Non-Fiction Essay Writing: What Is Creative Non-Fiction?


Creative non-fiction is a relatively new and somewhat slippery genre. By relatively new, I mean that the term tip-toed it's way into graduate and undergraduate writing programs in the 1970's, and was officially recognized by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1983 (up to that point, the NEA only awarded grants to fiction and poetry writers).

But what does it mean, exactly? Is it akin to magical realism—mostly truth with a pinch of "creative" zest thrown in? Is it non-fiction written about creative things, like finger-painting or interpretive dancing? Apparently, the answer is elusive enough that Creative Non-Fiction Magazine includes a big green button on their homepage that asks, "What is Creative Non-Fiction?" and links to an answer.

To be honest, I wasn't exactly sure what definition I would find behind this circular button, but my general idea about the term turned out to be correct. Essentially, creative non-fiction is a written work that accurately describes real people and events, but uses literary techniques and tropes to do so in a "compelling, vivid manner." (that last bit comes directly from Lee Gutkind, father of creative non-fiction and author of the green button answer).

After considering this definition for little while, I decided that the explanation was disappointingly broad, and ultimately nothing more than an umbrella term for most non-fiction outside the realm of textbooks, academic essays, and how-to articles. 

For example, works like John Krakauer's Into Thin Air, Hunter S. Thompson's Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas, and Nathaniel Philbrick's In the Heart of the Sea could all be considered creative non-fiction because they employ devices that increase the narrative force of the events they describe, but they are better defined in more specific terms (travel memoir, gonzo journalism, and historical non-fiction, respectively). 

To go a step further, controversies over accuracy in works like Men Mezrich's Accidental Billionaires (which was discussed in the post Accidental Billionaires, The Social Network, and Writing Advice) make the definition of creative non-fiction even blurrier. It's unclear to what extent your "literary techniques" can distort the truth before they move  your book into the fiction section.

I'm interested to hear other perspectives on this issue. Do you think creative non-fiction is a useful term? Would you consider yourself a "fan" of it? Do you think there is a substantial difference between creative non-fiction and well-written non-fiction? Was Ben Mezrich a little too creative? Does it damage the integrity of his book?


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  1. I don't believe that any work of non-fiction is entirely accurate. Something could have all the facts right, but there could still be something a little off about it that no one really cares about.
    Now, if you do what they did with "Walk the Line" and Johnny Cash's story and get only one or two facts correct, then you have a problem and should probably start writing fiction instead.
    So, I think that as long as you get the facts right, then you can't really be "too creative."

  2. I am teaching a course on Environmental Writing which includes a class (today in fact!) on Creative Non-fiction. I think it is a useful term, and I would definitely describe myself as a fan of creative non-fiction. Yes its a broad term but you can then narrow it down to specifics for further specialisation.

  3. I look @ it as a Non-fiction essays are like Creative Writing piece's the fact's may not be correst 100% of the time, but you got this wonderful piece that a student ( or someone elce ) has writen :D i know myself am a Creative Writing Fan.....

  4. I think creative non fiction should not be taken as literal sense but a thematic sense. If the theme of the writing is dealing with something real incident, and for the matter of consumption if a writer puts some salt, pepper and spices; that does not necessarily destroys the non fiction , yet may even augment its point.

  5. Exactly how narrow do you want the definition to be? Your question is broad - you'll have a broad answer. Defining a comprehensive form such as creative non-fiction defies a narrow definition. Your summary of Mr. Gutkind's definition, "creative non-fiction is a written work that accurately describes real people and events, but uses literary techniques and tropes to do so in a 'compelling, vivid manner.'" could not be more on target - at least IMHO.
    If it is non-fiction, then by definition it should be truthful, but truth is subjective,and can be written clearly even when the "facts" aren't straight or correct. For instance, once upon a time, it was a fact that the world was flat. The truth is, it was not, and the facts changed to conform to the truth. Truth is immutable (yet still, ironically, subjective), but facts change. How truth is accepted or perceived is a question of hermeneutics.
    Good luck getting your answer!

  6. Creative non-fiction? Sound like a term invented by a politician or a spin doctor for a politician.
    ie: A phrase something like: "we made a negative surplus profit this quarter"
    Isn't all writing creative non fiction? That is a story that is based on the writers truth or parts of his/her life with invention thrown in?

  7. I don't see what the big deal is, really. Comedy writers like David Sedaris and Erma Bombeck have been writing this stuff and employing various techniques to make it compelling for YEARS. Therefore, I think the term rather useless. Adding the term "creative," is almost like saying "Faked" illusions to describe most up-close and stage magicians and their acts. It's a useless term.
    When we write comedy (and I've been published in the genre), we're taught to make several different passes on the essay, after you've done your burn draft. Do you know what most of those passes are for? To make it funnier--to punch it up. Exaggeration is a widely-accepted literary device for any comedy writer worth his salt, so I don't see what the big deal is with calling attention to it. Are they trying to differentiate it from travel books or textbooks?
    I just think trying to apply that label is highly insulting to those who have blazed trails for the genre in non-fiction, comedic essays. And whether you are writing dramatic, political or comedic essays, the fact is they STILL employ devices such as plotting, character arc, story throughline, etc.
    So the better question would be, why did the person who coined the term have THAT much time on their hands when they should've been writing?


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