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By Dave Hood
Much of creative nonfiction is serious. Writers craft essays about depressing or controversial topics, illness, disease, war, famine, gun control, murder, child abuse, rape, and more. And yet,
many creative nonfiction writers use the techniques of humour to write interesting personal essays and entertaining memoirs. Jeanette Walls, author of the memoir, “The Glass Castle,” shares humorous anecdotes about her life growing up, even though the story is disheartening. David Sedaris, author of many bestselling books, writes self-depreciating humour in the form of anecdote about his personal life and family. Mary Karr’s, “Lit: A Memoir,” includes several humorous parts. For instance, she writes, “I’d spent way more years worrying about how to look like a poet — buying black clothes, smearing on scarlet lipstick, languidly draping myself over thrift-store furniture — than I had learning how to assemble words in some discernible order.” (Page 97/Lit)
Most magazines and newspapers and popular Internet sites of creative nonfiction include humour columns, or articles, or essays. For instance, regularly, The New Yorker magazine publishes essays that have a humorous tone. In The New Yorker’s anthology of “Humour, Disquiet Please, ” writer Ian Frazier uses exaggeration in his essay “Thin Enough.” He writes: “After four or five glasses of wine, I am able to overcome my usual food-finickiness and eat half a crock-pot of whatever my wife has made for dinner, and then a couple of baskets of leftover Easter candy. (Page 234).” People enjoy reading a good story, when the writer combines humour and an appealing writing style.
In this chapter, I’ll discuss how to use humour in creative nonfiction. The following will be covered:
• Power of humour
• Humour versus comedy
• Techniques of humour
• Suggestions for using humor
The Power of Humour
In his bestselling book, “On Writing Well,” author William Zinsser, writes that “humour is the secret weapon of the nonfiction writer.” It is often the best tool and only tool for making an important point. (Page 206) Usually, the writer uses humor in nonfiction to make a serious point and also to generate a laugh or amusement. The writer must find the right humour technique or techniques to disguise his/her serious point. Read the books by David Sedaris, a humorist writer, who uses exaggeration to make a serious point. Writers also use many other types of humour techniques, satire, irony, satire, exaggeration, joke, truth, and more.
And yet, the writer doesn’t always write humour to make a serious point. Sometimes the writer only desires to share a funny story with readers, with the intention of generating a comic effect. Sometimes writers use nonsense to make readers laugh. Frequently, all that is required of the writer is to exaggerate the truth. Sometimes the truth is funny, especially when the writer uses absurd facts or ludicrous quotations by people. The humorist writer must be an active observer, noticing amusing incidents, events, fleeting moments, funny conversations and people, making mental notes of sensory details that are amusing or funny.
Zinsser, in the text “On Writing Well,” provides some useful advice to writers who aspire to write humorous prose. First, the writer should never strain for laughs. Instead, the writer should focus on surprising the reader. Secondly, the writer should write about the truth, real people, places, events, experiences, not make things up. Thirdly, before writing humour, the writer must learn to write well, using familiar rather than unfamiliar words, proper grammar, sentence variety, a humorous tone, different paragraph types. (To help you write better, read and master “The Elements of Style” by Strunk and White, and “On Writing Well” by William Zinsser, and “Sin and Syntax” by Constance Hale)
Writers should use the techniques of humour subtly, and not overuse humour, especially when it is directed at real people. Otherwise readers will see the humour as an attack. Writers must also be aware that humour is subjective. Not all readers will laugh at the same things. And so, the writer should focus on first writing the story, including the facts, and then adding humour. Humour should be secondary to a good story that is well written.
Humorists are the rogues and mavericks of creative nonfiction. They often write what some people don’t want to hear. They often write what the collective consciousness is thinking but afraid to discuss publically. Yet people want to read the stories of humorists. Good humour writing makes readers laugh.
Humour Versus Comedy Writing
What are the similarities and differences between humour and comedy writing? The terms “humour and “comedy” are often used interchangeably. Both terms have elements in common. Both are also different.
Humour writing and comedy writing are often based on truth. Both frequently use the same humour devices, such as irony, satire, exaggeration. Both use the anecdote and storytelling. Both use the joke, which requires a setup and punch-line. Both use wordplay and the one-liner. Both tend to write about subject matter that is funny. Both writers write about serious topics, with the intention of making them funny. The intention of both is to create a comic effect.
Despite the similarities, comedy writing and humour writing are different in certain respects.
Usually, the humorist writes an essay or article or filler that is amusing or funny. The humorist’s material is intended to be read. Most humour writing is done for print publications, such as newspapers, magazines, or books. On the other hand, most comedy writing is done for TV sitcoms, comedy films, comedy sketches, and stand-up comedy. The comedy writer writes material to get laughs, usually in front of a viewing audience. Comedy writers are best known for writing material for situation comedies, comedy films, stand-up comics, and sketch comedy. Most comedy writing is intended to entertain by provoking laughter, while most humour writing is more subtle and cerebral, intending to amuse, inform, educate, and persuade the audience to change its opinion. The humorist won’t use profanity or shock humour, which is popular in comedy, especially by the stand-up comic.
Unlike the comedy writer, humour writing can take the form of “filler.” This filler can be a joke, quote, or short anecdote that is used to fill space at the end of a column or page. There is no formula for filler.
