What Is Creative Nonfiction?

Creative nonfiction tends to be defined by what it is not. It is not, to begin with, fiction. Or poetry. Or drama. But neither is it simply writing about facts, like news reporting or research. (Although many journalists and academics write very well.) And it’s not the kind of writing that goes on in the professions, or the sort of argumentative prose that appears in op-ed columns.

So what is it, then? Here’s how Lee Gutkind—a writer, teacher, and editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine—explains the term:

The word “creative” refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. (“What Is Creative Nonfiction?”)

For me, the key terms here are real and craft. In writing nonfiction, you don’t get to make stuff up. We expect nonfiction to be accurate and researched. But we don’t read creative nonfiction simply to learn about people and events. (I’d add texts and ideas as subjects for nonfiction, too.) We also read for the perspective that an author brings to her subject—for the pleasure of listening to her voice as a writer, of following her mind at work. We read, that is, as much for the writer as for the subject.

Most creative nonfiction thus has a personal feel. At times this leads to questions about how to tell if a piece actually is nonfiction—especially when a writer is retelling events from his past that his readers have no way of confirming. The line between memoir and fiction can sometimes be hard to draw. In such cases we need to trust the integrity of the writer, to assume that he is trying to be as true to his memory of what actually happened as possible. And as writers we need to do everything we can to earn that trust.

But memoir is only one type of creative nonfiction. Often what makes a piece of writing feel personal is not its subject but its style—the sense we have of hearing a particular voice on the page. My aim as a teacher is to help you develop such a voice as a writer, to help you make your prose sound more like you. And so much of the writing I’ll ask you to do will not only be about your memories and experiences, but will also concern people, events, texts, and ideas in the world around you. To make this sort of nonfiction creative, you’ll need to figure out how to offer your own take, your own perspective, on the things you see and hear and read about. Your goal in this course should be to develop a prose style that feels your own and that engages your readers.