What is Creative Nonfiction?

Sometimes it’s helpful to get back to basics. So what do we mean when we talk about writing creative nonfiction, particularly in its first person essay form? The “nonfiction” part is pretty simple – here at YeahWrite we’re looking for your true or mostly true tales. But what about the “creative” part? In the age of the confessional blog post, it’s easy to confuse creative nonfiction with oversharing, but this isn’t at all the objective of the personal essay. Making something “creative” doesn’t mean making it all about you, even if you are the subject.

That might not make intuitive sense. If it’s my personal essay and it’s all about things that happened to me, why can’t it be all about how those things made me feel? Perhaps the best definition of the “creative” in creative nonfiction comes from the late David Foster Wallace, who puts the lie to this sort of “me first” approach to essay writing in his brilliant creative nonfiction syllabus, which you can read in its entirety here. Here’s how DFW puts it:

“In the grown-up world, creative nonfiction is not expressive writing but rather communicative writing. And an axiom of communicative writing is that the reader does not automatically care about you (the writer), nor does she find you fascinating as a person, nor does she feel a deep natural interest in the same things that interest you. The reader, in fact, will feel about you, your subject, and your essay only what your written words themselves induce her to feel.”

I want you to parse that definition and really take it to heart this week as you offer up your stories for the nonfiction grid. Are you putting yourself and your feelings first in your essay? Or are you actually communicating something to your reader that isn’t necessarily, or solely, about you?  Because that’s the crux: Your story – what happened to you – is the vehicle for that larger message and you, as the author, are a mere passenger on it.

Nonfiction Know-How:

Journal to Essay

“It’s not a journal entry, it’s a personal essay.” That’s something we say a lot when we’re making edits. Also this: “Your essay needs to be more than a list of events interspersed with your feels.” What’s the difference, really, though? And why does it matter? For this month’s Nonfiction Know-How, we’ll use some of those constructive criticism tips on our own writing, and look at how to go from journal entry to personal essay. The best part? You get to save your darlings. Learn more from Rowan here.

How to submit and fully participate in the challenge:

Basic YeahWrite guidelines: 1000 word limit; your entry can be dated no earlier than this past Sunday; nonfiction personal essay, creative opinion piece or mostly true story based on actual events.

1. In the sidebar of this week’s post, please grab the code beneath the nonfiction badge and paste it into the HTML view of your entry;
2. Follow the Inlinkz instructions after clicking “add your link” to upload your entry to this week’s challenge grid;
3. Your entry should appear immediately on the grid if you don’t receive an error message;
4. Please make the rounds to read all the entries in this week’s challenge; and
5. Consider turning off moderated comments and CAPTCHA on your own blog.

Submissions for this week’s challenges will close on Wednesday at 10pm ET. Voting will then open immediately thereafter and close on Thursday at 10pm ET. The winners, as always, will be celebrated on Friday.

Thank you for sharing with us your hard work! Good luck in the challenge…

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About the author:

Cindy is an Asheville-based freelance writer, editor, and writing coach. A former attorney, she writes frequently on the topic of criminal justice reform in addition to blogging on her personal site The Reedster Speaks. Her work has appeared on Brain Child, The Huffington Post, the Erma Bombeck Writer’s Workshop, and WhatToExpect.com. She is a four-time recipient of BlogHer’s Voices of the Year award and, here at YeahWrite, acts as its Nonfiction Editor. Cindy frequently speaks on the craft of writing and teaches the creative nonfiction boot camp “What’s Your Story?” through her professional site cindyreed.me.

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