On my first visit to a public library, I was told that all books could be grouped into Fiction and Nonfiction. In the Fiction section, I could find amazing adventures set in made-up worlds with wonderful descriptions and dialogue. The example for a Nonfiction book was a dictionary, so, like many, I grew up thinking of Nonfiction as dry, boring reference materials and dense textbooks.
All of those assumptions changed when I was introduced to creative nonfiction, an important kind of storytelling that can enrich all readers.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
The helpful reminder goes, “fiction is fake,” because fictional stories are made up. Nonfiction is based instead on facts—but those facts can be told in fascinating ways, especially if a talented author is using their creative techniques to tell a true story.
The site CreativeNonfiction.org defines creative nonfiction as, “true stories, well told.”
Picture movies that advertise, “Based on a true story,” in their previews. Moneyball and The Pursuit of Happyness are both acclaimed films that portray real life events. More accurately, each was an adaptation of a creative nonfiction book written by someone who experienced the events.
In order to be adapted for the big screen, those books had to captivate readers first.
Because creative nonfiction is a factual form of storytelling, it appeals to readers for some of the same reasons as fiction: We want to sympathize with the subject (main character), take interest in the events (plot), and enjoy the author’s writing style.
Categories of Creative Nonfiction
While topics and lived experiences vary greatly, categories of creative nonfiction are based on how the true story is told.
Perhaps the most commonly read, biographies tell a person’s life story, usually in chronological order, with a focus on the major struggles and accomplishments. In addition, these true stories give readers a sense of the historical periods and locations where the events occur.
Biographies are most often written about famous heroes of history, such as Pulitzer-Prize-winning Truman by David McCullough. To ensure accuracy, biographers thoroughly research their subjects and then pace the events in a way the readers will enjoy.
If the main character is also the author, they have written an autobiography, which allows deeper insight into their thoughts and feelings.
Some are written as real-time diary entries, like The Motorcycle Diaries by Ernesto “Che” Guevara or The Diary of a Young Girl by Anne Frank. For others, the author remembers the events in retrospect, like the Narrative Life of Frederick Douglass.
Because autobiographies deal with real-life events, many will show real-world injustices or even atrocities. It might be helpful to do some research in advance for content warning.
Sometimes, when writing about the events of their own lives, authors might shift the focus away from the events to focus on the experiences or lessons learned. These kinds of autobiographies are called memoirs, and they offer wisdom that is less restricted to a particular era or person. Sections of memoirs can be arranged by time or topic, and may seem more like snapshot memories than a continuous story.
For example, Barbara Kingsolver’s High-Tide in Tucson is a collection of personal essays, each of which has a message that enriched her life and can be passed on to the reader.
If it sounds like the messages are primarily for the reader, then the book might be a Self-Help book. Usually, these are marked by some second-person (“you”) structure and pieces of advice that you, the reader, could implement.
Anne Lamott’s Bird By Bird offers many tips to aspiring authors within personal stories that also read like memoirs. Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly, on the other hand, is much more focused on self-improvement plans which are supported by personal anecdotes.
Well-written creative nonfiction can make us laugh and cry as effectively as quality fiction. Unlike fiction, the perspective and knowledge gained comes from real-life events and may have a stronger, longer-lasting impact on how we see the world.