Techniques of Humour
Writers use humour to make a serious point and to evoke amusement or laughter in the reader. Unfortunately, humour is subjective. One person will laugh at the writer’s humour, while another person won’t find the joke or parody or exaggeration funny. To make their point and generate a comic effect, writers use several techniques of humour, including:
- Satire. The writer mocks another person’s mistakes, foibles, follies, mishaps, flaws.
- Incongruity. The writer juxtaposes two different things not normally associated with each other. The incongruity of speech, character, behavior, or situation can result in a comic effect. For instance, the exterior of a mansion might be awe-inspiring, but the interior is like a home owned by a hoarder. A man might be dressed like a model in GQ magazine, but talk as if he’s uneducated.
- Irony. A figure of speech. There are several types, including verbal irony and situational irony. Verbal irony is writing that means something other than its literal meaning, with the intention of creating a comic effect. Sometimes, irony can be misconstrued as sarcasm by the reader. Irony is not sarcasm. Sarcasm means what is intended, while irony is a trope in which the intended meaning of words is different than the literal meaning. Situational irony occurs when the expected outcome is different than the actual outcome. Many true stories involve situational irony. For instance, the groom goes to the church, expecting to get married, but the bride-to-be runs from the church at the last moment.
- Exaggeration. Writers can use overstatement, embellishing what they hear and see and experience, to generate laughs. When using exaggeration, writers focus on exaggerating the attributes of a person, place, thing, event, experience, and so forth.
- Understatement. The writer makes a situation seem less important as it really is.
- Self-deprecation. Writers mock their own mistakes, foibles, follies, mishaps, flaws.
- Anecdote. A short and amusing story about a person or incident.
- Nonsense. Sometimes writers use the technique of nonsense to write a humorous piece. This technique defies logic. It is an unrealistic representation, intended to amuse or stir a laugh.
- Truth. Sometimes absurd facts and ludicrous quotations by people can be humorous.
- Parody. Occasionally, the writer imitates the artistic work of another writer or artist, mocking artistic style, the author, or topic, intending to generate a comic effect, such as amusement or laughter.
- Joke. Sometimes writers incorporate jokes into their writing. The joke includes a set-up and punch-line. The set-up provides the premise and background. The punch-line is the line that generates a laugh or amusement. When telling a joke within a personal narrative, the writer must use the element of surprise. The writer should not notify the reader that a joke is coming. Example: “Here’s a joke..” This type of humour technique should be incorporated into the essay or memoir.
To study and learn from the humorist writers, read “Disquiet Please,” an anthology of personal essays by some of the best writers of humour, published by The New Yorker magazine.
A Few Suggestions
If you’d like to write humor, follow these suggestions:
- Don’t be mean-spirited or sarcastic. Instead evoke amusement or laughter with subtle humour, such as exaggeration.
- Observe the world in which you live, searching for humour events, incidents, people. Read the newspaper and watch television to unearth humour. Look at your own life for a humorous story. If an experience seems funny to you, write about it. Write about what makes you laugh, and so become an observer. This means you must be aware of the world around you, paying attention to the sensory details of each day. Make not of what you find humorous. Jot down a few notes in your journal.
- Use the techniques of humour to write a humorous personal essay, including exaggeration, satire, juxtaposition, irony, anecdote, and so forth. However, humour should be secondary to narrating a good personal essay.
- Write about humorous people who have passed in and out your life. Ask yourself: What makes them funny? Write the story or anecdote.
- Read the columns or books of humor writers, including David Sedaris. He often uses anecdotes to tell amusing stories about himself and family. By reading and analyzing humour writing, you will learn how to write it.
- Always focus on collecting the facts, and then writing the humorous essay.
- Use humorous figures of speech to amuse, such as similes and metaphors.
- Mine your memory for humorous stories. What are some of most amusing moments in your life? Why are they remembered? What is the significance? What is funny or amusing?
- Never make racial or religious slurs.
- Sometimes truth can be funny. Consider incorporating ludicrous facts and absurd quotations by people you didn’t expect would say such things.
To write humour, you must learn the techniques of humor, such as exaggeration, satire, incongruity. Start by reading humorous writing by Mark Twain, Stephan Leacock, David Sedaris, and The New Yorker. Read their essays once for enjoyment, and then reread them to learn how these writers crafted their humorous essay. Focus on structure, writing style, techniques, and tone. Practise using the techniques of humor by writing in your journal, and by using the techniques of humor to write your own personal essays. Instead of forcing humour into the story, become an active observer, and notice humour unfolding each day, then write a story, based factual truth.
For more information on using humour in creative nonfiction, read the following:
• Writing Creative Nonfiction, Edited by Carolyn Forche and Philip Gerald
• Naked by David Sedaris
• When Engulfed in Flames by David Sedaris
• Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim by David Sedaris
• Disquiet Please: More Humour Writing from The New Yorker, edited by David Remnick and Henry Finder
• Comedy Writing by Mel Helitzer and Mark Shatz
• On Writing Well by William Zinsser
Conducting research is the part of the “nonfiction” aspect of writing creative nonfiction. It is one of the Five R’s of creative nonfiction, one of the essential components of writing personal essays, memoirs, and literary journalism. The amount of required research for a writing project depends on the form of creative nonfiction. Research involves collecting facts to increase understanding of a person, place, event, idea, experience, thing.
In this article, I’ll explain the purpose of research, identify the methods of research, and how to research your own life.
