What even is creative nonfiction?

By: Molly-McGill Carter

Nearly everyone past the third grade knows the three basic genres of writing: fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Likewise, nearly everyone past the third grade has certain feelings attached to each word based on what they have read and what they have enjoyed.

When I was in third grade, poetry invoked a sense of fantasy and puzzle. Short lines and stanzas rang out with a soft staccato that coddled the composer’s concerns through wondrous weavings of a real world turned into a fairytale.

Fiction for my third-grade self meant Harry Potter and Bridge to Terribithia. It meant escaping the too-real world of speech impediments, evolving friendship, and standardized tests. It meant choosing a different world to live in for a while, one with villains and heroes and emotional whiplash and new discoveries and good guys that win.

Nonfiction, at eight, was nearly synonymous to boredom. It meant biographies and book reports and homework. I remember getting to choose any book in the library from a certain genre each month for a book report, and then the dreaded month when I couldn’t avoid nonfiction any longer. I had to read a presidential autobiography.

“Why,” one might ask, “would you ever spend two weeks over the summer learning about creative nonfiction from a college professor?” Well, dear inquirer, I chose creative nonfiction because it is easier to write, in my opinion, than fiction or poetry.

Fiction required too much strain – I would be constantly comparing myself to my favorite authors, and I would never be able to focus solely on my own abilities – and I wouldn’t want to study poetry – too much pressure to be pretentious. The dark circles under my eyes are from not sleeping. They are not purple satin.

Creative nonfiction gave me the leeway to let my creativity flow unbounded. It took away the pressure of coming up with characters and plots and settings, and let me focus on making real life seem like a fantasy for my reader. I can share stories that people would never want to hear otherwise, and make them seem like the most important matter in the world. It isn’t all citations and presidents and CNN. Creative nonfiction is Little House on the Prairie and Boys in the Boat. It is Me Talk Pretty One Day and Into the Wild. Creative nonfiction is Maya Angelou, Cheryl Strayed, Anne Frank, and Truman Capote. Creative nonfiction can be journalism. It can be first-hand accounts of unspeakable violence and hatred, or it can be a detailed narration of someone being extremely kind for no reason at all.

Creativenonfiction.org has a banner that reads, “True stories, well told.” Creative nonfiction is an author detailing real-world events in a way that gets readers to empathize and to care. Creative nonfiction lets me make things important that may not seem as important if told any other way.

Give creative nonfiction a go. Write about the first thing that pops into your head. Not the third or fourth, but the one that popped up in the back of your mind immediately. Tell the reader it matters. To you, it does. To them, it will.

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