Creative Nonfiction

By Phyllis Hanlon

At the mention of “nonfiction” you may cringe and think of wordy, boring essays by long-winded speech writers, technical manuals bursting with legalese that no one except the creators can understand, or dry newspaper stories. Well, let’s place the word “creative” before nonfiction and see what a difference it makes. A new picture comes to mind, one that is colorful and engaging, sure to grab and hold your attention.

The proliferation of nonfiction writing is evident by the numbers of nonfiction articles being published in some major magazines such as The New Yorker, Harper’s, and Atlantic Monthly. Years ago fiction filled the pages of these publications. Many of the magazines and journals on the newsstand today, due to changing times and technology, provide their readership with more nonfiction articles than fiction.

In the early 1920s American readers generally sought fiction in their magazines, but after World War II the climate of the world changed. Instead of looking for escape, readers were now interested in real-life issues told in an interesting manner. The New Yorker is a case in point. Glance through the index and you will find just a few fiction pieces; nonfiction articles predominate. Harper’s and The Atlantic Monthly follow the same format, printing principally nonfiction pieces.

The nonfiction that is found in these major publications is so well-written that even a subject that you might never have considered reading about will hold your interest. Obviously the writer must show a keen fascination for the topic, do extensive research, and finally choose his or her words carefully to craft an exciting tale. Otherwise, the reader may never get past the first sentence.

“CoverAccording to William Zinsser in the fifth edition of his popular book On Writing Well (HarperCollins, 1994), many writers began their careers as journalists. H.L. Mencken, E.B. White, Lewis Thomas, Ring Lardner, Ellen Goodman and many other major writers were working journalists before publishing literary works. These writers concentrated on subjects that they were familiar with and wrote ”for themselves,” never worrying about slanting a story to meet requirements for a certain audience. In this way they were able to produce works that were successful. Most readers enjoy a story that is well written and displays obvious interest and enthusiasm on the part of the writer.

Journalism per se tends to be very factual and straightforward. The adage “The facts, just the facts,” rules most journalistic writing. However, there are many columnists nowadays who write interesting articles about common occurrences in daily life. Jacqueline Mitchard, Kathleen Parker, Maureen Dowd, Bob Greene, and Sid McKean are just a few names that spring to mind. These writers have a knack for taking the ordinary and injecting just the right touch of humor, outrage, empathy, or sarcasm to keep their readers interested. Of course, reporting straight news stories does require “just the facts” without emotion or commentary. However, the types of articles that these writers produce are personal opinion, responses to events both national and local, and criticisms or explications of an issue.

The above-mentioned authors have tackled a variety of subjects — children in their various stages of growth and development, spouses, teenage pregnancy, politics, touch tone telephones, feminism, sports, gun control, current news stories, personal anecdotes and a litany of other issues ranging from the serious to the silly. Some of these topics may seem inconsequential at first glance, but by writing from the heart they breathe life into the content, whatever the theme.

To cite Zinsser once again: “Beginning with nonfiction is the first step on the path to all writing.” After all, what writing teacher hasn’t told the class to “write what you know”? A nonfiction article is the perfect vehicle for doing just that. Take a subject you know and run with it. Your personal knowledge of the topic as well as your enthusiasm and interest will help to mold a well-written, well-rounded story.

Writing creative nonfiction gives the author license to express emotions and reactions to a situation as well. In addition to stating the facts, the heartache, joy, or anger that resulted can be recorded. In a prize-winning story that I wrote, my subject was the demise of my iron.  Sounds silly, right? The judges must have found my humor and honesty endearing, for the story won third place.  I took an incident that had just occurred and profoundly affected me in a negative way and then expounded on my distress at the loss of this “friend.” I am sure that there are occasions in your life when a trivial problem or event, either good or bad, can trigger feelings worthy of note. What has recently made you upset or nervous or angry or scared? You get the idea.

Each year Houghton Mifflin publishes The Best American Essays, a collection of nonfiction pieces written by well-known authors. A different guest editor, who also happens to be a published author, edits the book every year. Tracy Kidder, editor of the 1994 edition, explains that the traditional definition of the essay is personal reflection, sometimes referred to as literary journalism. Kidder looks for articles that “catch the reflection of human character on the page — [The authors] deal with the big themes, and sculpt the reader’s ruminations.” These tomes cover a broad scope of subjects, just at the journalists listed above do, ranging from airplane flight, orangutans, the plight of Salman Rushdie, and the history of punctuation, to a variety of others.

Following the guidelines that Kidder sets down, concentrate on a topic that offers you the chance to ponder the “big picture” of an issue. Once your subject matter is decided, contemplate these words of William Zinsser:

Sell yourself, and your subject will exert its own appeal. Believe in your own identity and your own opinions. Proceed with confidence, generating it by willpower. Writing is an act of ego, and you might as well admit it. Use its energy to keep yourself going.

The emotion and passion that you feel toward your subject will help carry the story from your head to the paper. Nothing is stopping you from retelling an event in a creative and exciting manner. Follow the example of the contributors to the literary magazines and the commentary pages of national newspapers. Your life is every bit as exciting and eventful as theirs; use those prosaic episodes to spawn your best creative nonfiction masterpiece.

Freelancer Phyllis Hanlon has had hundreds of articles published in nearly 40 magazines and newspapers. She beats burnout by hitting the gym as often as possible. 

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