Purpose of Research
You carry out research to increase your understanding of a person, topic, idea. You also do research to see what else has been written on the topic that you are going to write about. You don’t want to duplicate what is already written. You can also do research to become a subject matter expert.
Research also allows you to verify facts. You want to be sure that what you written is true and accurate.
And research has another purpose: To stimulate our memories. Often when we investigate an experience or event, memories associated with the event rise into our minds from depths of unconsciousness.
If you intend to write a memoir, you’ll be required to complete extensive research into your own life — to recall significant details of people, places, events from your own past.
Facts from research can also be used by the writer to create metaphors or similes. Brenda Miller suggests this in her book, “Tell It Slant.”
Some forms of creative nonfiction require more research than other forms. For example, a personal essay about a canoe trip to a lake that resulted in an epiphany requires less research than a memoir. The canoe trip might only require you to consult your writing journal and to speak with the friend who accompanied you on the canoe trip, whereas a memoir will involve interviewing friends and family, visiting the library and public records offices, revisiting the places you frequented during the period of the memoir, and obtaining details about the popular culture of the time by conducting research with a Google search.
There are two drawbacks to doing research. First, the tsunami of facts that you collect can overwhelm, preventing you from writing. Secondly, research can result in procrastination. In other words, the task of researching a project often prevent you from writing the narrative.
Methods of Research
Immersion. You acquire an understanding by “living the experience.” Suppose you intend to write a story about baseball, but you’d never played this game before. You could increase your understanding by playing a few games of baseball. You would then use what you learned from the experience to write your piece of creative nonfiction.
Interviewing. A popular approach is to interview a subject matter expert, or talk to people who participated in the event or experience, or interview those who were a witnesses to the event, or interview those who knew the person you are writing about. An interview always requires a list of question to ask. These questions should be open-ended, requiring the person being interviewed to respond with more than a “yes” or “no.”
The Reference Library. The reference library contains a sea of information, including:
- Publications on microfilm, such as old newspapers
- Online catalogues to help you find facts
Be sure to ask the librarian for assistance.
The Internet. Begin by conducting a Google search, the most popular search engine. There is also Google Scholar, which you can use for scholarly searches. Then read and collect useful facts at reputable websites. For instance, suppose you want to learn more about modern and contemporary art, you could visit “The Art Story website at www.artstory.org. To help you find information, you can use the Search tool on the website. Not only can you read content on websites, but you can read blog postings. Many subject matter experts have their own blogs in which they post articles, commentaries, and so forth. And YouTube offers you information via video and photographs.
Public Records. Sometimes you’ll be require to verify facts. The public records is the place to fact check marriage licences, dates of birth, and death certificates.
Researching Your Own Life
Writing a personal essay often requires that you research your own life before writing. This is mandatory when writing a memoir. Research allows you to check the accuracy memories. Research enables you to recall details of the popular culture, as well as the social and economic and historical conditions of the life you lived in the past.
Research also enables you to mine your own memory, enabling you to recall people, places, events, experiences that have long been forgotten. Why? Researching a timeline or time period stimulates your memory. You can start with a timeline. For instance, do a Google search to find out what happened in 1980. The Google search results of the events of that year will enable you to recall memories of things that happened to you during that year
Besides using a timeline, there are many other ways to research your own life, including:
- Challenges, setbacks, obstacles. For instance, what is the biggest challenge you have faced in life? What is the saddest moment in your life?
- Moves, leaving home, first home, place where you lived after the divorce.
- Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, marriages, deaths
- First experience, such as your first kiss, first new car, first speech, first job
- Achievements. What are your accomplishments?
- Legacy. What do you want to be remembered for?
- Revisit places of your childhood, adolescence, or adulthood
- Look over old photographs, read old diaries and journals and letters, leaf through old scrapbooks.
Author, Lois Daniel, has written a must-read text for anyone who desires to write personal narrative essays or a memoir. Her book is called, “How to Write Your Life Story.” She explains, provides tips, and suggestions on how you can tap into memory, and rediscover your favorite toys as a child, write about inventions that have significantly impacted you, accomplishments you are most proud of, happy and sad family events, favorite pets, friends and family who have passed through your life, and much more.
What sort of research will be required? The type of narrative determines what information/facts the writer provides the reader. (You Can’t Make this Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind)The key points to remember: creative nonfiction writers do research to increase their understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. And yet, too much research, a mountain of facts, can blow out the flame of creativity. And so, a writer ought to do only as much research as required to understand the topic, person, idea, he/she is write about.
Resources. For more information on how to increase your understanding by research, read the following:
- You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind.
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
- Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second Edition, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
- How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the nonprofessional Writer by Lois Daniel
Writing creative nonfiction is about telling true stories. You can tell a story about yourself, crafting essays about personal experiences. You can also write about other people, places, and events in the world.
There are three categories of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, memoir, and creative nonfiction. Within these categories, there are several subgenres. For instance, if you want to write a personal essay, you can choose from personal narrative, opinion essay, meditation, or lyrical essay.
Creative nonfiction requires that you write true and factual narratives, not fiction. You’ll want to present the truth and facts in a compelling, entertaining, and memorable way so that others will be inspired to read your story. To write any of these forms of creative nonfiction, you have many techniques to choose from, such as scene, summary, personal reflection.
In this article, I’ll identify the toolbox of techniques that writers are expected to use when writing creative nonfiction.
