Creative Nonfiction

Creative Nonfiction

by Ellen L. Buikema

The goal of creative nonfiction is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that readers are as spellbound by fact as they are by fantasy. The writer stays true to the story and tells it well, breathing life into the tale.

Creative-Non-Fiction-ManTake a single fact and add details, turning the “interest volume” up to a high level. Say, for example, one of the characters encounters someone he doesn’t want to see.

Rather than “Ryan saw his mother-in-law on the train platform,” try:

Ryan climbed the cement and steel steps to the train’s platform. Looking up, he saw a familiar face. Cringing and attempting to be invisible, he nonetheless caught the glaring eyes of his mother-in-law.

Or consider using humor to get a point across. For instance, “It took forever to learn to write well” might instead be stated:

I spent more time learning to look like a writer – wearing threadbare clothes, drinking copious cups of coffee, and practicing agent introductions in the mirror – than I did organizing my thoughts onto paper.

Creative nonfiction, frequently written in first person, might be an essay, journal article, research paper, memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be a combination of all of these. Lee Gutkind, the “godfather” of creative nonfiction (Vanity Fair), says “Creative nonfiction is the dominant form in publications like The New Yorker, Esquire, and Vanity Fair. Creative nonfiction stories may be found featured on the front pages of The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.”

We may be living our own creative nonfiction daily as events are reshaped in our minds over time. Everyone’s version of the truth is different – something to keep in mind.

Ways to inspire creativity:

  • Sit and listen to the sounds of nature.
  • Play an older song you love.
  • Make a favorite recipe from childhood.
  • Stand in the spice aisle of a grocery store or supermarket and inhale the aromas.
  • Look at a picture and note what it says to you.
  • People-watch at the beach, a sporting event, or your favorite restaurant.

When writing creative nonfiction, think about ways to put the reader into an intimate setting at the story’s beginning. If the tale is complicated, set the scene to describe the narrative’s terrain. Make a list of the 25 most startling things known about the tale to help shape the story. Read the manuscript aloud to a friend to hear how the story sounds and feels.

Remember to be true to the facts as you know them.


Notes from Jana Bommersbach’s seminar at the 2014 Southwest Valley Writers Conference, Stretching and Bending the Lines with Creative Nonfiction

BuikemaEllen Buikema is a writer, parent, and former teacher. A graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, she received her M.Ed. specializing in Early Childhood. She has extensive post-graduate studies in special education from Northeastern Illinois University. Ellen writes short stories, poetry, adult non-fiction and children’s fiction, sprinkling humor everywhere possible. She is the author of Parenting …  A Work in Progress. Find her at Follow her on Twitter @ecellenb.

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