Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Creative Nonfiction

I hear this term thrown around often--"creative nonfiction."

And I'm always puzzled by it. It's foggy, to say the least. The writers and editors I've spoken with all seem to have a slightly different understanding of what "creative nonfiction" is. So, my understanding of it was all fuzzy around the edges.

Until now.

Back in May I bought a copy of Stein on Writing by Sol Stein. According to many writers it's the ultimate authority on creative writing. Now that I've read 25 pages or so I'm about ready to agree with them.

In Chapter 1, "The Writer's Job," he discusses the essential difference between nonfiction and fiction. As I read and re-read it that ethereal light bulb went off in my head. You know the one.

I'll bet you're thinking, "You've got to be kidding me! You're a writer and you can't explain [ie. understand] something as fundamental as the difference between fiction and nonfiction. Give me a break!"

Yes, I guess that's true. I didn't realize that I didn't understand it. And I now find great comfort in all those nebulous explanations of "creative nonfiction" that other writers and editors have offered me. Tee-hee! they don't really understand it either! I guess that means I'm in good company.

Stein states the difference between fiction and nonfiction succinctly and with crystal clarity for me:

"Nonfiction conveys information.
Fiction evokes emotion."

I know that in my head, in theory. But I now realize that I don't know it in practice.

One hundred years ago, even fifty years ago, a sturdy line of demarcation existed between fiction and nonfiction. Not so today. Authors of nonfiction (such as newspapers and magazines) now take greedy advantage of the power of fiction techniques when presenting the facts. They take shameless advantage of the power of story to evoke not only emotion, but action and reaction. And this is where the spotlight hit the term "creative nonfiction" for me.

Stein explains it this way:

"Nonfiction stems from fact, and all attempts to evoke emotion in its readership cannot--or at least should not--take leave from its roots. It can make us feel what happened, but dares not invent what happened. Nonfiction can describe effectively what people do and thereby move us, but it cannot invent those actions. Nonfiction can report what people say, but it cannot guess what they were thinking."

So, that means I can weave my facts into an evocative story, but I cannot fill in any holes, create any characters, imagine any conversations, thoughts, or motives for that story. I now understand what "creative nonfiction" is NOT. And that helps me understand what it IS.

In other words: the facts, ma'am--just the facts. I can clothe those facts in scarlet as long as every thread is factual and can be substantiated.

If I do otherwise I'm writing fiction based on facts.

Am I the only one who has been sitting around in the shadows of confusion over my "creative nonfiction" manuscripts? Don't answer that--I might get really embarrassed if I AM the only one.

I've written a few pieces that I thought were "creative nonfiction." But now I see that I fudged a little too much for that to be so. I filled in some teeny tiny holes from my imagination. Or I created a fictionalized narrator or POV character to tell the story. And that can't happen in nonfiction.

So, I'm wondering now what I am going to do with my "creative nonfiction" manuscripts. Give them to my grandson's hamster to shred and use to line her nest?

Nope. That's a lesson I learned long ago. Never throw away words. Keep them long enough and they're bound to fit into some other manuscript someday somehow.

And that's a fact.

1 comment:

Cheryl Barker said...

Hi Jean, I haven't read Stein's book yet, but it's on my "to read" list. Sounds good -- maybe I should make it my next writing craft read...