Topic and Question. Author Eileen Pollack, in “Creative Nonfiction”, suggests that before writing, you ought to select a topic and then pose a question. She suggests that a question creates a focus and purpose for writing. For instance, suppose you recall a memory, ask yourself: What is so important about this memory? What did I learn from the personal experience? Why is it significant? Is there a universal truth? Or, suppose you wanted to write a meditative essay on “freedom.” You could start by posing a question to yourself: What is freedom to me?
Narrative Structure or Shape of a Story. There’s no single structure, nor is there a formula for writing creative nonfiction. Often your narrative takes shape as you write. Connie Griffin, in “To Tell the Truth”, writes that narrative structure is not imposed from the outside, but discovered from within the narrative, meaning that you discover the details of the story and its structure as you write. In creative nonfiction, there are five popular narrative structures or shapes:
- Narrative structure: Telling the story chronologically, from beginning to end.
- Braided Structure: Telling a story by weaving or combining two, sometimes three, narratives or stories.
- Collage: Using a thematic and segmented approach that combines a quotation or two, poem, scene, metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, image, vignette, anecdote, a short, short, true story, with an epiphany.
- Frame: Telling a story by opening with a particular scene or reflecting and closing with a particular scene or reflection.
- Narrative with Flashback: Telling a story using scene, summary, reflection, and flashbacks.
As well, the you can experiment with the narrative structure, resulting in a new structure or shape.
Distinctive Voice, Style, and Intimate Point of View. All good writers have a distinctive voice, which is the persona of the writer expressed on the age.
Dinty Moore, in “Truth of the Matter”, writes: “An author’s voice consists of many things, including word choice, sentence structure and rhythm, metaphor and imagery…perhaps humour or irony, and always the personality of the writer. Good writers also have a unique style. A writer’s style is his/her expression of persona on the page. It includes choice of diction, sentence variety, and tone, point of view, use of metaphor, and other literary devices. The tone of the writing itself is always friendly, conversational. Stories are often told using the first-person point of view.
Detail and Description. Creative writing is often a form of discovery. As you write, you recall the details, the memories, the images, the felt emotion, the deeper meaning. You’ll recall from memory significant, particular details and then writes them down. You’ll craft vivid descriptions with concrete, specific, and particular details. You don’t have to include every detail, only those that are significant or important. Often you’ll use sensory imagery, language that invokes the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, or hearing. The purpose of including detail is to recreate the experience in the mind of the reader.
Scene and Summary. One of the most important techniques of creative nonfiction is writing in scenes. A scene recreates the experience of the writer for the reader. A scene evokes. To write a scene, you must show the reader what is happening. A scene often includes:
- Setting-time and place of the story
- Action-something happens.
- Dialogue-someone something not always
- Vivid description-concrete and specific details.
- Imagery-language that invokes the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing
- Point of View-first, second, third person.
- Figurative language, such as simile and metaphor.
- Beginning, middle, and ending-A scene has a beginning, middle, and end
Summary involves telling the reader what happened. Telling means to summarize and to compress, leaving out the details and descriptions. Telling is explaining.
You should create scenes of important events, such as for a setback and the turning point.
Scene and summary are used for all types of creative nonfiction.
Techniques of Fiction. You’ll also rely on the techniques of fiction to tell a true story, including:
- Setting-time and place and context, which provides the backdrop to the true story
- Narrative Arc ( inciting incident, conflict and setback, climax, epiphany, resolution)
- Point of View- first person “I”, Second Person “You”, third person “He/She”
- Character development- Developing character through action, dialogue, description
- Vivid Description-descriptions that are concrete and specific
- Use of imagery-literal imagery through description; figurative imagery with simile or metaphor
- Theme-the meaning of the story
The narrative arc is used to write a personal narrative essay, sometimes a memoir. The opinion essay, meditative essay, and collage essay don’t require a narrative. These sorts of essays tend to be structured around a theme.
Poetic Devices-Figurative Language. You’ll often use one or more of the following poetic devices to write creative nonfiction:
- Assonance and alliteration
Experienced Writers often use any of the above to write creative nonfiction. Simile and metaphor are the tools of choice.
Personal Reflection. In most types of creative nonfiction, you’ll share personal reflection with the reader. These can include:
- Personal thoughts and feelings
- Personal perspective
- stream of consciousness
Personal refection is required to write a memoir. It is also used to write a personal narrative, opinion, meditative, and lyrical essay. Personal reflection can also be incorporated into literary journalism.
Word Choice/Diction. Check to see that you use language in a fresh and original way,making note of connotation, the implied meaning of the word. As well, selecting words with the best meaning. Meaning refers to diction. Avoid using clichés and jargon.
Sentence Variety (Length and structure). Use short and long, and a variety of syntax to create a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalism. Sentence variety includes:
- Intentional Fragment. e.g. A pen. Pad of paper. Time, lots of time. Experimentation. A creative mind. These are the requirements of creative writing.
- Simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences.
- Parallel structure in sentences. E.g. I require a pen, pad of paper, spare time, experimentation, and a creative mind, to write creatively, to write poetry, to write fiction, to write a personal essay, to write anything.
- Declarative (statement of fact), Interrogative (ask a question), exclamatory (emphatic) sentences
- Inverted sentence. E.g. The book of poetry he wrote…The film, the script, the special effects, the story, I enjoyed.
- Lose sentence and periodic sentences. When writing a periodic sentence, the main idea and clause are at the end of the sentence. For a lose sentence, the main idea and independent clause are at the beginning of the sentence.
