At this year's York Festival of Writing I gave a workshop on literary fiction and creative non-fiction, and one of the topics that came up was: "What is creative non-fiction?" Which is a very good question and (like all the best questions) not quick to answer. Creative non-fiction - which also gets called "Narrative non-fiction" and "Literary non-fiction" - lives in a fascinating liminal area, bounded by fiction and poetry on one side, by journalism on another, and by "proper" history, biography, autobiography, travel-, food-, science- and art-writing on the third. So creative non-fiction is narrative: it is an act of storytelling, but of a story which is rooted in real lives and lived experience. Rather than simply documenting and explaining these things, it is "trying to transcend mere factual material" as biographer Sally Cline puts it: it's trying for an imaginative re-creation of that lived experience. And since evolution is fast and exciting in liminal areas, the way that different writers set about that imaginative re-creation varies widely and sometimes wildly, and is changing fast.
The most obvious difference from "normal" non-fiction is that to re-create that lived experience powerfully in the reader, the writer of creative non-fiction will draw on the techniques of fiction and even poetry. They will pay attention to prose, ideas and structure beyond what's needed to convey the facts via a logical argument and in an agreeable way. Everything from the riches in a sentence to an expressive, challenging structure may be different from a "normal" non-fiction book on the same subject. The job, if you like, is evoking/Showing as much as informing/Telling. Good writers of normal non-fiction will do this too, of course, but creative non-fiction may entail a fundamental reconsideration of the "non" in "non-fiction". The need to engage the reader's mirror-neurones, if you like, might lead you to all sorts of things that are off-limits to the writer of reportage, journalism, history, science, natural history and so on. For example, you might:
- create dialogue that wasn't recorded at the time, or that you can't remember, or even that never happened
- conflate separate events: a composite story of one beach holiday, say, to evoke years of beach holidays, even if Uncle Joe and Aunty June never actually both came on the same holiday
- conflate separate people: a single music-shop keeper can embody your subject's experience of several, either to streamline the storytelling, or to give a secondary character more airtime and so a chance to become a more vivid character for the reader.
- put a person in a place they never were, to illuminate both place and person
- inhabit and dramatise other people's points of view and thoughts more deeply than normal non-fiction rules allow
- change details of season, place, flowers, food, clothes, whatever, so that the connotations, as well as denotations, can work more powerfully
- bring your own experience into a story which is chiefly about someone/something else
- say things not to win the argument or make a case, but to work on the reader's experience
- enrich the language you use, even if that means the "take" on things is more subjective, more emotive or less provisional
- alter the chronology of events, again to streamline the storytelling or strengthen the structure
- stay true to the actual chronology of events but tell them in a different order from how they actually happened, so they illuminate each other as they otherwise wouldn't
In the best creative non-fiction, in other words, the structure is the product of the writer's reasons for writing, and so is the relationship of the events as narrated, and the "mere" facts of your raw materials. It may take a classic five-act structure, say, as a novel would, or it may be more discursive, more centred on themes than character-in-action, or be built on separate people or events, or on instalments of their stories; or it might explore the afterlife as well as the life of a real person's presence in the world (for example in The Short Life and Long Times of Mrs Beeton, by Kathryn Hughes).
At what point of fictionalising the events and people means you've crossed the boundary into fiction is something that can be argued about forever. On the other side, where the boundary is between creative non-fiction and other non-fiction - including journalism and reportage - is no clearer, since all good writers of non-fiction work with the tools of the storyteller. Clearly the boundary is partly about the proportion of fact to invention, of facts presented to facts transcended. But it's also about what readers expect: what do they expect in a novel, what do they expect of normal, informative non-fiction, and how does your project fit - or ignore - with those existing expectations?
The other thing to understand is that, unlike the kind of non-fiction which documents, explains or teaches you to do something, life writing, in particular, is designed, publicised, marketed and sold in the same way as fiction. So, what comes under the umbrella of creative non-fiction?
Autobiographical: Memoir is probably the most familiar sub-genre: we know it as the creative sibling of autobiography. It may tell only part of a life - just the war, or just the three years in China, or it might follow one thread through a whole life. Note that "memoirs" (plural) is usually used pejoratively, implying the stuffy ramblings of someone who thinks their life has been much more interesting than it actually has.
