CREATIVE NONFICTION

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CREATIVE NONFICTION

Post by glorybee » Sat Feb 06, 2016 10:33 am

I think maybe I’ve done too many of these lessons—last week I wrote a lesson on paragraphs when it appears that I posted one almost exactly like it last October. And I was sure that I’d already done one on creative nonfiction, but I can’t find it anywhere. So here goes, but if you’re a regular reader of these lessons, a lot of this will be familiar to you, as I’ll be drawing from some ideas that I tend to hammer at over and over again.

Creative nonfiction is a relatively new term in the writing world. It’s nonfiction (that is, it’s writing based on truth), but it uses writing techniques that are more usually associated with fiction; those techniques will be the focus of this lesson. Not all nonfiction will fit well into this definition—nonfiction that’s written for academia, or journalism (in most cases), or things like instructions and manuals and the like don’t really lend themselves to the kind of originality that’s characteristic of creative nonfiction.

However, there are many kinds of writing that lend themselves well to the techniques of creative nonfiction, including these:

• Memoir and autobiography
• Travelogue
• Inspirational writing
• First person essays
• Literary journalism

So…what are these literary techniques? Nothing as intimidating as it might sound. Think about what’s excellent about your favorite fiction; those are the sorts of things that can easily be incorporated into creative nonfiction. (Note—not every piece of creative nonfiction will have all of these elements, nor is this an exhaustive list. It’s just to give you the idea of what’s possible.)

1. Characters who interact with each other. Especially if you’re writing about something that happened to you or to someone you know, you can recreate dialogue and reactions to other’s behavior. Don’t worry that you can’t remember the conversations word-for-word, or if you have to speculate on something that happened while you were not ‘on stage.’ This will be understood by your reader; if you’re not sure about that, you can include a statement to that effect.

Here are two different accounts of the same instance—you decide which is more creative.

We went out to a restaurant that evening, and we got back about 7:00. Soon after we got home, the phone rang, and the doctor on the other end told us that our daughter had been injured and that we should come to the hospital soon. We quickly put our jackets back on and headed for the hospital, which was three hours away. We didn’t talk much on the way there, both silently wondering what the future would look like for us now.

***
I was just hanging up my jacket when the phone rang. My husband answered it, and immediately I could tell that there was no home siding salesman on the other end. I stood with the hanger in my hand and listened as our world shattered.

“I work with disabled people,” Ben said. “I’ve seen this kind of injury. How bad is it?” He looked at me, mouthing our daughter’s name. Then: “We’ll be there as soon as we can.”

We stumbled to the car and somehow drove across the state to where our daughter lay, still on her gurney. I took her hand and held it to my face. “I feel at peace, Mom,” she said.


***
Granted, those paragraphs cover slightly different material, but I think you can see that the second example—while totally true—does more to show the reader what that phone call and its aftermath were like, and it also develops the characters a bit more. In fact, it reads like fiction.

2. Interesting word choices. I think some nonfiction writers are stuck in “school report” mode, not realizing that just because a piece is nonfiction doesn’t mean that it can’t be interesting. One way to make your writing more interesting is to choose your words well. In the examples above, the first paragraph has no interesting words whatsoever; if you’ve been reading these lessons for a while, you know that I refer to ordinary words as “rice cake” words.

On the other hand, the second example has shattered and mouthing and gurney. These are “salsa” words—words with a bit of a kick.

Closely related to this concept of word choice is the importance of avoiding clichés. There’s a lesson on clichés in this forum, so I won’t go into a lot of detail on that here. But stay away, stay away, stay away from phrases that you’ve seen before.

3. Varied sentence structures and varied paragraph structures. I’ve got lessons on these concepts, too—look in the index on the forums page for more instruction on how to do add variety to your writing. But really, it’s self-explanatory: your sentences should be both simple and complex, long and short. Learn to use semicolons and dashes. Work on using short sentences to increase the pace and longer ones to slow the pace down. Experiment with using repetition and parallel structure to emphasize a point. Use occasional sentence fragments.

Similarly, some of your paragraphs can be very short—just one sentence, even—while others might be quite long. Study the paragraphs of excellent writers to see how they can be used to make the writing more interesting.

4. Flashbacks and flash forwards. Just as fiction isn’t always told in a linear fashion, creative nonfiction does not have to follow a strict chronological timeline. If I were writing a longer piece about my daughter’s story, I might choose to start with the paragraphs above (getting the phone call, seeing her on the gurney) and then flash back to a time when she was a particularly active toddler. Alternatively, I might start with her as a little child, flash forward to her walking with two canes toward her groom, and then flash back again to her accident.

