Introduction to Writing Creative Non-Fiction

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Stories matter. A well told story can illustrate important life truths and allow us to develop strategies for coping with particular issues. Stories help us to develop our emotional reasoning and empathetic skills by engaging with characters who encounter situations or circumstances that we ourselves might reasonably expect to experience. Stories can also honour people and their histories in ways that resonate and have deep impact.

P.D. James said, all fiction is largely autobiographical and much autobiography is, of course, fiction. Everyone has their own life story and I believe that creative non-fiction is a powerful way to share those stories. Using this genre of writing for the telling of personal stories allows writers to mine their own histories while also providing them with opportunities to explore a broader historical situation through their own life experience and careful research. A story thus told is factual or representational while also containing fictionalized elements. The application of good literary techniques to this kind of writing both heightens the story-telling and engages readers.

Creative non-fiction has three central components: the core subject based on a true story, a moment in history or significant event, literary technique and creative license.

Begin with: A true story, a moment in history or a significant event.
Add: Literary techniques.
Add: Creative license.
End Product: Creative Non-Fiction.

In my story, Mrs. Harris, key events in the plot such as the religious widow, the neighbourhood, Halloween and the death by starvation of the widow were all true.

I can still summon her: marching with beige orthopaedic shoes tightly laced, a flowered dress partially covered by a white cardigan done up to the neck, a straw bowler perched on neatly permed blue-grey hair, a handkerchief wrapped around the handle of her vinyl handbag, and a large Bible clutched to her flat chest…

We did not trespass once she was gone. When a birdie was lobbed too hard, we let it rest in her devastated garden. When the cherries ripened on her tree, we looked at them but did not take the fruit. There was a silent accord among us. Shame settled like a heavy fog. Our parents continued to ask the lingering question: how did this happen?

In this example, the remembrance of adult fallibility informed the text. I was able to weave my remembrances together with a youthful narrative voice and other components, to tell the story I wanted to tell. I hope that the result is slightly more than the sum of its historical and autobiographical parts. I attempted to pull disparate pieces together in ways that engage the reader and allows them to enter in emotionally. The finished piece reads like a short story but at its core it is truth based, with only minor creative elements. I hope that it is more interesting than a simple narrative that merely describes the starvation.

Creative non-fiction is a broad genre with evolving parameters. The general consensus suggests that the content must be accurate and must be written well. Particularly in longer pieces of work, there is an expectation that the key facts are documented and well researched. The intention is always to tell a story that moves the reader from words on the page to a personal reflection redolent with meaning or insight. The subject matter can be personal, historical, or factual in nature. Creative non-fiction takes many forms that include, but are not limited to: biography, autobiography, memoir, diary, nature writing, travel writing, poetry, food writing and some types of essay writing.

A key difference between historical writing and creative non-fiction centres on the utilization of factual material. A work of historical fiction is typically set in the past, well researched, and incorporates fictionalized characters. A work of creative non fiction may be set in the past or the present but portrays actual individuals who are given agency within a dramatized telling of the story.

I would suggest that it is important to remember to always maintain and honour the standard components of the short story or novel form that you are using. At a minimum, I would recommend that you pay particular attention to five key components: character, setting, conflict, plot, and theme.

Here are some questions that may help you to plan as you prepare to write a piece of creative non-fiction:
i) What happened and why is it important?
ii) How did the event impact you/change you/impact others?
iii) What do you want people/readers to take away from this?
iv) Is there a life lesson or key learning or piece of transformative knowledge that you wish to capture?
v) Who will tell the story? What is the point of view or the narrative voice?
vi) What is the central conflict? Is it an internal or external struggle? Is the tension physical, classical, social or psychological in nature?
vii) What information triggers the climax?
viii) Have I accurately represented the facts? Do I have all the facts?
ix) What will people find interesting in this story?
x) Who are your central characters? Are these fairly accurate depictions of the individuals?
xi) Where and when does the story take place?
xii) What are the key elements in your plot? Do they unfold naturally and in an organic manner?
xiii) What is your central message or theme for this piece and how will you convey that?
xiv) Have you been truthful about the heart of the story?
xv) Have you decided how to invoke closure for this piece of writing? Is the ending forced or does it build to a natural and satisfying conclusion?

I hope this is helpful to you and your writing. Let me know!