Lyrical Language. Sometimes a writer will use a lyrical style to express emotion and evoke emotion in the reader. This is often the case when writing a lyrical essay. The writing style is based on the following:
- Repetition of words, phrases, clauses
- Parallel Structure
- Rhyme, both rhyme and internal rhyme
- Alliteration and Assonance
- Sensory Imagery
For additional information on any of these techniques, read the following:
- Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
- Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
- Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
By Dave Hood
What are the ethics of creative nonfiction? The intent of the writer must be to write honestly and truthfully. The writer must not change facts, distort facts, fabricate facts, tell lies, or mislead the reader. Changing a story by adding significant, false details or events that never happened is writing fiction, not creative nonfiction. And if readers discovers that they have been deceived, the writer will lose credibility and a reading audience. And so, when writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalistic essay, the writer must strive to tell the truth the best he/she can. As well, the writer must not fabricate events or experiences.
In this article, I’ll discuss the ethics of writing creative nonfiction. The following will be covered:
- Facts and Emotional Truth
- Memory and Imagination
- What gets included and omitted
- Dealing with Exaggeration
- Compressing Time
- Composite Characters
- Cues and Disclaimers
Facts and Emotional Truth
When writing a personal narrative essay or memoir, you are required to mine your memory for details of a past event or experience. Yet, much of the detail is lost, forgotten with the passage of time. Other details are filed in your unconscious mind. Insignificant details cannot be recalled. Conversations between people cannot be remembered verbatim. How can you fill in the details of things that have been forgotten?
Most writers believe that when writing creative nonfiction, the writer has an ethical responsibility to “tell the truth” the best he/she can. This implies that significant events must have happened. The writer cannot fabricate events. For instance, the write cannot write that he/she visited some place and experienced some setback, obstacle, or adversity—-when it never happened. This is fabricating a story. It is writing fiction–not creative nonfiction, which is based on fact and truth.
Telling the truth also means fact checking. For instance, if someone is alive who can enlighten you about some experience, you are required to listen to their point of view. That is why conducting interviews is a often a required form of research for some creative nonfiction, such as literary journalism and writing a memoir.
Some writers believe that if minor details of things or events cannot remembered, such as the colour of the shirt, the name of a street, the food eaten, cannot be remembered, then they cannot be included. In other words, ” probable details”, such as what you probably ate, or wore, or thought the street name was, must be omitted. These writers believe that “no” detail can be added unless you are absolutely sure. In other words, there is no room for fabrication, even by adding insignificant details.
Other writers believe that it is acceptable to write about “emotional truth” in a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalism. What is emotional truth? It refers to the writer’s “felt experience” in dealing with a person, place, thing, adversity, setback, and so forth. Emotional truth answers the question: How did you feel? For instance, suppose you lost your job, and it felt like the world was coming to an end. Then emotional truth dictates that you can write about how the experience felt to you. You would include the facts of the experience and also the emotional truth of the experience. For instance, the writer of creative nonfiction might respond to a job loss by writing: “Losing my job was like a death. I mourned the loss for years…”
Memory and Imagination
Our memories are faulty. We cannot recall every single detail of an event or experience that happened, far back in our past.
As well, the truth is often a matter of perspective. What I believe is true, and you believe is true might not be the same. Often our imagination plays a role in filling in the forgotten details of memory.
And so, the writer relies on his imagination to invent details of an experience or event that actually happened. Otherwise, the writer would be unable to write the narrative. Many writers believe that it is acceptable to drill into the imagination, withdrawing insignificant details of an event, providing that important aspects of the event are not changed, or that lies are not told. Many writers of creative nonfiction also believe that they be allowed to interpret the facts of the experience as they see them, so long as the intention is to tell the truth—-not lie, not deceive, not distort, and not fabricate significant details or events.
What Can be Included and Omitted
A writer of creative nonfiction will often include certain facts and omit others. If you are writing an opinion essay, there is nothing wrong with including only facts that support your argument, ignoring the opposing argument. Often the lack of time and space prevent you from exploring both sides of the argument.
But readers expect you to paint an accurate portrait of a person or an event with words. They expect that the writer will accurately describe events that have happened, and not add details that never happened. They expect the writer’s “best evidence.”
What can be omitted? Essentially, if the fact or detail is not relevant to a story, it can be left out or omitted. But to omit important facts or details is to distort and mislead the reader. And so, all important facts should be included, and then interpreted by the writer in the memoir or essay.
The writer can respond by writing about the “emotional truth” of an event. Often two people have different feelings about the same person, event, experience. And so, the writer is not making up details or fabricating a story when writing about the emotional truth.
Some writers believe that if something cannot be verified by fact-checking, then it must be omitted from the creative writing. Other writers rely on emotional truth to help them make the decision about what to include and omit. For instance, Joan Didion, a well-known writer, believes that the writer can construct reality based on their own “sense of truth.”
As well, the degree of truthfulness depends on the type of creative writing. If you are writing a literary journal essay that will appear in The New Yorker , or writing a memoir that will include people who are still alive, or writing a profile about a famous person, you’d better get your facts correct. Otherwise, you’ll face retribution. On the other hand, if you are writing a personal narrative essay about a memory that happened 50 years ago, the need for absolute truth and fact-checking is not as important. What matters is the writer’s “sense of truth.” This means: What did the writer recall? What did the writer remember about the experience? What did the writer remember about the person?
