Mon 18 Nov 2013
by Garrett Dennert
I don’t want you to be scared of the genre.
Creative nonfiction is a young genre. Its very essence—advancing the exploration of the self through applicable ideas— makes it prone to experimentation. It’s an exciting thing. And scary. But that’s why I’m here. I don’t want you to be scared of the genre. I don’t want you to be five-hundred words in and breach paralysis by analysis. What I want you to be able to do is deflect mental haymakers like: “I can’t do this,” or, “I don’t like talking about myself.” I’m hoping these five tips will help you fight your story onto the page.
Tip #1: Pursue an idea.
My definition of creative nonfiction is as follows: where memoir and essay meet. Yes, you’re (likely) talking about yourself. Yes, you’re tapping into memories. But what do those memories mean and what can be learned from them? Lastly, how can the information be presented in a way that the reader can learn, and feel, as well? By pursuing an idea.
For example, I wrote a piece of creative nonfiction recently that examines all of my past relationships. If I were to strictly write about the memories of those relationships, it would be classified as memoir. But because I took those memories and formulated a ‘hypothesis’, if you will (that we have three selves in a relationship: Love, Lust and I), the piece is classified as creative nonfiction.
Another example is a piece I wrote called “I’ve Killed Us, Mother”. The memory I examine is one of me at seven years old and killing a barn swallow with a BB gun. The driving idea of the piece, however, is that, by the narrator killing that bird, he also kills a part of his childhood; the murder forces him to grow up faster.
This distinction can also be viewed as the “What” and “So What” or “Story” and “Situation”. But I believe ideas must drive a piece of creative nonfiction. They can be large. They can be small. And loud. Or quiet.
Tip #2: Apply truth(s).
There are two types of truths in creative nonfiction: lower-case truth (truth) and capital-T truth (Truth). Lower-case truth is the emotional truth and it must be specific to either the narrator or the narrator’s subjects—emotions are indisputable facts to the self that cannot be ignored. Truth, then, is plain, old, researched, sometimes boring fact—a city’s population, the cost for a cheeseburger, etc.
The most beautiful thing about creative nonfiction is that, more often than not, life cannot be folded up like a blanket
and placed neatly on a closet shelf.
Because creative nonfiction requires both, imagine the two truths on a teeter-totter. Truth goes up, truth goes down and vice versa. What amount of each do you need in order for your piece to achieve what it has set out to do? What is taken away from each with the addition of the other? While Truth has its place, I look more for truth as an editor. And that’s because I want to empathize with the narrator. I need to know what they’re feeling (or have felt) if I’m going to invest myself into the piece.
Tip #3: Embrace uncertainties.
The most beautiful thing about creative nonfiction is that, more often than not, life cannot be folded up like a blanket and placed neatly on a closet shelf. There will be uncertainties about whatever it is you’re trying to get across. Embrace them. Admit them. And move on. Empathy—not sympathy—is created by doing so, and that is what you, the writer, should be striving for.
Tip #4: Just talk.
Sometimes I shy away from pieces of writing that, through vocabulary and word choice, make me feel inadequate. Other times, I embrace them and the challenges they present. Through this, I’ve realized something: just like there is no right way to speak, there is no right way to write. See, writing isn’t just a job, it isn’t just an art form. Writing is a way of communication. So write in the way that feels comfortable, remembering that there is only one of you in this world. Just talk to the reader, knowing that, by picking up your piece of writing, their ears are tilted your way.
Tip #5: Make it sing.
Or dance. Or scream. Or punch. Whatever the piece calls for, listen to it, and edit accordingly. You have to keep in mind that, unless you are superhuman, your first draft is not going to be the final draft. Sentence length and sentence variation will not be hitting on all cylinders. Visual and contextual experiments, if you’ve chosen to perform them, (likely) will not be enticing the desired attention or emotion out of the reader. Clean them up. Keep in mind that, as you’re sending your work out for publication, the editors looking over the draft are doing so with the mindset that it is the final product. So do what you can to make it as perfect as possible.
By way of Hart, Michigan and Seattle, Washington, Garrett Dennert currently resides in Holland, Michigan. He attended Grand Valley State University– initially as a Film & Video major– and in 2012 attained his B.A. in Creative Writing. During the summer of 2011, at the age of twenty-one, Dennert published two books, one an instructional guide to the game of golf, the other a collection of short stories and essays. More recent work can be seen in various forms at WHISKEYPAPER, CIRCA REVIEW, TOSKA MAGAZINE and QUICK FIX SPORTS. He is currently a nonfiction editor of SQUALORLY and is at work on a dystopian novel titled WOUNDED TONGUE.