For the first time in six years, I wrote a creative non-fiction piece and submitted it somewhere. After doing so, it got me thinking about how I approach creative non-fiction. Last month, I wrote about my approach to flash fiction stories. There’s obviously some overlap in the two approaches — writing a story is writing a story, some of the same principles apply — but there are differences.
Non-fiction writing is an excavation of yourself. In this moment, to mix metaphors, you’re the medical examiner of yourself, and one by one, you’re pulling out each organ, and laying it on the cold, metal table. Everything is to be examined.
It’s different than fiction in that, while most authors of fiction certainly pull from their own experiences and inject that into the story (and often, the main character is an extension of the author or perhaps, a fantasy projection of the author), all of this has to be the unvarnished truth.
There is no holding back. That’s the first way I approach my creative non-fiction by going into it knowing I’m ready to spill my blood all over the page. There is no shame in it. The blood-soaked page is what it is. If I hold back, it’s not authentic, and I will know that, and often, the reader will sense it, too.
We all think of ourselves as the protagonist in our own life stories, and as I said, we often fantasy project that onto our fiction. But counter-intuitively, when it comes to creative non-fiction, you have to detach yourself from yourself to be able to give that unvarnished look. In other words, if I’m writing a story, I’m not worried about making sure I come off well too people reading it, and if people will like me. I’m writing the reality. My ugliness. My moral stumbles. My imperfections and blemishes. The warts and all. That’s what I’m here to examine. I’m not writing a Photoshopped version of myself, as it were.
But also, of course, there’s the “creative” part of the form. That does not mean making up or embellishing. As someone with a journalism background, I would find it grotesque to make something up. There is no creative license in that regard. The creative license is to make it more than a mere diary dump. Nobody wants to read a straight diary entry (that isn’t to say a diary format couldn’t work; I’m being more literal here). That is, like in our flash fiction, we add similes, metaphors, repetition, motifs, and detailed descriptions to flesh out the story … of our flesh.
The second thing I do once I’ve written the draft of the story as honest and creative (but again, truthfully) as I can, I go back to it: Where can I get more specific? Where do I need to zoom in and slow down time? I see it as standing in the middle of the scene and doing that. Looking around at the scene, what am I missing? Could I add more descriptions to show rather than tell? Am I missing an important detail? Am I being too vague? After all, I know what I intended with a sentence, a paragraph and a story, but was that conveyed on the page? Will a reader know? This is particularly important in creative non-fiction even more than fiction because we’re pulling from our own memories of an event or experience, and as such, we may fill in those important details with our brains rather than our pens.
Let me give you an example from one of my favorite stories I’ve written (and if you know me, you know how much I wince at even acknowledging that, as like any self-deprecating writer, I think all of my stuff sucks, especially as it ages) that happens to be creative non-fiction. I wrote about my high school prom experience:
It’s a beautiful day, the sun is hanging high and even though it’s early April, no clouds are in sight. A bird flies overhead, swoops down onto the porch and then flutters away as my parents and Brandon come out the front door. I rub my hands on my pants. “So what’s she doing?”
That isn’t some brilliant prose with big words peppered throughout, but there’s two things I want to point out here. First, is that simple is better. My uncle and I were just discussing this earlier today. Simple conveys meaning better than being a billboard for the dictionary. Secondly, “I rub my hands on my pants,” was a motif I came back to again and again in the piece. The paragraph ostensibly was a way to introduce a description of the scene, but really, it was a way to go back to the motif.
It’s prom, and I’m nervous. But I don’t need to tell you I’m nervous. Instead, “I rub my hands on my pants,” suffices and conveys.
I personally find creative non-fiction stories easier to write than flash fiction stories, which is a peculiar thing to say given that I’m essentially stabbing myself and letting the blood write the story. But aside from being more cathartic than flash fiction (and flash fiction is also cathartic), you’re writing about yourself. You’re not having to exercise your imagination muscles as much.
Some might see that as daunting though. My life is boring, you say. Even if you’ve had an interesting experience, how do you write about it in a way that people want to read? By being honest, by slowing down, and by being simple. That’s another counter-intuitive bit of advice. Simplicity almost has a negative connotation of being boring, and if my life is already boring, then I’m doubling up on the boring. But as mentioned, simplicity conveys meaning in an efficient manner.
And don’t sweat it too much. Humans are natural born storytellers. We are constantly telling our family, friends and coworkers stories about our life. All you’re really doing is transcribing it to the page (I’m being mildly facetious, as there’s more to it, but you get the point).
To be cliche and because I’ve written how hard endings are for me, here’s a great quote that sums everything up about writing creative non-fiction: