What is Creative Nonfiction?  (Also known as literary journalism)
CB Bassity, 2000

   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.
   Well-written creative nonfiction takes information, events, and ideas that might not otherwise interest us, and crafts them into a riveting story.  The news of that truck-wreck ordinarily would concern only a handful of people, but when a masterful story-teller like Greene gets hold of it—weaving it into her larger story in which the technicalities of names, facts, and figures don’t matter, but scenic details like fog, marsh noises, and “a long red scarf of sound” on a country road do—the reader is hooked.
   When it comes to which details to include, and how and in what order to fashion them into a story, no one does it better than John McPhee.  (If you have any interest whatever in creative nonfiction, begin by reading The Second John McPhee Reader—followed by the first, with its Introduction which elaborates on creative nonfiction and McPhee’s techniques—and The Control of Nature, or any of his shelf-ful of books.  If McPhee isn’t God in this field, he’s Matthew, Mark, Luke, or John.)  Normally, it’s hard to interest me in a discussion of “wax-like complexes of long-chain aliphatic hydrocarbons.”  But when it comes up in “Los Angeles Against the Mountains,” McPhee’s story has paved the way—I won’t ruin the story trying to explain how—so that I’d put off sex until I’d learned why “these waxy substances . . . make unburned chaparral soil somewhat resistant to water” so that entire mountain-sides slide into town carrying homes and families with them.  Among McPhee’s talents is his knack for aptly concise description.  Of one such slide’s “debris-flow” of mud and boulders pouring down a hill toward a family of four, he writes: “it was so full of automobiles it was like bread dough mixed with raisins.”  This same story related in the style of news would likely be neutered, with details of how many cars, what time of night, and so on; and the news rarely has room to spread out like McPhee does and give us a fuller understanding of how and why this situation developed.  Only perceptive readers might later reflect that disguised within this story is material that is usually written in different form, and known as philosophy and science.  Few writers can write that way.  More should try.
   Having compared (briefly) creative nonfiction with standard journalism, let’s compare it with fiction.  Which is an easy task.  Fiction is made-up stories; creative nonfiction is not.  Although writers like John McPhee and Melissa Fay Greene are artful in their telling, they stick to the truth.  Which perhaps is the only rule that must be followed in this genre.  All else is fair game.

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