What is Creative Nonfiction, Anyway?

I’m asked this question regularly. But almost every time, I reel as though in a total panic, as though I’ve never considered the answer to “What is creative nonfiction, anyway?” before in my life. Here’s a typical scene:

The person asking is an acquaintance, or perhaps a stranger I’ve just met. Maybe I’m on an airplane exchanging polite questions about occupation with the person sitting next to me and it’s my turn to answer. I take a deep breath and plunge in: “I write creative nonfiction.”

The person looks back at me with a blank stare. “What’s that?”

I want to answer this way: “It’s a ‘will-o’-the-wisp, elusive, exclusive, impulsively flitting here and there, leaving a trail of exotic sweetness that haunts one with a mad desire.'” That’s the quote that pops into my head when I think about defining the genre, at least. And though it’s actually not in reference to creative nonfiction at all, but is the description a rather obsessive fan wrote about L.M. Montgomery, I feel it still rings true as applied to the genre. (Creative nonfiction often draws on quotations, often applied in new ways.)

But instead of answering this way to the person wondering about creative nonfiction, I inevitably, at this point, mumble something unintelligible about the personal essay and the memoir. (Creative nonfiction can include overtly re-imagining something different from what it is in reality, like the clever way we wished we had answered a question.)

The person looks more confused than ever. “You mean, novels, right?” And as I bumble and blunder through another attempt, dropping the name of Joan Didion perhaps, I silently scold myself for being completely, clumsily, inept at defining a genre that I’ve both studied and currently write myself. (Those who write creative nonfiction tend to be a bit hard on themselves). Why can’t I explain this?

It reminds me of years ago when my grandmother asked me what my first day of kindergarten was like. She says I paused, somewhat in exasperation, before answering: “There are too many technicalness to explain!” I was four.

Or was that pause only in the way I remember my grandmother telling the story to me? (That’s something a writer of creative nonfiction might ask, questioning how one remembers something.)

“There are too many technicalities to explain” pretty much sums up how I feel when someone asks me what creative nonfiction is. How to explain all the intricacies of this experience in a few concrete and concise words, on the spot? (We who write creative nonfiction don’t tend to have easy answers. Ask me anything and I’ll probably begin my response with “It depends . . .”.)

But after much thought and deliberation, I’ve come up with a working definition to this question I am repetitively asked.

Creative nonfiction is a genre of writing which:

  1. is true;
  2. uses literary techniques; and
  3. employs reflection.

It’s also extremely difficult to define. At least, I find it is.

Perhaps that’s why I’m rather pleased that I’ve actually narrowed it down to three essential elements. (But even as I write that, I know I’m in danger of self-congratulations, a tendency that’s at best tolerated in real life, and insufferable in creative nonfiction.)

At the same time, another part of me cringes for making my bold assertion. (Writers of creative nonfiction are often self-contradictory.) Who am I to pronounce the three pillars of a genre that’s several hundred years old?

Yes, I have an MFA in creative nonfiction, and I continue to practice it. But there are other people who are much more qualified to define it. And they have. (But as a writer of creative nonfiction, you have to be okay with tackling a topic that someone else is more knowledgeable about, a topic that’s already been covered a hundred times before, and write from your own perspective, humble as it may be, all the while fully believing it’s worthwhile and that your readers will also find meaning in your articulation.)

Even after writing up until this portion of this blog post, while on a walk I met a neighbour for the first time. (Writers of creative nonfiction use personal experience). She  asked me what I do. And still, I could not explain what creative nonfiction was. She told me plainly after my first attempt that she did not understand.

“Creative nonfiction is writing that is true,” I finally managed to say, remembering at least one my three rules. Her response? You’re not going to write about me, are you? (Writers of creative nonfiction have to make judgements all the time on the ethics of  writing about others.)

In providing you my succinct definition, I’ve swung from the far side of the room.

On one hand, my list is a good working definition: Creative nonfiction “is true, uses literary techniques, and employs reflection”. On the other, it’s also deceptively simple, as though the entire essence of creative nonfiction could be pinned down in a mere seven words (eight, if you count the “and.”)

And I realize that I feel the need, not only to define creative nonfiction accurately, but to do so with a degree of elegance that you’d expect from a writer, an elegance which I feel is entirely missing from my minimalist reduction.

And yet, there’s much more to it than that.

I realize now that, I want to give the person asking an experience of what creative nonfiction is. I don’t just want to define it: I want to share the essence of it with them. Perhaps that’s why I blunder through any attempt to define it.

And so, if I could, I would share my delight with them, and with you, of reading a well-crafted personal essay. One that offers insight into the human condition while also being humorous, like C. K. Chesterton’s “On Running After One’s Hat.” Or one that’s seemingly about a small, commonplace thing, like Virginia Woolf’s “The Death of the Moth,” when it’s also and actually about something much deeper, more profound, personal, yet also universal.

Yes, my definition accounts nothing for the nuance that makes the genre breathe. (Creative nonfiction, if you’ve not yet figured it out, is layered in nuance.)

By the way, creative nonfiction often uses both showing (like the examples I gave), and telling (like my overt commentary in brackets). Thanks for the title of Philip Lopate’s book, To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction (we also use research).

And creative nonfiction is all about breathing, about life. It’s impossible to demonstrate that in a list of three concise rules.

It occurs to me that my many failed attempts to answer the question “What is creative nonfiction?” are at the very heart of the personal essay: not in the answering, but in the attempting. To “essay” after all, means, “to try.”

All creative nonfiction is an attempt to answer – or ask – a question, even if on the way you bumble and blunder along. Maybe that’s in the form of trying to define something. It’s the blundering that makes us human, and the seeming bumbling that we discover more than merely a straightforward answer.

The answer may lie in the attempt.

And so I add my little definition, hopeful that it is helpful to you.

Question: How do you go about defining things which resist definition?