- Alexandra Fuller's Don't Let's Go To The Dogs Tonight is the story of her childhood in UDI Rhodesia, told through the consciousness (though not the voice) of child-Alexandra; her understanding of both family, and society and politics, grows and matures only as she does. It's all inside the frame: it reads like a novel, in other words.
- A memoir like Blake Morrison's groundbreaking And When Did You Last See Your Father, which interweaves the history of his difficult relationship with his father, with the story of his father dying, may mess with the normal, chronological telling of a life, and wrangle with creative-writing-technique such as tenses, to help both "now" and "then" illuminate each other
- Or the dominant voice may be that of the older adult, looking back: Gwen Raverat's classic Period Piece, about growing up in Cambridge in the 1890s, is organised not by chronology but by topic - Clothes, Education, Propriety, Ghosts & Horrors - "like the spokes on a wheel ... Which", as she says, "is me". True, but it's also the product of Raverat's explicit purpose in writing: to evoke not the specifics of her own biography, but the textures and dynamics of a world that, in the early 1950s, has vanished forever
- A memoir of someone you knew is also an option: a parent, a grandparent, or a friend, such as Ann Patchett's Truth and Beauty, which is about her writer friend Lucy Grealy. But memoir generally centres on what you knew and experienced of them, not necessarily on their full biography. If the person is beyond your own memory, then it's hard to label it as "memoir", for obvious reasons.
- Caitlin Moran's How To Build A Girl is memoir with a political edge, while the more purely comic Stephanie Calman has the journalist's knack of immediacy and a great voice, but the book-length gives substance to what she's saying.
Biographical: Writing creatively about someone else's life is obviously closely allied to biography, but again the purpose will be different. As I blogged about in more detail here, as the subject gets further away from the writer's own self, the less it's possible to invent, imagine and re-create before you're starting to shade into historical fiction. At the other side of the field, biographers operate by historians' rules: the boundaries between facts, reasonable assumptions, and speculation must be very carefully marked, and not allowed to silently harden into "fact" in later chapters. Memoir and creative life-writing has a much freer hand in these matters, from the form the prose:
- Richard Holmes's Footsteps had the same effect on biography as Morrison's And When... had on autobiography: three extended essays evoke as well as documenting Holmes's search for his subjects' places, and his drive to gain insight by experiencing what they experienced. The essays are a way of bringing those lives alive, but also illuminate what it actually is to be a biographer, dedicated to inhabiting the lives of others. Geoff Dyer's Out Of Sheer Rage is a similar project, but in comical and satirical mode
- Ruth Padel's collection Darwin: a life in poems, is extremely faithful to the life and the science, but of course she has at her disposal the full poetic tool-kit to help us inhabit and experience that world
- Frederic Raphael's Byron is all about the prose: as the notoriously picky Kirkus put it in review: "Biography as epigrammatic monologue ... packed with puns, quips, conceits, and worldly-wicked bons mots ... elliptic and allusive, so newcomers to Byron will have to do some homework."
- Ruth Scurr's John Aubrey, one of the sensations of the biography world last year, selects, arranges and writes new entries for Pepys's contemporary and fellow-diarist. The idea is both to evoke and express Aubrey's actual life, beyond the boundaries of the diary he did keep, and to explore the act and purpose of diary-keeping and the personality of the man himself. With something like this the boundaries between fact and invention are not just blurred but obliterated. It's a wonderful book, if you're happy to to trust Scurr's interpretation of the rules she made for herself, or if you know tons about Aubrey and can consciously enjoy the way she sets about it all.
OTHER CREATIVE NON-FICTION
The Arvon Book of Literary Non-Fiction - where I found that Sally Cline quote - is subtitled: Writing about Travel, Nature, Food, Feminism, History, Science, Death, Friendship and Sexuality, which gives you the idea, although their definitions spread further towards "normal" non-fiction than perhaps mine do. Still, it's obvious that all these subjects have a "normal" non-fiction twin: travel-writing might be anything from a guide-book to a journalistic piece about a place, science-writing might be an account for the non-specialist of how genetics works. So, what what does the creative one of the twins look like?
