Wednesday, March 28, 2007

What is Creative Non-Fiction?

An Essay by Carter Jefferson, an IWW administrator


When you want to start an argument, ask this: Just what is Creative Non-Fiction, anyhow?

To put it mildly, people tend to disagree about that definition. I'll give you mine, others can give you theirs, and then you can dream up one of your own.

Suppose I go out to the airport and a glider pilot takes me for a ride. I decide to write about this. I have, I think, four choices.

I can write what newspapers call a "feature story." I might give some background--how many recreational glider pilots there are in the area, what organizations they have built. Then I might discuss the length of runways needed, the price of a new glider. I'll wrap this all around Joe Pilot, who will be at the center of things, and tell what he feels like when he's in the air. I'll write about what the inside of an airborne glider sounds like, and other pertinent facts. But I'll never use the word "I" except when I quote Joe. I'll be the unseen narrator. Readers will learn a lot about gliding. I wrote that one for the Fort Worth Press a long time ago.

The next possibility is the short story. I'll think up a way Joe could be in love and his glider obsession gets between him and his girl, put in lots of conflict and tension, and write a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. It's fiction, but it's based on reality, and readers may learn a good deal about gliding, because I won't make up the background.

Or I can write about me. I drove to the field, enjoyed the view, talked to Joe, he took me up. Every step of the way, and it's about me and how I felt. It's all true. Readers may learn a lot about gliding, but the story is really about me and how I felt. That's a memoir. Many, perhaps most, people nowadays see memoir as a division of CNF. I don't. Memoir is a genre all its own.

But I could make it a CNF piece. I'd be in it, but the focus would be on the sport, on Joe, on the glider, not on how I feel about it all, not on my experience. Readers would learn a lot about gliding--they'd go along on my maiden flight.

To me, CNF simply takes the cloak of anonymity off the narrator and removes any obligation for "fair and balanced" reporting. But the narrator must tell the truth as she sees it; it's not fiction.

And the piece is not about the writer, but about whatever the subject may be--a hanging, a baseball game, ghosts, what have you. The writer is there in the background, telling the story, and the writer has feelings and opinions, but the story is about the subject. Gay Talese's work about Frank Sinatra is not about Talese; it's about Sinatra. "The Right Stuff" is not about Tom Wolfe; it's about the astronauts.

Let the debate begin.

3 comments:

MaryAnna said...

Not much to debate. You laid it out well. I think CNF is an under appreciated art form that has it's own agenda, as does fiction and straight news reporting.

Good essay - Thanks

Velda Brotherton said...

Great job. CNF is growing in popularity and it's important new writers as well as editors understand its wide scope. Yes, dialogue is allowed as long as it portrays the true feelings of the characters, though it may not be exact as it happened. I write historical creative non fiction in essay form as well as in a fiction style. Keep educating everyone to its possibilities. Good creative non fiction drags the reader along just like a good fiction piece does.

Pearl said...

Yes, I agree, well defined. I love the clear distinctions made between all 4 styles. Useful.

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