Strip away the "creative" and you're left with only "nonfiction,"
and the best way I know to explain creative nonfiction is to compare it
to plain “nonfiction,” usually known as journalism or news-writing.
In most news-writing, the writer remains in the background or is utterly
invisible. So news stories often read as if information were fed
to a computer which sorted out facts into several piles—who, what, when,
where, why, and how—and then strung the piled info into a story unit, with
no sense of personal contribution from the writer.
What nonfiction writing often lacks is personality. Each story is presented as a distinct thing in itself, with little sense of any personal contribution from the writer. There's a good reason for this formula, of course. It helps keep writers honest and objective. Just the facts, Ma'm—make of them what you will. Such reportorial style (or lack of style) supposedly guarantees us factual information, helps to ensure that the story remains impartial, free of bias or opinion. A good journalist learns to write stories that are neutral; but among the synonyms of “neutral” are “flat,” “bland,” and “colorless” —hardly a recipe for telling an appealing story. But then most journalists would say that their business is to inform rather than entertain. To which creative nonfiction writers might respond, Yes, but can’t the news also fascinate, interest, and delight?—these being synonymous with “entertain.”
Creative nonfiction begins with the same material a news-writer might—news, general interest, feature stories, memoir, profile, editorial or essay—and brings it to life. Actually, creative nonfiction doesn’t add anything to a story; it conveys the life that’s there to begin with, the life that standard news-writing tends to lose in its “Just the facts, Ma’m” style. (Some journalists strive to overcome the natural strictures of their genre, but it’s tough work and only a few of them know how, or even understand the difference.)
How, then, does a writer escape the flat, bland, and colorless school of writing, and why don’t more writers do so? Here’s where the “creative” comes in. Rather than an arrangement of facts, figures, and quotes, creative nonfiction leans more to story-telling. And I maintain that story-telling is as necessary, basic, and fulfilling to human creatures as sex or love (and certainly more satisfying than money).
I can’t presume to explain the art of story-telling, but I can lay out a few basics of good stories. First, a story combines characters and scenes to produce drama. In everything from a dirty joke to Shakespeare’s plays, characters find themselves facing problems and obstacles which add up to conflicts. And (except in some ‘70s-era experimental fiction) those characters are always located somewhere, which makes for scenes. The decisions or choices they make in trying to resolve matters, and the resulting adventures or misadventures, make a story that winds up some way or another. (If you like a theoretical approach, consider that the human brain is a problem-solving apparatus, and it is immensely satisfied to discover how other such apparatuses deal with problems—that’s how we learn.)
Think of any good movie (merely a film-delivered story) and note that it begins with characters and moves with them from scene to scene as events unfold. But imagine the effect on ticket sales if the movie’s scenes and characters were replaced by a poker-faced news anchor-person explaining the matter by listing the details. There’s the difference between journalism and creative nonfiction in a nutshell.
Or, imagine a news story about a late-night truck-wreck on a rural highway. Newspaper, radio, or TV news accounts would probably furnish something like: “At the intersection of highways 19 and 142, last night at three-thirty-five a.m., two tractor trailers . . .”—along with the names of the trucking companies, what kind of freight, what injuries, possibly the names of the highway patrolmen on the scene, etc.—a list of relevant facts in other words, all delivered in a monotone or its print equivalent. Compare the voice in such a story with that of Melissa Fay Greene in the prologue to Praying for Sheetrock:
Two trucks collided on the crisscrossed highways in the small hours of the morning when the mist was thick. The protesting squeal of metal against metal and smashing glass silenced whatever small noises were afoot in the dark country at that hour, the little noises of munching and grunting that arose from the great salt marsh nearby. . . . the blacktops of the rural state routes were slick; and the truck headlights merely illuminated the fog from within as if sheets of satin were draped across the road. . . . After that blast of sound and its fallout of hollow chrome pieces dropping onto the road and rolling away, the quietness of the rural county flowed back in, and the muddy sucking and rustling noises arose again from the marsh. . . . [the] Volunteer Fire Department truck arrived first, unfurling a long red scarf of sound on the country roads behind it.That is a poet talking, folks, not a news-person; and which would you rather have tell you the story? Then too, would you ever expect to find this in the news?: “MacIntosh County is pretty country and it’s got some nice people, but it’s the most different place I’ve ever been to in my life.—Harry Coursey, GBI Special Agent, Savannah”—that passage, alone on a page, precedes the prologue in Greene’s book. Part of Greene’s approach, also, is that rather than record a mass of facts, she has surveyed them to find an underlying story, in which trucking companies are less important than the effects on a rural county when two out-of-state trucks wreck in the misty night.
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