What Is Creative Nonfiction?

By Eric LeMay

February 1, 2013

What Is Creative Nonfiction?

A drawer labeled non-socks.
- David Shields

Enough already. We’re so weary of that question. Those questions: What do you mean by “creative”? Isn’t all writing creative? And isn’t “non-” weird, too? Why not Non-Poetry? Or Non-Refrigerator-Repair-Manuals, since “non-” is anything that a thing isn’t?

"No other genre,” says Philip Gerard, “suffers under this metaphysical definition by negation." Suffers, yes. Struggles, yes. Tries to slip the noose of its own naming.

So let’s shake it off, let it go, like a childhood misfortune or case of the willies. Let’s get down to what matters: the work: the essay, in its lyrical, personal, and experimental flexions: the memoir and how it misbehaves: the rants and revelations and literary reporting. Let’s not ask it again: “Creative nonfiction?”

Creative nonfiction is, in one form or another,
for better and worse, in triumph and failure,
the attempt to keep from passing altogether away
the lives we have lived.
- Bret Lott, “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction”

“This shouldn’t be so hard,” sighs Dinty W. Moore. “It is just two words.”

And Lee Gutkind gives his own spiky amen: “Ultimately, this controversy over the form or the word is not only rather silly but moot; the genre itself, the practice of writing nonfiction in a dramatic and imaginative way, has been an anchoring element of the literary world for many years.”

Many years, as in New Journalism. As in Montaigne. As in Seneca and Plutarch and doesn’t God—when he creates the world in Genesis—seem like he’s working the list, that literary technique for orchestrating facts? In the beginning was creative nonfiction, and it was good.

True Stories, Well Told.
- slogan for Creative Nonfiction

But God didn’t name it back then (he just created it), and to this day nobody knows who did.

Gutkind again: “This may come as a surprise, but I don’t know who actually coined the term creative nonfiction. As far as I know, nobody knows, exactly. I have been using it since the 1970s, although if we were to pinpoint a time when the term became ‘official,’ it would be 1983, at a meeting convened by the National Endowment for the Arts to deal with the question of what, exactly, to call the genre as a category for the NEA’s creative writing fellowships.”

A baby in a basket, washed up on the bank of the Potomac, creative nonfiction has no biological parents. It’s a government ward.

Creative Non-Fiction is used infrequently
and falls out of use the higher we go
up the food chain of book production,
[Library of Congress] categorization,
marketing, awards, selling, and book lending.
- Betsy Warland for a 2009 Research Committee
on the “Use of Term” for the Creative Nonfiction Collective

Which may explain why it’s so wonky: it's a bureaucratic term, a check-box for an application, one retrospectively pinned to the writing it needed to endow as art.

It wasn't meant to withstand the weight of a literary definition. It’s supposed to stand in line, next to poetry and fiction and wait for its papers. Creative nonfiction gets fellowships. It sorts content for journals and presses and grad programs. It’s a functional widget, a territory marker, meant for the non-literary contexts of the boardroom, the Dean’s Office, and submissions manager. And it’s invaluable: It muscles open a spot for writing that might otherwise get overlooked.

But it doesn’t define, doesn’t illuminate. Ask it what it is, and it goes, “Huh?”

The Fourth Genre
- Robert L. Root and Michael J. Steinberg, book title

And yet, here’s a thought: Creative nonfiction may be the most useful term we’ve got for any genre, not because it’s descriptive (it isn’t), but because its failure to describe sparks one of the more productive questions a writer can ask: What is this thing I’m making?

Answer poem, and you’re on relatively sure footing. Fiction, likewise. But answer creative nonfiction, and suddenly the terra ferma feels less firm. The term slides apart. Creative calls up endless possibility, where fancy and imagination rule, but nonfiction demands obedience to the facts, to observation and documentation, where artistry has little place. Nonfiction jars against creativity, creative against nonfiction.

The genre has become a fertile meeting ground
for writers of all kinds....
Somehow all their diverse interests converge
in a genre that seems expansive enough
to connect the self to the larger world of experience...
- Carolyn Forché and Philip Gerard,
Writing Creative Nonfiction

So how do we wed them?

As a term, creative nonfiction amounts to a paradox, a challenge, a generative constraint, one that not only makes us rethink what is or isn’t fiction, what is or isn’t creative, but also one that makes us ask what our medium can do: Is the essay, the memoir, the rant up to this task? If so, how so? If not, how can we reinvent it?

And as soon as we see the essay, the memoir, the rant as creative nonfiction, we see the essential weirdness of what these forms are meant to accomplish: nothing less than to remake reality into an aesthetic experience.

What all such writing has in common
is faithfulness to some reality
that the writer did not invent—
to a shared history, to real people,
to actual events, to places
one can visit, to facts one can check.
- Scott Russell Sanders,
Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction

So perhaps we don't need a definition of creative nonfiction so much as an investigation: a new look into the genre's terms, types, and topics, not to define it, but to see what possibilities it offers, what potential it holds.

Perhaps the question isn’t: What is creative nonfiction?

Perhaps it's:

What can we create?

* I am grateful to Tim Elhajj, Sarah Einstein, Richard Gilbert, Dinty W. Moore, and Liz Stephens for the dicussion that led to the terms, types, and topics I've included. Any omissions or errors are my responsibility.

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