Creative nonfiction writers use techniques associated with fiction. They shape events into stories. Characters, scenes, dialogue, suspense and plot help transform a person’s experience into one with universal appeal that touches readers.
In 1959, Richard "Dick" Hickock and Perry Edward Smith, two ex-convicts on parole from the Kansas State Penitentiary, robbed and murdered Herb Clutter, Herb’s wife and their two children in their home, in cold blood.
Think of how straightforward and nonliterary the Clutter’s obituary was compared to Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood. Capote said, “I wanted to produce a journalistic novel, something on a large scale that would have the credibility of fact, the immediacy of film, the depth and freedom of prose, and the precision of poetry.” He wanted to produce creative nonfiction.
Capote compiled thousands of pages of researched notes upon which his groundbreaking nonfiction novel was based. He interviewed the murderers. Even so, some of the psychological dynamics between the ex-cons, for example, would have been supposed on Capote’s part.
Creative nonfiction writers use techniques associated with fiction. They shape events into stories. Characters, scenes, dialogue, suspense and plot help transform a person’s experience into one with universal appeal that touches readers. One small event for a person: One great read for people…that's creative nonfiction.
Most of us won’t be writing about massacres, so what can we write about? Take the advice Capote gave another writer: “You have to be willing to use everything. Everything that's interesting.”
Creative nonfiction strikes a universal chord. Any aspect of the human experience can be the focus of creative nonfiction. Unforgettable encounters, life's milestones, disasters, work relationships, marriage, homelessness, substance abuse, parental abandonment …
For insights on molding your experience into a salable work, dig into Judith Barrington’s Writing the Memoir: From Truth to Art, Nancy Davidoff's Writing from Personal Experience: How to Turn Your Life into Salable Prose Elizabeth Berg’s Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True, Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story and Bill Roorbach's Writing Life Stories.
“Creative Nonfiction Journal” offers online classes. The web site says, “Writers at every level can use guidance when it comes to shaping and refining their work. The Creative Nonfiction Mentoring Program pairs you with one of our seasoned, professional editors and writers who will design a program around your writing needs.” Visit Gotham Writers Workshop at www.write.org and Writers on the Net at www.writers.com to find writing classes. The University of Wisconsin-Madison offers a non-credit online Creative Nonfiction class. Also, visit http://writing.shawguides.com where you’ll find The Guide to Writers Conferences & Workshops, a free, online directory of programs worldwide.
Publications that print creative nonfiction include:
New Letters Magazine (www.newletters.org)
Memoir (and) (www.memoirjournal.net)
Glimmer Train (www.glimmertrain.com)
The Sun (www.thesunmagazine.org)
Creative Nonfiction Journal (www.creativenonfiction.org)
Christian Science Monitor (www.csmonitor.com),
Chicken Soup for the Soul (www.chickensoup.com)
Five Points (www.fivepoints.gsu.edu)
The Pinch (www.thepinchjournal.com).
Publishers of memoirs, autobiographies, personal essays, travelogues and themed anthologies buy creative nonfiction. So do newspaper and magazine editors. Browse bookstores, including quirky independent stores and university bookstores, to find markets that publish creative nonfiction.
Periodical editors suggest (plead) with authors to “be familiar with our publication before submitting your work.” One creative nonfiction author subscribes to a different literary magazine each year to get a feel for what magazines publish. The flavor of stories in the Chicken Soup for the Soul series is different from stories in “Rosebud.”
Editors who consider creative nonfiction manuscripts want a strong theme or narrative that serves as a unifying thread through the story. Writers must be disciplined and ruthlessly trim passages that don’t support the theme.
If you think you have a memoir in you, read others’. Larry Brown’s On Fire, J.R. Moehringer’s Tender Bar, and Louis Erdrich’s The Blue Jay’s Dance are examples of the genre.
Carol Crawford, coordinator for the Blue Mountain (North Carolina) Writers’ Conference says, “Write small.” Narrow down the focus of the story to draw readers in. The biggest mistake most beginning nonfiction writers make is giving too much information. To help writers zero in on a theme, Crawford asks writers to sum up their stories in six words.
Crawford offers more advice for creative nonfiction writers. “Journal for catharsis. Craft for story.” Write naked with your back to the world. Forget about readers and editors and publishers on your first draft. Let ‘er rip. Open the gates of emotions. Stick your feet into the sneakers you wore as an 11-year old and let that character’s voice guide your pencil.
Use prompts to get you going. You’ll be amazed at where your creative mind will run once you unleash it. Here are prompts we used in a Creative Nonfiction workshop at John C. Campbell Folk School. (www.folkschool.org) “If only someone had told me about…,” and “Write about being nice to someone you detest,” and “Write about the time the ___________ caught on fire.”
After writing hot and heavy, go back and make design decisions. Erdrich’s design decision in The Blue Jay’s Dance was combining three babies into one character. She states this up front in a contract, so to speak, with the reader.
Creative nonfiction reveals the author and another person or other people clearly, as well as establishing a time and place readers can visualize. Most publishers don’t want lyrical description for the sake of lyrical description. Nor do they want pieces that are emotion only. Something’s gotta happen. Someone’s gotta change.
Creative nonfiction, like other well-crafted manuscripts, has a beginning, middle and end. In Your Life as Story, Tristine Rainer suggests writing about a problem, your struggle to resolve it, and the resultant transformation or realization. The main character’s change can be inner as well as outer.
In Cold Blood first appeared in “The New Yorker” in four parts. Papers sold out. Then the nonfiction novel became one of the most talked about books of its time. Dubbed an instant classic, In Cold Blood earned its author millions of dollars and celebrity status.
“Sometimes when I think how good my book can be,” Capote said, “I can hardly breathe.”
Breathe. Write. Edit. Shape your experiences into salable manuscripts.