One of the founding figures in contemporary creative nonfiction (CNF), Lee Gutkind, observes that like fiction, CNF is inescapably story-based: “CNF is in fact story, or a series of stories.” This seems true if we consider some common examples:
- Personal memoir – the writer recounts events from their life, events that took place, what happened, who was there etc...i.e. STORY
- Travel writing – again the writer recounts details of places they’ve visited and the people they met, the adventures they’ve had and how it affected them...i.e. STORY
- Spiritual essay – even the most reflective, contemplative personal essay (if it’s to be effective and engaging) will offer specific situations by way of example, and invite the reader to reflect on shared experience...i.e. STORY
So what is a story? A story simply tells us about something that happened: who did what, where and when. And it's in the telling of a story that the creative element comes in, and starts to dominate (unlike in more traditional forms of nonfiction writing such as essay writing or journalism).
The CNF writer doesn’t pretend she doesn’t exist – typically, she writes from a deep desire to share her experiences, her doubt as well as insight, and to invite the reader on a journey in which they join forces to pursue some deeper truth.
Like all artists, CNF writers see the world and are moved to respond, to share and to test the view of life they’ve been granted. The good news, as Gutkind explains, is that CNF “liberates the traditional nonfiction writer... by allowing [her] to use all of the techniques open to the fiction writer: dialogue, description, point of view, characterisation etc...”
This liberating property of CNF is also echoed by Annie Dillard:
“I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures and, like poetry, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme... it can handle discursive ideas and plain information, as well as character and story. It can do everything.”
So, what’s your story? Where have you been? Where are you going? What are you motivated to write about? What questions dominate your thinking? What sorts of things do you always notice? What things do you tend to overlook? What doubt or fears do you have? What do you wish you knew?
These are the sorts of things CNF writers write about. The question remains, how will you share your story?