What Is Creative Nonfiction?
It has been previously suggested that as soon as you put words on a blank computer screen, you have created something. Yet, to truly satisfy the desire to be creative, you will need to do more than that, which is why some nonfiction writers have availed themselves of various techniques used by fiction writers. This creative impulse in writers of nonfiction ultimately led to the rise of a new genre — creative nonfiction.
“The arts are not a way to make a living. They are a very human way of making life more bearable. Practicing an art, no matter how well or badly, is a way to make your soul grow…. Do it as well as you possibly can. You will get an enormous reward. You will have created some-thing.” — Kurt Vonnegut, A Man Without a Country
Creative Nonfiction Defined
You know by now that the keystone of nonfiction is that the content of your work must be true and accurate, with only a touch of literary license (this will be discussed in more detail in Chapter 20, along with other ethical issues). The second defining factor for creative nonfiction has to do with the “creative” aspect, which focuses on the style and the writing itself rather than the substance.
Thus, a good working definition for creative nonfiction is this: creative nonfiction is writing nonfiction (true and accurate content) employing the creative techniques of fiction writing including the use of literary devices. Later in this chapter when you reach the point of how to write creative nonfiction, you'll see what techniques you should consider and how to apply them.
Not a New Genre
Although the term creative nonfiction is fairly new, the genre has been around a long time. Indeed, depending on your perspective, the genre is as old as the Bible. If you examine the Bible as literature apart from any divine attributes and accept that the content is basically accurate, then you have an example of creative nonfiction — factual material in story form exhibiting techniques of fiction writing such as suspenseful and intriguing plots, action, complex human characters, descriptive settings, and powerful dialogue.
Although many fine examples of creative nonfiction have appeared over the years, it was not until the publication of In Cold Blood (1965) by Truman Capote and The Armies of the Night (1968) by Norman Mailer that the genre of creative nonfiction came into its own.
In conducting his interviews for In Cold Blood, arguably the first modern work of creative nonfiction, Truman Capote never took notes nor recorded the conversations. Nonetheless, he claimed the contents of his book to be completely accurate because of his ability to recall verbatim whatever was said to him.
In Cold Blood and The Armies of the Night could not be more different in their subject matter. The former reconstructs the murder of four members of a family and the investigation leading to the capture of their killers, whom Capote interviewed and came to know well. The latter focuses on a single event when thousands, including the author, marched on the Pentagon to protest the war in Vietnam. What the books do share, and what makes them models for creative nonfiction, is that they read like riveting novels with all the ingredients that keeps the reader turning the pages. Given the critical acclaim both books received as well as their impressive sales, a popular new genre was spawned that has come to be known as creative nonfiction.