Dealing with Exaggeration
Some writers exaggerate the truth to get laughs. For instance, in 2008, when humour writer David Sedaris, released a book of stories called, “When you are Engulfed in Flames”, some well known people accused him of exaggerating the truth. And yet many believe that “exaggeration” and embellishment are acceptable when attempting to share a larger truth. In the response to criticism of Sedaris, Columnist Jon Carroll wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle:”A humorist has lots of latitude because funny things don’t usually write funny.”
Other writers believe that exaggeration is an acceptable technique providing the reader knows that the writer is exaggerating the facts of the story. If the writer is going to use one of the devices of humour, such as satire or exaggeration, he/she must indicate this to the reader by ” cueing the reader” or by writing a ” disclaimer.”
The intent of the writer must not be to use exaggeration to mislead or deceive. Sometimes the writer applies the label “humorist” to his work. This identification tells readers that the writer might embellish the truth to get laughs.
Compressing time is a fictional technique that writer’s deploy to craft short fiction and novels. They use this technique to dramatize the story. They also use this technique to change the pace of the story–to speed by writing vivid details and particular descriptions and to slow down by compressing time by summarizing, “tell the reader what happened.” Vivid details and description are omitted. The writer does not show what happened; the writer “tells” what happened. Time is compressed by combining events that happened over a few days, weeks, months, and so forth, into a shorter span of time.
This technique of compressing time is also used by creative nonfiction writers to craft short personal narrative essays and to write a memoir. For instance, several days might be compressed into a single day or a few hours, even less. Pearl and Schwartz, in the text, “Writing True”, suggest that compressing time is acceptable, providing that the writer’s intent “was true–to capture the truth.”
Real time unfolds one day to the next. Often insignificant events occur during this span of time. To include these details would result in a dull, but true story. And so, many writers use fictional time to tell their true stories. Fictional time or dramatic time omits the unessential details, in order to dramatize the event or experience, and to write an entertaining, story that happens to be true. For instance, memoirist, Azar Nafisi, in Reading Lolita in Tehran, compresses time to tell the true story of a group of seven university students who are invited to meet at per apartment each week to discuss literature. The group meets for two years to discuss books. Instead of writing the details about ever meeting, from start to finish, she compresses time, and writes about the significant conflicts, interactions, experiences that took place. Compressing time allows her to explore the larger themes of oppression and identity and defiance against the established religious culture in Tehran.
And so, compressing time is acceptable for most writers. It allows the writer to speed up the pace, remove insignificant details that can bore and distract, and helps to dramatize the story.
Creating a Composite Character
A composite character is created by combining the personality traits, behaviours, habits, and experiences of two or more people into a single person, who becomes the composite character. Sometimes names are changed in creative nonfiction to protect the privacy of someone who is alive. Other times, traits and behaviours and experience of two or more people are combined to protect the identity of a person. Essentially, a composite allows the writer to share personal information that could be embarrassing or damaging to the integrity or reputation of a person still alive. Most writers believe that using a composite character is acceptable, providing the writer tells the reader, by including a disclaimer in the preface, or as an acknowledgement, or as a footnote in the memoir. Including a disclaimer tells the reader that the writer is not attempting to deceive or lie to the reader, and so the credibility of the writer is maintained.
Cues and Disclaimers
Often the writer can use a ” tagline” or “cue” readers when unsure of the facts or details. Here are a few ways:
“As I recall…”
“Perhaps this if the way it happened…”
“I don’t recall exactly….”
“This is what it was like…”
As well, the writer can add a disclaimer to the preface, introduction, or prologue of a memoir. The disclaimer notifies that reader that the writer is not 100% certain of the details, or that a composite character was created, or that the memoir is part nonfiction and part fiction.
For instance, In his memoir, “The Heart Breaking Work of a staggering Genius”, Dave Eggers, tells readers that part of his memoir is fiction by using humour in the “Preface to this Edition”: “For all the author’s bluster elsewhere, this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes.” He then proceeds to tell readers, in ten pages, what in the memoir is fictional.
To summarize, the intent of the writer of creative nonfiction must be to tell the truth the best he/she can, and to also write in a way that is entertaining. As well, the writer can compress time to speed up pace and dramatize parts of the story, create a composite character to protect the identity of someone, use imagination to fill in trivial details, omit information that is not critical, use exaggeration to get laughs, and write about “emotional truth.” The ethics of creative nonfiction require that the writer tell stories about events that are true, and not fabricated, whether the writer is writing about “self” or the outside world. And when there is any doubt that readers might be mislead or unsure of what is true, the writer must “cue the reader or write a “disclaimer.”
Your most important guidelines for writing creative nonfiction are to write honestly, even if it means “sharing emotional truth.” In other wordsl, telling your readers how it felt to you. As well, your intent must always be to “tell the factual truth” the best you can. Fabrication of significant events is fiction, not creative nonfiction. If you desire to fabricate the details of a story, you should write short fiction or a novel.
To learn more about the ethics of creative nonfiction, you can read:
- Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
- Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz
- The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction by Dinty M. Moore
By Dave Hood
How do you find material to write creatively about? You must open the door, peer into the basement, dust off long forgotten memories of childhood, turning points, achievements, and so forth. These memories of experience are the pillars of the personal narrative essay, the memoir, the autobiography, and biography. And when you think about it, memories plays a vital role in all creative writing, whether a poem, short story, creative nonfiction: When the present moment of time passes, it becomes a memory, a word picture.
