Not all Nonfiction is Creatively Equal

Contributing writer Laura Brackin writes about nonfiction and how it is different from fiction, in terms of how a fiction reader should approach it.

Readers of fiction look for specific things in the literature they choose: well-voiced narration, dialogue that isn’t forced or seemingly “scripted,” proper grammar and punctuation, tension and urgency that keep the pages turning, and realistic characters who are well-developed and working to get themselves either out of trouble or closer to the desired object/situation/event.

Beyond that there are, of course, personal conditions, such as interest in subject matter and preference of genre. If all these things aren’t working in a narrative, it is likely that the reader will put it down at some point and forget it altogether.

While these are basic ideas that move fiction along, they are not always going to be what appears in creative nonfiction works, even in narratives, such as memoir. It is easily assumed that writers of memoir do so because of some particularly big event or harrowing experience they’ve gone through, but very often that’s not the case. Memoir may not necessarily have a strong conflict; you’re not always going to find abuse or crime or survivors of catastrophe.

Consequently, there is not always going to be a big climax as you would expect from fiction. Creative nonfiction often isn’t looking for all the tropes and familiar pacing of fiction, rather it is trying to tell about an individual, their experience, what that means to them, and how it makes them who they are. That’s not to say there isn’t conflict, but it can be of a quieter nature than what we look for in fiction. When a fiction reader picks up a memoir, they need to understand that it may not be driven by the same things they have become accustomed to in fiction.

Creative nonfiction essays are even less like fiction narratives. These can have little action at all, sometimes none. Essays tend to be about thought patterns, reactions to some event, ponderings, and ways at looking at the world. If a fiction reader picks up a book of essays thinking they are getting a story, they are likely to be disappointed. That’s not to say that many won’t have story elements in them, but when you read creative nonfiction essays, the main point is definitely not about narrative.

Creative nonfiction as a genre is becoming more widely known in the literary world. It has an important place there, full of purpose. It’s a true sense of life inspiring art and an enjoyable way to tap into one’s own beliefs and thoughts. These works can inspire, or heal, or teach. They can open new vision and help the reader see possibilities they may have never thought about otherwise.

As readers, we all love a story, love to be entertained and given a ride. We like to be tested and come out the end victorious. We’ll even accepted it if at the end we don’t come out so well. Still, creative nonfiction is a different, yet equally satisfying, journey—one that deserves the kind of understanding and attention necessary to the unlocking of its full potential.

LAURA BRACKIN is a student at Sam Houston State University where she studies in the MFA program for Creative Writing, Editing, and Publishing. She works part time with the Texas Review Press and desires to work as an editor upon graduation, while also building a career as a prose writer. She lives in The Woodlands with her husband, two teenaged kids, and her English pointer.

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