Mon 9 Dec 2013
by Dinty W. Moore
Flash fiction is wonderful, but it not the only game in town. Flash nonfiction has been gaining in popularity these past few years, thanks in part to the magazine, Brevity, which I founded and still edit, and to the outstanding anthologies edited by Judith Kitchen and Mary Paumier Jones (In Short, In Brief, and Short Takes). If you aren’t familiar with the creative nonfiction genre, short or long, here are some tips to making it work.
Tip #1: Creative Nonfiction is Truth, Artfully Arranged.
The “creative” in creative nonfiction doesn’t mean you make things up. Nonfiction means not fiction: stories constructed from actual events, real people, genuine places, and the author’s authentic thoughts and observations. The creativity comes in the method of storytelling, a careful and skillful application of literary techniques such as scene, detail, point-of-view, metaphor and imagery, showing not telling, and rich language.
What is real, you ask? If you are a philosophy major, we’ll never agree, but for the rest of us, creative nonfiction demands the author’s very best effort to report accurately, remember accurately, and reflect accurately.
Is memory faulty? Yes, science has established that many times over, but as nonfiction writers we do our best, never knowingly mis-shaping or distorting what we know. The nonfiction writer’s pact with the reader is “The truth is elusive, but I’ve done my very best to get it right.”
Tip #2: The Strength is in What You Make of It
The key to powerful creative nonfiction storytelling is not simply “knowing” a good story or having lived one. The key is how you tell it and what meaning or resonance you find in your exploration. Or as Vivian Gornick puts it, “What happened to the writer is not what matters; what matters is the larger sense that the writer is able to make of what happened.”
The creativity comes in how you frame it, what you emphasize, where you let the story speed up and where you let it slow down, the words you choose to create sensory detail – visual images, but also sounds, smells, the texture of the fabric on your grandmother’s scratchy Victorian sofa – also metaphor, diction, voice, characterization. The possibilities are endless, really, just as they are in any art form.
Tip #3: So Much Depends Upon Paying Attention
Many centuries back, only “noteworthy” topics – religion, politics, mortality – were deemed worthy of artistic discussion. But in creative nonfiction, any subject might bear valuable fruit: a confounding childhood memory, the rituals played out at the author’s family dinner table, or the ancient sycamore tree in the park across the street from where the author lives. A subject becomes noteworthy, in other words, because the author takes close notice, and then finds a way to transmit his or her own fascination with the subject to the curious reader.
Tip #4: You Matter
Unlike business writing or traditional journalism, a writer of creative nonfiction is not asked to be invisible. In fact, the personality of the writer, the idiosyncracies of the writer, the unique point-of-view through which the writer views her world, are essential. If you want to know what this means, drop everything and go read Joan Didion.
Tip # 5: Always Ask Questions
The fuel for creative nonfiction is curiosity and uncertainty. If you know the answer, or want to merely tell the reader what to think, write political slogans or op-ed pieces. But if you want to write creative nonfiction, find the subject that you are least sure about, the memory that confounds you, the family story that twenty years later still won’t settle comfortably into place. If you aren’t sure what you think about a subject, yet it gnaws away at you at 3 a.m., frightens you a little, seems neither safe nor polite, that’s exactly the subject you should be writing.
Dinty W. Moore is author of the memoir Between Panic & Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize in 2009, as well as The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers.