Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction

Today on LifeHacker, there was a tremendous list of tips for writing fiction by the late, great Kurt Vonnegut. In his usual brilliance, he offers the sage advice of “be a sadist” and “don’t waste the reader’s time,” among other nuggets of wisdom that he was 100% right about (much like he was about everything else in life.)

Writing nonfiction can be liberating and therapeutic, but it also can be scary, revealing, and overtly honest in a way you might not even have been prepared for. For fiction writers, the idea of writing nonfiction is just as limiting and difficult as I find fiction. That said, I’m having a great deal of fun giving fiction a whirl. So, to even the writing scales, I thought I’d offer you fiction writers a list of Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction, and if you already write creative nonfiction, feel free to use this as a checklist.

1. Find your voice. OK, this is Creative Writing 101, I know. So let me adjust it to show what I mean: “find your voice.” Emphasis on the “your.” Essay, memoir, and autobiography are all specific nonfiction sub-genres, but they all have one thing in common – you. The notion of nonfiction can sometimes make fiction writers feel as if they can’t be creative. Hence, their voices, which are vibrant and quirky and dynamic in their novels tend to shift to textbook-mode when attempting to focus that energy on (gulp!) the truth.

2. Honesty Does Not Always Equal Truth. Think James Frey. Yes, his controversial “memoir” had its share of problems, but the core of his case was this: “hey, it was true to me.” In this way, I’m on Team Frey, regardless of how I felt about A Million Little Pieces. No, you cannot say you went to a maximum security prison, sentenced to solitary confinement, and just barely escaped death when in reality, you went to a white collar prison for insider trading and were out in two months. That is what we call “fictionalized truth,” which is, uh, fiction. You can combine real life people into one character to make for cleaner storytelling, paraphrase dialogue or exaggerate emotion (think David Sedaris), and use the hell out of metaphors.

3. Piss Off Your Family. If you’re not writing something that you wouldn’t want a real person in your life to read, you’re probably doing it wrong. Chances are, the situations in your life worth writing about are the ones that have differing opinions of what really happened. Some people, even your dear, sweet, 100-year-old granny, might not come off in the best light. Or, you may have done interesting or controversial things that you didn’t want [insert specific person here] to find out about. Remember: this is your story. Only your feelings, beliefs, and knowledge of the truth are what matter. You cheated on your husband with the pool boy? And you did it because he was inattentive, distant, or emotionally abusive? Write about it. If you have regrets, share them. If he was the epitome of evil, say so. You don’t owe anyone anything when it comes to writing.

4. That Doesn’t Mean You Don’t Need Differing Perspectives. No one likes a pure good vs. pure evil story, not even in science fiction. While you get to write your life story, you don’t get to falsely present yourself as the sole hero or sole victim of your narrative. Readers won’t like it, and more importantly, it’s probably not true. Nothing is ever so cut-and-dry, probably not even with that crappy husband from #3. Be just as complex, sympathetic, empowering, and realistic not just as your fictional characters, but as real life human beings!

5. Have a Story to Tell. This one sounds obvious, but it’s an unfortunately necessary reminder. It’s always so sad to me when I need to reject people who write about their battle with cancer or the death of their child or their parents brutal divorce that affected how they view the very notion of happiness. It’s sad to me because I say, in my head, “ugh, who cares?” The thing is, I care. People care. You definitely care. But, most people have gone through what we have. Most of our tragedies are not especially poignant to anyone but us. If you’re Angelina Jolie and you want to talk about the otherwise generic topic of your parents’ divorce, then, well, that’s different. But, when the average person with no (ugh, I hate to say this word) platform decides “my story will inspire others!,” please remind yourself that while they may be true, it still won’t sell. Writing for yourself as a means of therapy is one thing. I would never, ever, ever discourage people from writing about their personal traumas to help get over them. Just ask yourself, before putting it all in a query: “Why do people care about my specific experience involving this very common, albeit unfortunate, topic?”

6. Know What You Want to Say Before You Grab a Pen. Way too often when I was in my MFA program, I’d write a quick essay just because it was my turn to be workshopped. I’d start out with a vague idea like “I sort of want to write something about my mother.” Then put my pen to the paper (literally, I need to start out in long-hand!) and start coming up with various anecdotes that reveal her personality that could have been construed as clever or even a good example of character development. That, alone, however, does not an essay make. I wasn’t actually saying anything. So, scratch that. Start over. “Now I sort of want to write about my sister’s wedding.” Well, OK, what about it? It was nice? Ugh. OK, scratch that too. I was usually left thinking my life could not be more boring. And I kept thinking that until I realized why I wanted to write about those specific things. More often than not, your reason for writing has little to do with the topic at hand.