For an example of a well-written piece of literary journalism, you might want to read this interesting (but longish) profile of a teenager with an unusual condition, written by Jessica Testa for BuzzFeed.com. As you’re reading, look for examples of each of the four points above.

I think I’m done posting homework assignments, but as always, I welcome comments or questions about this or any other writing-related topic. Also, there won’t be a lesson next week; my husband and I will be visiting the sweetest little granddaughter ever in sunny Florida.
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Re: CREATIVE NONFICTION

Post by oursilverstrands » Sun Feb 07, 2016 9:39 pm

Thanks, Jan, for the information. I, too, remember that you touched on creative nonfiction when I asked about the difference between inspirational writing and devotional writing. However, I don't think the topic was as comprehensive as this. I was wondering if you have time to review an old Challenge article that I wrote for the topic Eternity and tell me if this fits the creative nonfiction, inspirational category. (I think it does.)

Enjoy your visit. Grandkids are special. :D

http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=39089

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Re: CREATIVE NONFICTION

Post by glorybee » Sun Feb 07, 2016 9:55 pm

lish1936 wrote:Thanks, Jan, for the information. I, too, remember that you touched on creative nonfiction when I asked about the difference between inspirational writing and devotional writing. However, I don't think the topic was as comprehensive as this. I was wondering if you have time to review an old Challenge article that I wrote for the topic Eternity and tell me if this fits the creative nonfiction, inspirational category. (I think it does.)

Enjoy your visit. Grandkids are special. :D

http://www.faithwriters.com/wc-article- ... p?id=39089

Lillian
Yes, Lillian--this is a very good example of creative nonfiction. Thanks for the link!
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Re: CREATIVE NONFICTION

Post by oursilverstrands » Sun Feb 07, 2016 10:15 pm

Jan wrote:Use occasional sentence fragments.
Sorry, Jan. I forgot to ask about this. It defies everything I've learned about fragments. Could you give a mini-lesson with examples (or have you done this already) about when it's okay to use sentence fragments...unless this is a question for Ann?

Thanks,

Lillian
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I write even when I think I can't, because I must. :-)

I love to write. Nothing escapes the crush I have on the written word. I'm hooked on words!!

"Let words bewitch you. Scrutinze them, mull them, savor them, and in combination, until you see their subtle differences and the ways they tint each other." Francis Flaherty

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Re: CREATIVE NONFICTION

Post by glorybee » Sun Feb 07, 2016 11:08 pm

lish1936 wrote:
Jan wrote:Use occasional sentence fragments.
Sorry, Jan. I forgot to ask about this. It defies everything I've learned about fragments. Could you give a mini-lesson with examples (or have you done this already) about when it's okay to use sentence fragments...unless this is a question for Ann?
Lillian, intentional sentence fragments can be very effective in either setting the mood, or reflecting a character's thoughts, or increasing the pacing of a story. You'll find them quite a bit in literary fiction. I've copied one of my Writing Challenge stories below, with the fragments highlighted. After each, I've explained (in brackets) why I chose to use it there.

***

Lisa is a nomad. There’s an itch in her spirit that won’t allow her to stay—not in any one place, not with any one man. When the itch gets to a certain intensity, Lisa sets off again. Maybe she’s looking for a salve. Maybe she’s not. [This very short fragment is set in direct opposition of the previous sentence, and gives the omniscient narrator a voice.]

Lisa is a writer, and her nomad feet have led her to the settings for all of her novels. A beauty parlor for the circus sideshow, with a profane beautician of uncanny compassion. A factory where a dozen workers spend their days making mousetraps. A house that a woman has filled with thousands of jars of mincemeat. [This series of fragments act like a slide show--each novel setting flashing quickly before the 'viewer' (the reader).']

Today she wakes in a tiny motel on a coastal island somewhere in the south. The island has a beautiful name—Sofronia—and Lisa hopes to stay here for a while. She has a thought that maybe it would be nice to have a kitten.

After pulling on jeans and a tee, Lisa starts to walk. It’s early—not yet hot—and she follows the salt in the air, the loudening of the ocean. A battered boardwalk takes her to a wonderland of rust, faded paint, splintered wood. An abandoned amusement park. [This fragment more accurately reflects her realization of what she's stumbled upon--an 'aha' moment for her.] A faded sign reads “Ferdy’s Funland.”

Lisa walks under old roller coaster rails, sees a desiccated cocoon in the seat of one of the coaster cars resting on the track. The carousel has no horses; perhaps vandals have taken them away. In the funhouse, Lisa stands in front of a twisted mirror and sees herself in the shattered glass, oddly truncated. She starts to hear the voices of the characters in her next book.

