind said something along the lines of creative non fiction is a combination of style and substance, of information and ideas, presented in a story oriented way. By this, he means that we have building blocks of story and scene and information which are woven together. Done well, it creates a piece of writing which teaches the reader through a story which makes the information compelling and interesting. It makes learning more palatable, and easier.
Start by hooking the reader into the story, then through in a bit of information, when you think the reader is getting fed up of learning, leap back to the story. Gradually you fit the information you want to share into the story. There are obviously many ways of structuring creative non fiction but a basic concept which works well is to embed information in the stories, to intersperse it between little stories and to ensure that it is all cohesive by fitting it into a bigger, overarching story. Think of it as being a mix of parallel narratives and a framing narrative.
In terms of finding ideas for creative non-fiction, follow your curiosity. One of my favourite parts of writing is finding the hook and when you do, it’s very satisfying. To do this, you might want to take something and pull it apart, find out what it’s really about.
If you find a topic, ask yourself:
- Am I interested in this?
- Is the subject too narrow or too broad? Very narrow topics can work but they tend to work best if they are a specific example of something iconic.
- Is there a universality to it? Will people relate or identify with this?
- Is there any information available about this topic? Can I actually research this area?
- Who I am writing for?
Once you’ve got a topic and you’ve found your hook, think about the order – it doesn’t need to be chronological but it does need to make sense and be easy to follow.
With creative non fiction you can play with voice – you have the you who is at the event or experience, the you who is giving factual information and the you who is looking back and reflecting. Different voices are useful for different aspects – the you at the event is great for pulling the reader in, for giving immediacy and intimacy and can be used to build tension or emotion. The reflective you offers depth and whilst not every story has a meaning, you can offer hints about what you learned or how it changed you.
Obviously there are many more nuggets of advice for creative non fiction writers but the ones I’ve just run through are those which chime with my own approach and which I enjoy when I am reading other people’s work.
Now I have a name for the style of writing I enjoy creating, I have a way of searching for tips and techniques and learning from other people who do it well. And, whilst I know this shouldn’t be necessary or even the point, it feels like having a genre validates my writing, it gives me a sense of permission.