Friday, October 21, 2011

Creative Nonfiction is...?

One of the semester long questions that I'm supposed to be finding an answer to is "So, what is creative nonfiction?" And as easy as it would be to just pop onto Google and look up a definition, that's not what my professor is looking for. She's looking for thoughtful, intelligent responses.

It took every ounce of willpower that I had to refrain from putting quotations around most of that last sentence. Not because it's there, but because the terms "thoughtful" and "intelligent" are relative. Especially - let's be real here - at a community college. Okay, now that I'm done making fun of community colleges and the people who attend them (myself included, guys, so chill out,) I can get through with this.

Creative nonfiction, to me, isn't just writing about things that really happened - anyone can do that, and it's called an expository essay or a textbook. No, creative nonfiction employs writing tools and devices from fiction to make a real event or topic interesting, more vivid, or more relatable. It's the "creative" part that keeps it from being dry and insufferable.

So, what does that mean for readers? Well, for one, a creative nonfiction piece should hold the reader's attention, even if the topic isn't one that the reader would usually stick around and pour attention and time into. (See what I'm doing here? If you're still reading this, it means that I'm succeeding.) A journal, blog, or other record that just tells of "I went here and did this and then I went someplace else" isn't going to be very interesting to another person. It probably won't even be that interesting for the person that wrote it.

Let's use an example, for funsies. "Yesterday, while I was baking, I ran out of flour and had to go get more. It took a long time and by the time I was done at the store, I didn't want to bake anymore." Okay? That's a true story. That actually happened to me, once. But that's not at all interesting to read; it's nonfiction, but it's not creative nonfiction. But this:

So, I was baking chocolate chip cookies yesterday when I realized I was running dangerously low on flour. I begrudgingly got my stuff together and went out to the store. It was kind of a pain: it was uncommonly cold for an August day, and all I really wanted to do was sit in my sweatpants and bake some delicious cookies. As if just needing flour wasn't bad enough, everything was going to play against me: my car refused to start at first, and when it finally did it wouldn't go over twenty miles an hour. Plus, I'd forgotten about the huge sale that the store was having - everything, literally, was on sale. you couldn't get near the place. Add to that the pain it was trying to wrestle the last bag of flour from this little old lady (I swear to God she knew kung-fu,) and getting through the line, and you can imagine why I didn't want to do any baking by the time I got back home. I was too pissed off.
See, that was more fun to read. And, honestly, it was more fin to write. Why? Because of the embellishing that went onto it to make it feel alive. That's the creative part coming into play. The parts where you got to go into my day - what kind of day it was, when, and what I was doing - are all literary tools used to make you feel somehow connected with me. Everyone's run out of flour when they were baking. It's a relatable experience. You've probably had to ninja your way in front of other people to get the last of an item on the shelf, especially with though couponing bastards on the loose. You've probably had to stand in a line five people deep, all with something like fifty bags of Cheetos and bottles of Pepsi so that you could check out with your one item. Creative nonfiction writing takes experiences like that and spins them so that anyone can enjoy them, even that agoraphobic guy who had Peapod deliver his groceries.

It even works with intangible things. Remember my essay on love from the beginning of the month? That incorporated literary tools as well. That's what made it fun to read. The opinions of my friends, my own thoughts, the incorporation of humor... those all worked in my favor to create an essay that showed you something that you probably completely overlooked: my own struggle to find a concept of love that I was comfortable with in society, even though it might deviate from the norm. Guaranteed that no one - save maybe my professor, maybe - looked beneath the surface to see what it was that I did there. It would have been easy to write a piece about how I thought I was incapable of love because emotion never showed up in my definition, but it never came up; it's just not part of my definition of love. But see, that's the beauty of it: that was creative nonfiction. And I'll bet if you read it, you enjoyed it (at least, I hope you would have.) That's because of the clever use of literary tools to tell you about something I did, or learned, or felt. Creative nonfiction writers use those literary devices to drive home a point - a lesson, a moral, an emotion - and get the reader to engage and stay engaged in where they're going with their piece.

A textbook doesn't need to do that. A textbook doesn't care if you like it or not. But well written creative nonfiction can keeps a reader engaged, even if the topic is something like what creative nonfiction is.

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