From the Writer's Desk: Creative nonfiction
Published: Wednesday, March 6, 2013
Updated: Thursday, March 7, 2013 12:03
Creative nonfiction, as far as my childhood and adolescence went, was one of the most underrated and unappreciated genres of writing. At the time, being young and stupid, I thought nonfiction was boring because it was constrained by the bounds of reality, and therefore fiction, especially of the sci-fi/fantasy persuasion, was inherently more interesting. Now, being older and somewhat less stupid, I’ve come to embrace nonfiction as a rewarding genre in its own right, as being both entertaining and informative. Still, writing nonfiction can be a bigger challenge than writing fiction. How do you write something that is true without making it as dull as your average history lesson?
First of all, recognize that creative nonfiction is telling a story, regardless of the subject matter. General wisdom about conflict, character, etc., still applies. If you’re writing about, say, a day trip to New York City, you are the protagonist of your story, and therefore should be presented in a manner that endears you to your reader. Writing about your own experiences is a really good way of getting into the genre, as you probably will not have to do much in the way of research. You also will not have to create a character – as you are the character – and you can add as much personality and tone to the piece as you like. Basically, you get to write about you, and that practically guarantees that your tone will match your character.
Most of the nonfiction I’ve read has been written in the format of an essay in a magazine or journal, but of course, nonfiction can exist within books as well. I’ve mentioned him several times, but Bill Bryson does an excellent job of separating his nonfiction book chapters into individual essays that can be perused out of order and ultimately to great amusement. For example, I recall a passage from Bryson’s biography about the known history of Shakespeare that detailed a failed revolution following a King’s Men production of Richard II. In essence, it went something like this: “The Earl of Essex, having now noticed that his revolution was not drawing out the people of London as he expected, stopped for lunch to gather his thoughts and plan his next move.” The chapter details the attempt by the aforementioned Earl to rebel against the childless Elizabeth, after having paid Shakespeare’s company to put on Richard II in an attempt to galvanize the public. As you can see, it failed rather humorously.
All in all, creative nonfiction can cover a wide variety of truly fascinating topics. Biographies do not have to be dry, dusty tomes about obscure personages. They can be witty and humorous. It’s actually better if not much is known about the person in question, because it gives you more wiggle room in characterizing them. Histories do not have to be boring – after all, history is made by people, and people are seldom the giants of humankind we like to portray them as in our textbooks. Benjamin Franklin, founding father, genius inventor, was also riddled with venereal disease because of his many dalliances with French prostitutes. Write a short bio about that, and I guarantee anyone would be interested.