7. Every Essay Should Be About Two Things. I’m going to attribute this point with a writing professor at The New School who, in true MFA fashion, had little tolerance for any of us. I loved him after I stopped hating him. There’s always a surface topic (this is true for other creative nonfiction too, not just essays), and then there’s the “heart of the matter.” For example, George Orwell writes about having to shoot an elephant in then-Burma. What he’s really doing is making a social comment on the dangers of British imperialism. Another one of my favorite essays that demonstrates this point perfectly is called The Fourth State of Matter by Jo Ann Beard. It is about much more than just two things. You can read it here, which will save me space of having to convince you how amazingly brilliant it is.

8. Have Fun! In the words of Ace Ventura, “fiction can be fun!” So can nonfiction. We can re-live happy memories, put less-happy ones to rest, and re-invent ourselves and our loved ones as characters with flaws, passions, and strengths. Only the bonus is – they’re ours. Nonfiction isn’t all facts and proper grammar and stuffy English class assignments. It’s creative and, for me, more freeing than making stuff up. Real life is just more exciting ๐Ÿ™‚

11 thoughts on “Tips for Writing Creative Nonfiction

  1. Piss my family off is the least of my concerns ๐Ÿ™‚ I did however think long and hard about why my story was different and why others would care. Once I found those reasons creating a plot arc (yeah, I think even memoirs need them) was a whole hellofa lot easier.


  2. @Anonymous – this is why I love my readers. thank you for understanding ๐Ÿ™‚ To answer your question, it might be a good idea to shelve something for a while if it's too hard to sell as a debut. But I would never encourage anyone to put away something forever!


  3. Sarah (and readers) – I am SO sorry if I offended you! I love Glass Cases and read the posts/comments here regularly as they are so insightful. In NO WAY did I mean to “plug my book” (esp. as it does not even exist in anything other than manuscript form!) – as mentioned, I am deciding if I should simply shelve it as it is such a hard sell! I didn't mean the question at the end to be a plug in any way, was just looking for input as your post had me “re-asking” myself the question, “Do I have a marketable story to tell?”

    I do understand why you chose to delete my comment. You may want to delete this as well, but I still wanted to make sure my apology was at least sent/possibly read!

    Thanks and sorry all!


  4. @Jaimie – I say this knowing how old you are, but even if you were 29 and 1/2, don't wait until you're 30 to say what you want! Like tommiecv said above, use good judgment and don't be gratuitous about it, but don't worry about what “they'll say” either.


  5. Friends – I just deleted a comment (left by “anonymous,” of course) because this is not a place to plug your book or get query feedback. There's a time and place for that stuff, and it's not in my comments section… unless you condense it to ONE SENTENCE. Thanks ๐Ÿ™‚


  6. I agree – #3 was a great point for me. My MFA mentor said this very thing – when I stopped caring too much about what my mom would think or how she was portrayed or the things I said about her third husband, I had a much stronger draft. The readers can make up their own mind – I don't have to paint her in a way that she'd like to be painted.


  7. After I finished the first draft of my memoir a few years ago and handed it off to family members and friends to read/critique, I knew there was going to be a bit of backlash even though I was most mercilous with the portrayal of myself. Little did I expect that I would have a close family member (thanks, Daddy) mention that he might consider suing me for defamation of character.
    After meeting with an attorney and finding out exactly what constitutes defamation (which I would advise any writer in this genre to do, AFTER the story is written) and after making some changes and re-writing some scenes, my manuscript met with much less disapproval from my loved ones.
    I made the changes not because the things weren't true but because, after soul-searching, these things were not relevant to the story as a whole. The result, at least for my family, is that there has been a lot of healing taking place because of this process.
    This was my third attempt over 15 years to write this book, and this last time took me about 4 years. Everything in your post is so true – I wish I had read something like this during my previous attempts though reading it now affirms the process I have been through! Now, on to get a publishing contract!
    As for #6, I was suprised by the mundane nature of some situations that I included in the book, but learned that, once I found my voice, sometimes the mundane was needed to balance out the intensity of other stories – it's all in the voice and how the author can bring you there with them. Funny how the writing process taught me that!

    Thanks again for posting!


  8. I am counting down the days until I'm 30+. I hear 30 is that magical age where you no longer care what anyone thinks. Dang, I have some family crap I can air, David Sedaris style!


  9. Great words of advice! I think the Piss Off Your Family one is my favorite, because it's so true. And in many ways, SO the reason I shy away from creative nonfiction! (I know, I know….I really need to get over that…)

    Also, #6: YES. OMG, COMPLETELY.


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