In this article, I’ll explain how to tap into your memories and how to write about them in creative nonfiction.
What is the Importance of Memory?
“Memory has been called the ultimate mythmaker, continually seeking meaning in the random and often unfathomable events in our lives.” (Tell It Slant)
Memory also constructs the self– who you are. The writer defines his or her sense of self from memories of life-achievements, misfortunes, sad times, charming occasions, and much more. Every life experience becomes a memory, which molds and shapes the sense of self. And the creative writer writes about self through the forms of personal essay, memoir, and autobiography.
Memories become fragmented in our minds, which are often filled with many thoughts, images of word pictures, feelings, sensory experiences. We must make order out of this chaos of memory. Writing is a way to do this.
A significant memory can be dredged up from the bottom of the unconscious mind by countless things, such as music, a found object, photography, toy, quotation, name of a place, or bumping into a long forgotten friend while traveling. For instance, ask yourself the following: What was your favorite toy as a child? Instantly, you will call memories of your childhood? Perhaps you enjoyed playing with a Barbie doll, Hot Wheels, the Cabbage Patch doll. You can use your favorite toys, these objects, as writing prompts, to tap into memories filed away in your mind.
And so, your memories are the foundation of all creative writing.
The Five Senses
We experience memories through our five senses— sight, smell, taste, touch, and hearing. Each of these senses can be used by the writer to evoke memories to write about.
Our sense of smell is automatic. Some smells we enjoy. Others smells are detestable. For instance, the scent of some perfume can be erotic, but the stench of rotting garbage can make a person want to vomit. To write about memories of smell, ask yourself: What smells do you enjoy? Why? Then write about them. What smells do you loath? Write about them.
Our sense of taste is often acquired. Food provides immediate gratification, fills our stomachs when we’re hungry, meets a need for comfort. The taste of food evokes all sorts of memories. To write about taste, ask yourself: What foods do I enjoy: Why? Write about them. Then ask yourself : what tastes awful? Write about it.
The sense of sound is a powerful tool for mining your memory. For instance, hearing a love song on the car radio as you drive to work can conjure up memories of a love that died, or a childhood memory, or a happy occasion. We hear sounds everywhere: Strolling along the street, we hear honking horns, roadside construction, the roar of the public bus. At home, with the window open, we hear the birds singing, the leaves rustling, the rain drumming on the concrete tiles on the porch. To write about sound, ask yourself , what sounds do you enjoy? Why. Write about them.
The sense of touch also evokes memories. We all desire touch. It is a human need. That is why sex is so important to humanity–as it expresses love and the desire to be touched in erotic ways. The sense of touch also allows us to do everything we take for granted, like walking, picking something up, lying down. Without our sense of touch, we would become disoriented in our surroundings. Sometimes touch can cause pain. Other times, it can arouse sensual desires. To write about touch, ask yourself: What are the most painful memories of physical pain, then write about them. Ask yourself, what are your most pleasant memories? Write about them.
The sense of sight is the most powerful of our senses. We see memories in our mind. They are word pictures, which we play over and over. Some are painful, sad, distressing. Others are pleasant. The mind stores these short film clips of memory in the unconscious mind. To write about them, you must get in touch with them. Sometimes an old photograph can stir your memory. Other times, an old show on television can evoke memories. There are countless things that can trigger memories of sight. To write about memory, ask yourself, What is the worst thing you have ever seen? Then write about it. Then ask yourself, what is the most beautiful thing you have seen? Write about it.
What Memories to Write About?
Author Louis Daniel, who has written a wonderful book called “How to Write Your Own Life Story”, explains how to dive into the deep-sea of your memory, find treasures to write about. Here are a few suggestions from her book that you can use as writing prompts to craft a personal essay or a memoir:
- First experiences, like your first love, first car, first sex, first job. Write about first experiences that were memorable.
- Achievement, such as graduation, awards, running a marathon. Write about those things you are proud of.
- Turning points, like the death of a parent, job loss, illness, break up of a marriage. Write about experiences that changed you forever.
- Inventions, like the iPod, computer, Internet, dishwasher, VCR player. Write about technologies had an impact on your life.
- Family traditions, such as birthdays, holidays, vacations, anniversaries. Write about those experiences that had an impact.
Tools for Mining Your Memories?
There are many ways to mine your memory. I will discuss a few.
The easiest way to tap into your memory is to use a writing prompt. There are many. For instance, find an old photograph of someone important in your life, then begin writing about that person, asking yourself, what memories pop into your mind.
Other writing prompts include brief encounters, favorite books and movies and music, diaries, newspaper articles, old toys, a diary, a wedding dress, or any other object that has been part of your life.
Author Judy Reeves has written a splendid book that will enable you to mine your memory. The book is called “A Writer’s Book of Days: A Spirited Companion & Living Muse for the Writing Life. This book provides countless ways to tap into your memory–writing prompts, exercises, ways to find images and inspiration. For instance, she suggests writing about “what makes you laugh?” To write about laughter and humour, ask yourself: What are the funniest moments in your life? Who are the funniest people in your life? Who are those who have no humour? Write about them.
