Creative nonfiction is a powerful form. It gives writers the freedom to tell true stories with the flair expected from fiction and without the constraints of academic writing or norms of journalism. However, as a storytelling genre, it suffers from misunderstanding and hesitancy: what exactly is creative nonfiction, and how is it best used to tell stories of different lengths?
The prerequisites for creative nonfiction are pretty simple: the story being told has to be true, and it takes more of its stylistic cues from what we’ve come to expect in fiction, rather than mimicking reporting or academic writing. It is a catch-all title in many ways, including both 100-word micro pieces and essays (usually personal) of many thousands of words. Biographies are perhaps one of the more established forms of the genre, but as literary journals evolve both in print and online, short-form creative nonfiction (CNF) is gaining in popularity for writers and readers alike.
The majority of flash or other short-form creative nonfiction is presented in the same prose style as fiction: to a reader, there’s often no discernible difference between the two. In 2020, Ellipsis Zine published a print magazine of flash CNF where all twenty-eight pieces are nonfiction but could be mistaken for fiction were CNF not the theme of the anthology. For an idea of how the genre works well in short-form, I like this edition.
Where is the line?
A lot of us write from our personal experiences. For some of us, it’s very difficult not to. As a cardinal rule, pieces labelled as CNF must relay events that actually happened. Similarity to real events, or a creative version that only takes its influences from reality, shouldn’t be included. For two examples from my own writing, ‘Oblations’ is entirely based upon my experience growing up in a strict, formal girls’ school. The headmistress in the piece is loosely based on the woman who held that role during my primary school days. However, the meeting described in her office never happened, and although our car broke down on several occasions, the only time I had to walk the remaining distance was years later and at a different school. This story is fiction and would never be presented as anything but.
‘A Trading Post on the 117th Meridian West’ is a lot more abstract than ‘Oblations’. It only describes one solid event (a conversation at a college party); the rest of the piece is description, emotion and an attempt at sense-of-place. However, despite it being labelled fiction on the site, this piece is CNF. I went to university near Moscow, Idaho. I had this conversation at the party, the town smelled like cow shit on the border with Washington and sometimes, I miss it terribly. Even the poster on the wall and the disgusting fish tank were real. However, it is written as flash prose.
What do editors want when they ask for CNF?
What a journal or magazine is looking for when it asks for CNF can be difficult to discern. Word count sometimes offers a clue: the majority of longer-form CNF pieces read more as personal essays, and are often told as such. First person perspective is common, sometimes citing sources or providing fact checks, but still written with creative flair. Flash and similar short forms seem more predisposed to variation, with pieces that could more easily pass as short stories. But there is nothing stopping a writer putting together a 5,000 word nonfiction story that reads similarly to fiction, or writing a flash essay in a creative style.
What are the ethics of CNF?
We probably don’t need to open the ‘Cat Person’ box again (if you need a refresher, see this article about a woman who recognised her life in a popular short story), but it’s useful as an example of crossing boundaries and the ethics of using reality in writing. I love writing CNF, I do it all the time, but I always centre myself and my lived, verifiable experiences. If you are going to write biographically about someone else, clearly their consent is required. Even though the story wasn’t presented as CNF, the ‘Cat Person’ debacle is a good example of a writer who took nonfiction-as-prose too far, using easily-identifiable real people as marionettes in a narrative presupposed and half-invented by the writer.
Writing about your own life naturally involves other people from time to time. It should go without saying that ethically, writers should stay on the side of offering their experiences and opinions on others’ activities as it pertained to them as narrator, and that moving into first-person or omniscient third-person perspective about others is a no-go. This is not to say that you can’t write third-person CNF; however, the entirety of the narrative voice should always be yours, or used with consent.
I have written biting CNF in my time: my piece in Ellipsis Zine’s anthology, linked to above, references my divorce and the bizarre reaction of some of my colleagues: events that reverberated in my life for years afterwards. Creatively, these experiences are told from the perspective of my opinion and the specific effects they had on me. And at no point do I try to speak for my ex-husband or former peers besides to relay what was said, or written, to me. However, writers are still taking a risk when it comes to the feelings and perspectives of others when they include them in their writing. Sensitive subjects should be handled with the acknowledgment that others’ opinions will vary and, where necessary, with evidence of the writer’s narrative claims.
CNF has been written for years but presented as “fiction”, why define it now?
I first started writing flash twenty years ago when, as a brain-game, my father would give me a title and I’d have to write a 500-word story to go with it. About half of what I wrote was nonfiction. I suspect a lot of published flash is similar, and so while a dedicated category for the genre isn’t strictly necessary, it lends weight, context and validation to pieces where the writer would like their readers to know that the piece is true. There is still absolutely no rule that you can’t present a true story as fiction and submit it as such (although it would be unethical to reverse the genres in the other direction!). A dedicated creative nonfiction category in journals, magazines and competitions expands writers’ ability to tell stories in the best format, to the most interested audience, in a manner that best showcases their artistic abilities and their personal experiences.
Don’t leave us yet!
If you have some creative nonfiction looking for a home, please check out our submission guidelines and send it our way! We’d love for you to tell us a true story.