As a writer you are most likely familiar with the adage, “Write what you know.” We know our own life and our own experiences, so creative nonfiction (CNF) would seem a natural place for a writer to start. But how many writers know about the genre of creative nonfiction, not just their own stories? As an editor for COALESCE Community Literary Magazine, I’ve come across pieces that can focus too heavily on the “nonfiction” and less on the “creative” aspect. As Lee Gutkind, writes about the genre of creative nonfiction in his book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, “The word ‘creative’ refers to the use of literary craft…The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. But the stories are true.”
CNF goes beyond journalism and writing down facts. We, as writers, have an obligation to write the truth. Our readers expect this because of the nonfiction side of things. How we choose to share our stories is up to us and our creativity. As Joyce Carol Oates says in her masterclass on writing short fiction, “There’s only one rule of show business or writing. And that’s don’t be boring.”
So how can we get our stories to sound less like journal entries and more like compelling pieces of fiction while maintaining the truth of our story? Or in other words, how can we add the “creative” part into our creative nonfiction pieces.
Below are a few ideas we can borrow from fiction to think about incorporating into creative nonfiction stories.
5 Ways to Improve your CNF Writing
- Tell a story out of sequence: Telling your story in a linear direction might offer clarity to a story but saving some pieces of the story for later can make the story more engaging. You could mention something that’s to come to offer intrigue without confusion, or if your story sounds more like a journal entry than a CNF piece, restructuring the events could help. Even telling the story backward can add a surprising or unexpected element that engages the reader.
- Pair two stories: A favorite approach of mine is to take two separate stories that, on the surface, don’t relate to each other, but then through an exploration of theme the reader comes to realize these two stories needed each other. You could take a story from the past and one from more recent memory and find the common thread between them, a link that binds them so that through each other they reveal something more to the reader.
- Changing the tone of the piece: Is the tone of your story earnest when it should be sarcastic? Is it dry and pessimistic when it should be humorous and optimistic? Is arrogant or inspirational? It’s important to consider how your reader is receiving the message of your piece and how the tone of it communicates this. Just by altering the tone, you can change the whole feel of the piece.
- Change of person: Primarily stories are told in 1st and 3rd person (I’ve seen some successful stories told in 2nd, but this is difficult to do). Some writers may find it easier to distance themselves from the story they are telling by sharing it in 3rd person. Others may find it very natural to write in 1st, especially if you are relating a story of something that happened to you. At COALESCE, we want to hear your story. It’s the underpinning of our Literary Magazine so most, if not all of, the stories we read are in first person. But in your other CNF pieces, a change in point of view might freshen your work. It might liberate you to add another layer of vulnerability or take the story in an unexpected direction.
- Incorporate literary techniques: In a nonfiction piece, you can’t break the cardinal rule of telling the truth. But you can incorporate literary devices that will add interest and engage your reader. Playing with extended metaphors, imagery, symbolism, irony, personification, juxtaposition, and foreshadowing are just a few examples of devices you can add to a story that won’t alter the truth but will alter the strength and creativity of a piece.
I also wanted to share some suggestions for books you can read to further help with your creative nonfiction writing.
Suggested CNF Readings
Lee Gutkind’s You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: Not only does he explain the history of creative nonfiction, but the second part of the book leads you through examples of work and offers prompts to help you start generating ideas for your own CNF stories.
Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones: She has suggestions ranging from how to start a consistent writing practice to finding new ways of saying tired phrases.
Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present: This last book is a collection of creative nonfiction. If you want to write a great story, then you should also be reading great stories. Anthologies are a great place to start since you’ll have access to many different voices and styles. There is no one right way to write a creative nonfiction piece. It’s about telling your story in a way that honors it and makes people want to read it.
I hope these suggestions help with your creative nonfiction writing and I’m looking forward to reading everyone’s submission. The deadline for our Fall issue is September 1st and we publish on September 22, 2022.
Written by: Kate Sowinski, Editor and Artistic Director for COALESCE Community
August 23, 2022