Another way to get in touch with your memories is by freewriting. Here’s how: Opening your notebook and write down the details of significant memories that pass into your mind. Write about anything that passes into your conscious mind. That is why it’s called freewriting. Freewriting will open the door to your unconscious mind, bringing forth memories long forgotten. As you remember these details, other memories will appear in your mind. Freewriting is like knocking over the dominos: After the first domino falls, others fall over.
Another tool is to create a map of your neighborhood–the school, shape of the street, neighbor’s houses, the park. Then fill in the details of your friend’s, your neighbors, the place you played football or soccer or baseball as a kid. As you fill in the map of the neighborhood with details, write about them in detail.
A powerful tool for mining your memory is the time line. Essentially, you take a date, perhaps 1969, and then ask yourself, what important events happened that year? Where were you? What were you doing? How did you feel when you heard or saw the important events of history? For instance, where were you when you heard the news that John Lennon died or that terrorists had crashed a plane into the twin towers?
Tools for Writing About Memory
Your memory provides material for writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal narrative essay or a memoir. When you write about memories, you must share the details of the experience with your reader . You could simply tell your reader what happened. But this is dull. Readers want to be entertained. To write about memories, you want to create order from chaos, and so there must be some significance in the memory, such as a lesson learned, and a universal truth that appeals to or is experienced by all of humanity.
When writing about memory, you put into use the tools of fiction and poetry. Here are a few ways to delight your readers with your memories expressed as personal narratives:
- Show, don’t tell your reader. The best way to show your reader a memory is to make it vivid with details and concrete and specific descriptions.
- When writing about memories use associations, such as the old man smelled like an open can of beer. The best way is to use similes and metaphors to make the abstract concrete.
- Use sensory images–word pictures that describe memories of sight, taste, touch, smell, hearing.
- Write vivid descriptions.
Along with knowing how to write creatively, the ability to mine your memories for significant materials is one of the most important tools you have for constructing memorable prose. And if you are going to write a personal narrative essay or memoir, being able to open the door to the basement of your memory and turning on the light to see what’s stored away is paramount.
In summary, creative nonfiction is based on memory, and so you are required to dust off memories and then write about them in a way that is entertaining. That is why you must apply similes and metaphors and vivid descriptions to your memories. Don’t tell the reader about a memory! Show your reader by using these poetic and fiction techniques, especially by painting your writing with vivid details and concrete and specific descriptions.
Freewriting, using writing prompts, reading ” How to Write Your Life Story”, using a time line—these are useful techniques to find material in your mind to craft creative nonfiction.
To find out more about the tools for mining your memories and writing about these memories, I suggest you read the following:
- How to Write About Your Own Life Story by Louis Daniel
- A Writer’s Book of Days by Judy Reeves
- Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
- Tell It Slant by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
What is narrative structure? In creative nonfiction, the narrative structure is the sequence of events and the way in which the writer tells the story. The narrative structure can also refer to how the ideas are presented to the reader.
The writer has many ways to tell his true story. For instance, the writer can tell the story from beginning to end. He can use flashbacks. Or the writer can contrast two different stories.
This article discusses the various types of narrative structures that a writer can use to write a personal essay, memoir, autobiography, and so forth.
In the Art of Creative Nonfiction, author Lee Gutkind discusses the “frame”, which is a way of ordering and controlling the writer’s narrative so that the story is presented in an orderly and interesting way.
The writer can use any of the following frames:
- Chronological frame. The writer narrates the story from beginning to end, from the inciting incident to its resolution.
- Manipulating time. The writer can tell the story by compressing time, using flashbacks, or by beginning in the middle, and so forth.
- Circular Construction. The story ends where it begins. For instance, the writer can repeat a key phrase from the beginning of the story at the end.
- Parallel narrative. The writer tells two separate narratives that converge into a single narrative. These stories are used to highlight some significance or deeper meaning.
Which type of frame should the writer use? Gutkind suggests that the writer begin the frame by isolating a point in the story where there is a significant event, conflict, or action.
In Writing Life Stories, author Bill Roorbach discusses the three-act structure, which is a popular narrative structure for writing screenplays.
In Act I, the writer introduces the inciting incident, characters, conflict, and problem. In Act II, the writer introduces the challenges, obstacles, and setbacks. In Act III, the writer resolves the story, shows the change, growth, and development of the character, resolves the problem, answers any unanswered questions.
In Truth of the Matter, author Dinty Moore writes about using “collage”, as a way of presenting the ideas or events to the reader. The writer constructs a collage by obtaining information from various different sources or images. For instance, the writing can construct a personal essay from memory, library research, and interview. These various parts are combined to form a whole.
Dinty Moore also discusses the narrative structure called “braiding.”Using this type of narrative structure, the writer tells two or more separate narratives, and then combines them at some point, to make a comparison and point out some significance.
Which narrative structure should the writer use? The writer makes his/her own creative choices about choosing a frame or other type of narrative structure. “There is not an easy way to explain how to find a story that frames a narrative.” writes Lee Gutkind in The Art of Creative Nonfiction. Some stories work well with a story framed chronologically. Others work well using a collage or braided narrative structure. Often the writer discovers the best narrative structure through experimentation and revision.
The following books were used to write this post:
- Writing Life Stories by Bill Roorbach
- The Truth of the Matter by Dinty Moore
- The Art of Creative Nonfiction by Lee Gutkind
Next, I will discuss a few miscellaneous topics on creative nonfiction in general and memoir in particular, including point of focus, subjectivity and objectivity, educating the reader, and point of view.