How many kinds of order are there? I mean, how many ways might writers order their materials? Dictionaries are generally in alphabetical order, for instance.

How many “story shapes” are there? In other words, how many narrative shapes can a writer choose from when telling a story, either a fictional one, or one that is true? This blogpost has one of those story shapes.

Hold these thoughts.

My friend, the poet and former Ripon College professor, David Graham, in a recent Facebook discussion about the kind of prose that poets like to write, said, “I’m not a big fan of the term ‘creative nonfiction’…. Montaigne originally gave us the word ‘essais,’ meaning ‘attempts,’ or ‘testings,’… and that’s sufficient for me.” David is only one of many writers I know who have complained of the term. ” How does a fellow who teaches “creative nonfiction” feel about it?

What is “creative nonfiction” anyway?

A novel is “fiction,” obviously; and, if it is a good novel, it is undoubtedly creative. Nonfiction is fact- or reality-based, whether it is a report or a recollection or biography or history that we are talking about. It is a telling which must be as “true as humanly possible,” as I like to say.

So how can a reality-based presentation be “creative?”

We make a distinction between “what” is told and “how” it is told. The “what” is content, and in creative nonfiction that must always be true and factual. The “how” is technique, and we may draw on techniques from the other arts — using imagery and metaphor and rich language, which are common to poetry, for instance; and foreshadowing, dialog, scene, and so on taken from fiction and movies. We think about theme and arc and point of view. We write character description. We pay attention to beginnings and endings and transitions. To the Three Act structure, which introduces, complicates, and resolves. In all of this, the contract the writer of creative nonfiction makes with the reader is: I will not lie to you; I will not make things up; if I must speculate about some fact, you will know that I am speculating.

Creative nonfiction is an excellent form for telling adventure stories, such as those about mountain climbing expeditions you might find in Outside magazine. John McPhee and Barry Lopez are two of the giants of book-length creative nonfiction. Good memoir almost always comes out as creative nonfiction; because the author knows the material so well, he or she can add color and detail and a point of view that might otherwise not be available. One might write of another person using the tools of creative nonfiction as well to create a character sketch or profile; or might write about a place or report on an event or present how-to information using metaphor and scene and dialog.

How do you learn to write Creative Nonfiction? Just as you learn to write poetry: by reading it and by writing it. Why take a class? For some guidance and feedback. And that’s what I promise those who sign up for my class: they will read creative nonfiction; they will have have several assignments writing it; and they will get guidance and feedback in a supportive environment.

Now, how did I get myself into that discussion about creative nonfiction with David Graham I spoke of earlier? By responding to him this way: “Creative nonfiction is the poet’s prose of choice. Just sayin’…”

“The drawback to the term essay,” I said, “is that many people think that’s what they learned in school: thesis, antithesis, synthesis.” Introduction; body; conclusion.

I also said that I’m not particularly fond of the term ‘nonfiction,’ for it identifies something by what it is not, rather than what it is.

So, Patient Reader, just how many kinds of order are there? Well, there are the alphabetical and numerical and chronological orders, of course; there are the orders of things by category and of things by their location (such as when you describe a hardware store’s contents as you walk through it). And I believe there is still another kind of order, specific to creative nonfiction (and poetry), but you’ll have to sign up for class to hear me talk about that one. Sorry.

About story shapes. This post has something like a “last lap” shape, where you start close to the end of the story, go back and tell how you got to this point, and then go onto the end of the story: crisis, background, resolution. There are many other shapes: bear at the door; snapshot; aha; day in the life; journey; and others.

I will always be enthusiastic about creative nonfiction, the prose form that I will be teaching, because of the kind of materials it allows us to present, the stories it allows us to tell. But, like David Graham, I am not particularly excited about the term itself, “creative nonfiction.” As David said, “Tom, if I had a better term for ‘creative nonfiction’ I would have started using it years ago.”

“For the record,” I had to tell David, “when I talk about myself, I am a poet and essayist.”

Tom is teaching a class at The Mill starting March 1 – Writing Creative Nonfiction: Nonfiction Prose for Poets & Other Word Artists. Check it out HERE

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