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It’s great to be part of this blog hop, where I hope to impart lessons I have learned over the past five or so years of working as a ghostwriter and writing my own, usually dark fiction. I’m also learning so much from the MA Creative Writing I’m currently studying, so I will be keen to share tips from the classroom, covering Creative Non-fiction (CNF), 21st Century Poetry, Fiction, and Reading into Writing.
Above all, I’m excited to learn from all of your vast and varied experiences. 🙂
Today, I’m sharing something from the first module: CNF, for which my memoir earned a Distinction, late last year. This was utterly unexpected as it was my first post-graduate module, it was in an area writing I had never studied, and considering I graduated from university with my BSc (Honours) Psychology way back in 1999, I felt way out of my depth going ‘back to school’!
It was important for me to do well in this module because many potential clients have asked me to write their memoirs over the years who I’ve had to turn down. Like most writers, I’m self-taught when it comes to writing fiction thanks to the wealth of information available in books and online, but that type of leaning didn’t seem to be enough for this CNF. The weight of responsibility which comes when people share deep intimacies is too huge to ‘wing it’. They deserved expertise I knew I didn’t have. This MA has taught me how to tell a true story using creative techniques, without losing crucial truth.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
Creative non-fiction is not making something up, but making the most of what you have.
i) Fiction is a narrative entirely built from imagination. Yes, it will almost always feature parts of the writer’s experience, but the story is not factual.
ii) Non-fiction is factual. Pure retellings of lives, places, events, without use any of creative techniques we fiction writers use. Our newspapers are ‘supposed to be’ entrenched in fact alone though this is sadly not always the case.
Some readers of travel books still prefer non-fiction travel guides which read like text books and offer mostly dry commentary enlivened with glossy images rather than interesting tales of the travellers experience; and some readers still prefer non-fiction representations of their heroes and heroines to more creatively told biographies or memoirs because they feel they are less likely to be mislead by non-fiction than they are by creative non-fiction versions. As if the any creative elements will be made up of falsehoods.
This is not so and the message is getting through. There has been massive growth in appetite for creative non-fiction of creative non-fiction over the past decade.
iii) Creative non-fiction is (in essence) a balanced merger of fact with storytelling techniques. So, a true story, which comes from either the writer of the piece or someone else, like a publisher or a person of interest is conveyed using story structure, scenes, flashback, characterisation, and any other narrative techniques to tell the story ‘creatively.’
Crucially, the author acknowledges there will be subjectivity involved as there is with anything based largely on someone’s memory of events. This is an inescapable reality and once you accept it, it makes the whole process of remembering and recording events much less guilt-ridden or stressful. Well, it did for me as this was the biggest hurdle for me. There are also margins for ‘dramatisation’ although these should be kept to a minimum, ethically considered, and only used to fill gaps in research and/or move the truth of the story forward. However, story trumps truth in this genre!
Today, publishers are hungry for personal stories told in a strong first-person voice, especially those which take on the important issues of our time. They love this stuff! Whether you are famous or not, if told well, your story matters more than ever.
Are you inspired to write your own memoir? If so…
Keep in mind:
- Bring all your research (and there should be as much as you can get your hands on from as many sources as are forthcoming) and mined memories (use memory stimulating activities to dig out those visceral details that place a reader back in time — think food, colours, styles, technology, historically significant news of the day — (...the relief of sitting on Mom’s black leather sofa, ingesting the sour scent of tomatoes on toast warming your lap through the plate with blue flowers, singing Harold Lloyd’s theme tune, after another brutal day at school) together in a captivating narrative.
- Defy stereotypes, those sticky things, by creating characters who live on the page, and so in the minds of your readers.
- Merge your intimate story details with current driving trends to make your story much more relevant and saleable in today’s market.
- Read, read, read as many of the type of CNF you want to write. Read classics, but also read contemporary bestsellers and award winners. A handful of these will teach you more than a hundred less famed options. If you want to learn, learn from those who are already succeeding.
- Find the best publisher for your story, considering their reputation within your genre, and PITCH HARD!
- Click for Amazon’s List of Creative Non-fiction books and all their categories (so, so, many) for more ideas.
Angier, C. and Cline, S. The Arvon Book of Life Writing: Writing Biography, Autobiography and Memoir (London: Methuen Drama, 2010)
Bloom, Lynn Z. ‘Living to Tell the Tale: The Complicated Ethics of Creative Nonfiction’ , College English, Vol. 65, No. 3, Special Issue: Creative Nonfiction (Jan., 2003), pp. 276-289
Cowley, Jason (ed.), ‘The New Nature Writing’, Granta 102 (London: Granta, 2008)
Gislason, Kari, ‘Travel Writing’, in Morley, David, The Cambridge Companion to Creative Writing (Cambridge: CUP, 2012)
Gutkind, Lee, The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality (New York: John Wiley, 1997)
Morley, David, The Cambridge Introduction to Creative Writing (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), Chapter 7
2) Examples of CNF done well:
Amis, Martin, Experience (London: Vintage, 2001)
Burroughs, Augusten, Running with Scissors (Atlantic Books, 2004)
Evans, Paul, Field Notes from the Edge: Journeys through Britain’s Secret Wilderness (London: Rider, 2015)
Griffiths, Jay, Wild: An Elemental Journey (London: Penguin, 2008)
Gross, John (ed.) The Oxford Book of Essays (1991; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008)
Gutkind, Lee, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction – From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between (Philadelphia: Da Capo, 2012)
Gutkind, Lee (ed.), Show Me All Your Scars, True Stories of Living with Mental Illness (In Fact Books, 2016)
Holmes, Richard, Footsteps: Adventures of a Romantic Biographer (1985; London: HarperPerennial, 2012)
Liptrot, Amy, The Outrun (Canongate Books, 2015)
Shields, David, Reality Hunger (London: Penguin Books, 2011)
Sinclair, Iain, Lights Out for the Territory (London: Granta, 1997)
Solnit, Rebecca, A Field Guide to Getting Lost (Edinburgh: Canongate, 2006)
Theroux, Paul, The Tao of Travel (London: Penguin, 2012)
- This is a good Goodreads list of ‘Best Memoir/Biography’ for more ideas.
- Part 2 of this lesson can be found HERE
Thanks for stopping by. I do hope this was interesting for you. Let me know or ask me a question in the comments! 🙂