A sound from the real world startles Lisa, and she darts behind the funhouse mirror. Tchk…tchk…someone is taking pictures. When the footsteps fade away, Lisa steps out to see who has invaded what she already thinks of as her amusement park. The characters are speaking loudly to her now, clamoring for her attention, suggesting conflicts and plotlines.

She watches the photographer, who is now taking pictures of the silent Ferris wheel. It occurs to Lisa that this man with a camera might be an interesting character. He appears to be talking to himself. She slips off her shoes and leaves them in the funhouse, then dodges through the bumper cars and the tilt-a-whirl to get closer—perhaps to hear what he is saying.

As the man walks around the Ferris wheel and the Scrambler, he stoops and ducks, exchanging lenses, leaning in close, lying on his back, snapping in a steady rhythm, constantly talking. Lisa thinks at first that he might be ill, delusional—but as his words settle into meaningfulness, she understands that she is hearing his part of a two-sided conversation, a dialogue with an unseen friend. Awesome, Lord, he says. Thanks for leading me here. This is great stuff. I love the angle of the sun’s rays through this rusted iron.

Lisa revises her character from ‘delusional photographer’ to ‘religious photographer’ and thinks there might not be a place for him in the book, after all. Religious people are not of interest to her. Still, she decides to watch him for a while longer. He moves further down the old boardwalk, past the popcorn stand and the Tunnel of Love, past the arcade. Lisa follows several yards behind, using the moldering structures for cover.

The photographer is still talking, still snapping pictures, and Lisa draws closer to listen. That shadow will make for an interesting effect, won’t it, Lord? There, the way nature is taking over these old structures, life always does…The man pauses, snaps a few more pictures, starts to talk again. Can’t you just hear the echoes of the people who used to come here? Do you wonder what their lives were like? Did anyone ever fall in love here?

Lisa is surprised that the photographer is talking to God like that, with questions she herself was asking. She peers around the corner of the crumbling arcade building to see that the man has turned around, is looking at her. Is talking to her.
[This could have been added to the previous sentence, but separating it like this reflects Lisa's realization.]

“Well?” he says. “Do you?”

“Do I…” [This is how people talk.]

“Do you ever wonder? About the people?”

Lisa swallows, clears her throat. “It’s all I ever do.”

Yeah. Me, too. [So is this.] Should we see what’s in there?” He nods toward a derelict concession stand, holds out one hand.

Crazily, Lisa thinks again about how nice it would be to have a kitten. A home. [Again, this reflects the pacing of her thought processes--people don't realistically think in complete sentences, but in flashes.] She steps away from the arcade and takes the photographer’s hand.
***
Does that make sense? It's about the art of writing--intentionally break rules when it serves your purposes.
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Re: CREATIVE NONFICTION

Post by swfdoc1 » Mon Feb 08, 2016 7:59 pm

Interesting that you mention travelogues. There is a tradition in travelogues that goes back—no kidding—thousands of years, and that is still widely practiced, of writing them in second person present: “As you mount the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, you are overcome with a sense of presence, of the man, of history.”

This might be interesting for folks to try, if only in blog posts.
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Re: CREATIVE NONFICTION

Post by glorybee » Mon Feb 08, 2016 8:47 pm

swfdoc1 wrote:Interesting that you mention travelogues. There is a tradition in travelogues that goes back—no kidding—thousands of years, and that is still widely practiced, of writing them in second person present: “As you mount the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, you are overcome with a sense of presence, of the man, of history.”

This might be interesting for folks to try, if only in blog posts.
Ooh, did I imply that creative nonfiction has to be in first person? I hope not. Your example is a good one, and the example of literary journalism that I cited (if I remember it correctly) is in third person.

And you're right about the Lincoln Memorial. It was all that and more. I'd love to go back there some day.
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Re: CREATIVE NONFICTION

Post by swfdoc1 » Mon Feb 08, 2016 9:21 pm

glorybee wrote:
Ooh, did I imply that creative nonfiction has to be in first person? I hope not.
No, you didn't imply that. It's just that it is so rare to see (or to want to see) second person, that I was prompted to comment when you mentioned travelogue.
Steve
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"When the Round Table is broken every man must follow Galahad or Mordred; middle
things are gone." C.S. Lewis
“The chief purpose of life … is to increase according to our capacity our knowledge of God by all the means we have, and to be moved by it to praise and thanks. To do as we say in the Gloria in Excelsis ... We praise you, we call you holy, we worship you, we proclaim your glory, we thank you for the greatness of your splendor.” J.R.R. Tolkien

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