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 🙂