I think sometimes about writing nonfiction as a kind of ethical or spiritual discipline. The true thing, told plainly, is not always the thing that makes the liveliest story. In real life, the bon mot wasn’t always uttered, the climax didn’t happen in a setting with an objective correlative handy, and the good guy didn’t always triumph. Life resists plot–at least on the surface. To entertain–or to “teach and delight,” in the classical formulation–it’s sometimes simpler to turn to another genre. But if we decide to pursue creative nonfiction, then the truth (our own remembered, subjective truth) functions as do the rhyme and meter requirements of a sonnet. It offers us boundaries, discipline. We are faithful to it. It pressures us into discovering the material’s own form, into making a new thing that is compelling.
Nonfiction means you are telling the truth as best you can. You don’t make it up. The creativity is in the arrrangement of words, sentences, paragraphs. The creativity is in your metaphors, your description, the detail you bring to the page. The creativity is your choices as you structure the narrative.
I think what I’m ultimately trying to say is that it’s dangerous to say too much too definitively about craft in the abstract. If you feel absolutely overwhelmed by a project – that’s good. If you have absolutely no idea how or where to begin – that’s good too. No matter where one is in one’s career, a writer, it seems to me, ought to feel more or less completely at sea as they begin to approach the question or the subject they hope to address. There are two kinds of repetition. There is the kind we find inside our work, the themes that burble up lava-like from our subconscious again and again, and which we cannot resist and should not, I think, criticize in others. And then there is the repetition that ought to be resisted, that which gives us a program, a strategy that can be applied to any subject. This we should criticize in others. Art should never be the result of habit, it should strive eternally for the fresh and the new even when we work in forms we did not invent. Craft, we should vigilantly remind ourselves, means to make something absolutely new where before there was nothing at all.
The 2010 A Midsummer Tale creative non-fiction contest is now open. This year’s theme is make believe. Full contest info is here. Deadline for entries is June 21, 2010.
Questions about the contest? See this thread.
Stuff you might want to know:
- This is the TC contest that I judge. (All TC contests are blind-judged.)
- There are prizes!
- ENTER! ENTER! ENTER!
[N]ever censor yourself while you are still writing the story. Save the censoring for the final draft.
Self-censorship isn’t an exact science. While you’re making sure not to write anything that will offend your parents, you may also be holding back some important emotional truth that will make your story rich and insightful. Don’t block the creative flow. Write it all. Every detail that occurs to you. Until it’s published, it’s private, so be honest, frank, and free.
Writers are often motivated by something/someone that angers, irritates, or appalls them. Some people write to get even with a person who has hurt them, or to expose some sort of destructive force in their community. … If your story is going to be any good, you are going to have to get past this.
One thing I like to do is to write journal entries in the voices of other people, or even characters in my books. I sometimes do it for people who have hurt me deeply, so I can kind of get a grip on their behavior. The challenge is that you have to discover something new about the person or character. If your exercise reveals only what you came to the page with in the first place, then you have not tapped into the empathy you are going to need to write the story you want to write. The thing is that you are really going to have to want to understand that person, which means you may have to let go of that anger.
[C]reative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and, often, more accessible.
In creative nonfiction, writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously. Creative nonfiction writers are encouraged to utilize literary and even cinematic techniques, from scene to dialogue to description to point of view, to write about themselves and others, capturing real people and real life in ways that can and have changed the world. What is most important and enjoyable about creative nonfiction is that it not only allows but also encourages the writer to become a part of the story or essay being written. The personal involvement creates a special magic that alleviates the suffering and anxiety of the writing experience; it provides many outlets for satisfaction and self-discovery, flexibility and freedom.