The term essay comes from Middle French essaier, from essai, which means "trial, attempt.” This textbook, designed for the creative nonfiction writer who has experience with the genre and creative writing in general, is our attempt to re-examine creative nonfiction from new angles, putting our own preconceptions about it under trial.
Our hope is that Advanced Creative Nonfiction offers two things. First, we hope it offers advanced ideas for creative nonfiction writers to consider whether in the university classroom or on the writer’s desk.
But, we also hope this book forwards the discussion about creative nonfiction as a genre. At this point in its evolution, creative nonfiction requires redefinition. Despite its long and storied history, which we’ll examine in our first chapter, “History of Creative Nonfiction,” readers, writers, publishers, and academics all struggle to agree on the terms of engagement. Is creative nonfiction a genre? Is it 100% factual? Is literary journalism creative nonfiction? Is memoir? Must it be personal? Can it look like a poem? Questions abound, which limits practitioners, confuses readers, and muddles the marketplace. This book seeks to bring clarity to the contours of creative nonfiction, and in doing so, deepen the practice of craft.
While informed by the conventions of time and the waves of fad and fancy, creative nonfiction, in its essence emulates thinking, and for this reason, as Roland Barthes, a 20th-century French literary theorist, suggests, precedes the concept of genre, which is something we’ll talk about in detail in the heart of this book, especially in “Genre and Veracity.” But, to simplify it, creative nonfiction, among other things, is the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, a form of narrative meaning-making as essential to human wellbeing as fire (of which Heraclitus once proclaimed, “Here too are gods.”), so we’ll linger in the idea of meaning making in “The Central Question” and other chapters.
No matter the form or subject matter, the appeal of creative nonfiction lies in its ability to select and refine a constant influx of information and ideas. Creative nonfiction seeks to organize the chaos of experience into meaning through the perspective of the writer in conversation with the world. At its best, creative nonfiction creates patterns and webs of connection out of seemingly disparate ideas and truths. It has adapted over time to cultural pressures to either embrace or shun doubt, across the spectrum of veracities. It is this adaptability and mutability that makes creative nonfiction so astoundingly resilient. Like a shapeshifter, or a particularly hardy organism, creative nonfiction uses all of the tools at its disposal: the formal orchestra of prose, poetry, and play and screenwriting; the storytelling impetus of fiction; and the lyrical and metaphorical techniques of poetry, and we will examine all of these in the following chapters. Also, we explore the terms that we use when we talk about creative nonfiction. We offer up both a glossary and a taxonomy of terms as a way to coherently talk about an always changing creative nonfiction.
Creative nonfiction also adapts to tackle any subject of human interest (from the personal to the global). It may be journalistic, personal, and/or experimental, as we explore in the textbook and as can be seen in our anthology. At its most essential, however, creative nonfiction is the attempt to fix thought into language, and begins, we might say, the moment human beings develop the ability to detect patterns—the rise and fall of the sun, the shifting of seasons, the migratory patterns of birds. This is the root of the wondering, meaning-making, essayistic brain, and it is fundamental to our very survival here on earth. And this concept of meaning making is at the center of our exploration within this textbook. How do we best make meaning for our readers?
Without these self-narratives, of course, humans suffer greatly, and would struggle even to survive. How might we learn where the dangerous cave lions live if not through others’ true stories? How might we learn that these mountains are volcanoes if not through true stories? How might we learn about our spiritual cores if not through our true stories? How might we learn how to survive heartbreak and loss if not for learning from true stories?
This book explores the questions we ask and the meanings we share with our readers, which is vitally important since dysnarrativia, states of narrative impairment suffered by those with memory loss, demonstrates the inseparability of narrative and personhood. Dysnarrativia is an existential bewilderment, and the need to fit our lives into a narrative shape is thus a primal impulse. (Consider, for example, those who suffer forms of dementia, and thus have lost their self-narratives.) In other words, without our stories of self, there is no self, per se, which is proof of the great power of and need for creative nonfiction. And if we don’t have cultural stories, then we as groups of humans would suffer from cultural dysnarrativia, and we would lose the very essence of what makes any group a community.
Along with this clinical need for true stories, creative nonfiction is intimate and spontaneous, discursive, whimsical, idiosyncratic, learned, and bold. It forces the writer to see the world in a new way. It often favors breaks and digressions over continuity. It sways, traverses, and loops back. It is not beholden to plot, but instead the slippery, experimental, and wild patterning of human consciousness. The reader seeks refuge in the keen awareness of the creative nonfiction writer whose mindfulness is a respite from the blurriness of everyday life, a call back to one’s most desired state of attention and wonder. Creative nonfiction is, at its best, about questions over answers, about journey over destination, something that can be seen, time and again, in the creative nonfiction collected in our anthology.
Creative nonfiction is also about the true experience, and since this is such a complicated and hot topic, we’ll discuss the issue of veracity in creative nonfiction throughout this textbook, especially in “Ethics and Credibility.” While expectations vary depending on the form of creative nonfiction—and its publication venue, audience, and intentions—questions of truth in creative nonfiction lead by their very nature into grey areas.
What remains indisputable is that the popularity of creative nonfiction—across time, distance, cultures, and forms—is deeply entrenched in the human quest for meaning, which, again, we explore in our very first chapter, “The History of Creative Nonfiction.”
And Advanced Creative Nonfiction ends with an anthology that showcases many of the forms, voices, and styles that creative nonfiction can take—a sampling of its endless possibilities. From poetry to longform journalism, memoir to graphic essays, screenplays to video essays, creative nonfiction writers continue to tell true stories in innovative ways—to capture another shade of living.
The indeterminacy of creative nonfiction continues to be one of its greatest strengths, how it subverts its own irrelevance. And this will be another matter we explore in detail, examining the many things that creative nonfiction might be rather than offering a singular, narrow definition.
But, regardless of what it looks like, creative nonfiction’s chief subject matter is life—inchoate, uncanny, and endlessly mystifying. For all of these reasons and more, creative nonfiction reasserts (again and again) that our lives signify, and our stories mean, which is maybe the main topic we’ll discuss throughout. In the end, creative nonfiction writers, and readers, are a part of a great tapestry of consciousness—past, present, and future—and when we write from experience, we join in that vast lineage. We insist on conversation. We wave wildly from a distant shore.