Back in May 2015, I stumbled upon an interview in The Writers’ Chronicle. There, Judith Kitchen, author of six books across multiple genres, and Janée J. Baugher, author of two books of poetry talked about writing. This interview was published posthumously, as Kitchen had died, in 2014, from breast cancer.
In the middle of the interview, Baugher asked Kitchen, “What do you mean when you say nonfiction writers ‘are beginning to build a vocabulary for what they do?’ Are you implying that literary terminology for the elements of craft unique to nonfiction is lacking?”
I sat up and read more keenly, realizing that this was something I had sensed since 2002, when I began my MFA in creative nonfiction. Back then, I couldn’t have articulated this lacking, but I felt that the craft of creative nonfiction, though not new (as we see in “History of Creative Nonfiction”) was understudied. I had learned in my classes and textbooks that, too often, creative nonfiction borrowed terms, ideas, and shapes from fiction, drama, and poetry rather than naming its own. This ambiguous vocabulary complicated how we creative nonfiction writers wrote and discussed our work.
In the interview, Kitchen responded, “Yes, you’ve got it. I think [this lack of vocabulary is] part of why nonfiction writers begin to think they can just make it up, as long as it’s well written. We don’t quite have words for what we’re doing. […] We need to be able to talk about our craft, and with ill-defined terms, craft itself becomes sloppy.”
“I ran an Internet search for ‘glossary of terms nonfiction,’” Baugher said later in the interview with Kitchen. “Nothing. Zero. This really feels like a call-to-action.”
And that was exactly how reading the interview felt to me, as a call-to-action. Kitchen was right: terms matter, naming matters. So she was the inspiration for this entire chapter. It is in Kitchen’s honor, and for all of us, that we’ve created the glossary and taxonomy of creative nonfiction on the following subpages.
This glossary, therefore, constitutes a collection of some of the vocabulary of the current craft conversation in creative nonfiction. It’s one reflection of the ways in which we are writing, reading, editing, and reviewing creative nonfiction in academia, publishing, and creative communities today.
But a glossary is one thing: a compilation. A taxonomy is another thing, an ordering. We wanted to offer readers both a list of all our terms but then also an ordering of those same terms by commonalities. So you will find, below the glossary, a taxonomy that bundles similarly focused terms together to help us keep discussion on creative nonfiction from becoming “sloppy”.
Carl Linnaeus, the Swedish scientist in the 1700s who created a taxonomy for many living species took what appeared to be a chaotic world of plants and animals and organized them. Linnaeus helped us realize that two animals that seemed related (such as bats and birds) were actually unrelated and two very different-looking things (such as elephants and sea manatees) were related.
But does a taxonomy change anything? Does the ordering of things really matter?
Before Linnaeus, most people thought humans were separate from animals. Now people not only realize that we are animals, scientists are also researching animal cognition and how trees communicate with each other. These ideas sprang out of the correct ordering of things, out of showing how all things tie together. As a result, the old, pervasive narrative in which humans were considered separate and superior to other life forms was debunked. The advent of a precise nomenclature helped change the course of history.
And that ties back to creative nonfiction because Kitchen recognized this trouble within creative nonfiction. Many readers struggle to understand what creative nonfiction is and what its rules are. Kitchen saw how imprecise language concerning creative nonfiction led to imprecise craft in creative nonfiction. Kitchen wanted to name things, to bring order to creative nonfiction chaos, to reflect more accurately on our craft and, thereby, make it better. This nomenclature, like Linnaeus’s taxonomy, highlights real similarities and differences between narratives. Fiction and creative nonfiction may look as similar as birds and bats (both are often written in prose, for example, and that led to calling them “genres”) but have as many differences (truth versus invention) as they have similarities (prose and the use of scenes).
On this website is a first-generation, glossary of creative nonfiction craft terms. To compile this list, we consulted heaps of text and craft books. We solicited mentors and peers. We searched for terms that overlapped with others. We looked for holes. That said, we do not expect everyone to agree on these terms or their definitions. And there are terms in here that we are dissatisfied with because despite our best efforts the language still feels imprecise. We look forward to listening to, and joining in, the debate that this list sparks. And rather than looking at this as a final product, we see this as something like Linnaeus’ Systema Naturæ, which is considered the beginning of zoological nomenclature and evolved across ten editions, growing clearer with each one.
Our hope is that this list will compel other writers, readers, and editors of creative nonfiction to offer up their own creative nonfiction craft terms, to join in this discussion, to point to the ideas we’ve missed or mis-defined. Hopefully, the next edition of this textbook has 10% or 30% or 50% more new terms.
We see this as a living, breathing, evolving document. We will have gaps. We will make mistakes. But we will, as essayists, try, and in our trying, show gratitude to Judith Kitchen, who died in 2014. And if you want to try with us, please contact us via our contact page.