- Travel writing begins to count as creative non-fiction when the object of the writing is to move the reader, to evoke a sense of place: when there's a sense that this is "a writer who travels, not a traveller who writes", as Midge Gillies puts it in the Arvon book. Patrick Leigh-Fermor's classic A Time of Gifts was written many years after he set off to walk from London to Constantinople, and after his notebooks got lost, but you wouldn't know it; Jonathan Raban's Coasting proves that the travel doesn't have to be exotic to explore, grippingly, not just places but the deep structure of family relationships.
- Nature writing often also has one foot in memoir - Helen Macdonald's H is for Hawk is about hawking as well as grief - or biography. Nature-writer Richard Mabey's book Dreams of the Good Life is about Flora Thompson, the author of Lark Rise to Candleford, but concentrates on her as a writer of fiction, not least through how she writes about nature. Roger Deakin's Wildwood ranges over the world as he encounters trees: the blurb's description of it as "autobiography, history, traveller's tale and incisive work in natural history" captures the fluid possibilities of the form well.
- Creative food-writing is obviously not a recipe book - though it might have some recipes in it, and Nigel Slater or Nigella Lawson might write very creatively in and among the recipes. There tends to be a strong component of memoir: Nigel Slater's Toast is a memoir of his growing up, but it's formed and structured in terms of food. But food science and food history, used not so much academically but as spicing and garnishing, might get in there too: Elizabeth David's An Omelette and a Glass of Wine is a classic, and Christopher Hirst's Love Bites: Marital Skirmishes in the Kitchen is very funny, as is Julie Powell's Julie and Julia: Powell's is also very cleverly structured.
- Writing about sex, death and relationships: Ann Patchett's friend Lucy Grealy also wrote a memoir, Autobiography of a Face, about their friendship and her own terminal illness, and the two are an interesting mirror, although Grealy's family were upset that Patchett's close focus on the two of them - plus her great critical acclaim, and bigger sales - seemed to exclude the wider family whose grief might be felt to "take priority". This is an area where the "non-" aspects can demand both sensitivity and self-confidence from the writer, in deciding how to go about it all. Adam Mars-Jones and Edmund White's The Darker Proof is a set of essays and stories in and around the early days of the AIDS epidemic.
- Science writing might seem to be the most inimical to a creative handling, but then there's Primo Levi's astonishing The Periodic Table. There's one short story for each element in the table, and while some more like fables, others are more like autobiographical fiction drawing on his own experience as a Italo-Jewish chemist, not least when he was a prisoner put to work in the labs at Auschwitz. Lewis Wolpert's Malignant Sadness brilliantly uses memoir as a form for exploring and explaining the science of depression. Oliver Sacks was a practising psychiatriest, but also considered himself a storyteller in books like The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat. Nor is "storytelling" a matter of science-lite, of course: it's more and more obvious that all human experience is mediated through story, because we are narrative animals, as a book on the border with history-writing, such as Rebecca Skloot's The Immortal Cells of Henrietta Lacks, recognise.
All those examples are full-length books, but this kind of writing can also come in a shorter form, althought where journalism and reportage ends, and the lyrical essay or personal essay begins, is another fuzzy boundary. Montaigne pretty much invented the form, and Sarah Bakewell's wonderfully witty How to Live: A Life of Montaigne in one question and twenty attempts at an answer is itself a masterclass in book-length creative non-fiction. Nora Ephron and Siri Hustvedt are two of the form's stars, and a collection such as John Gross's Oxford Book of Essays should give you a steer on the possibilities, while nosing around in Notting Hill Editions and Granta are can show you what's going on with the form at the moment. Or jump in with both feet, and enter the 2017 Notting Hill Essay Prize itself.
You'll have realised now that, for all the constraints that claiming non-fiction status puts on a project - the things you can't invent, the things you can't change - there's a freedom granted in return. The novelist’s craft lies in keeping at least fifty percent of the reader’s consciousness inside the frame and willingly reading the story "as if it really happened": much of our technique is in the cause of pulling off this conjuring trick. Only in novels close to the far end of the the literary-commercial spectrum will the novelist openly and frequently break the frame, subvert what a novel normally tries to do, or deliberately play other games with the reader. A non-fiction project, in contrast, doesn't have to work by sleight-of-hand and smoke and mirrors, and that liminal, un-defined habitat is a great freedom. Creative non-fiction can not only make its own rules, it can explain them in a Preface, or as we go along: what this book is, what it's trying to do, how it's trying to do it.
But that's not a licence to meander along, wandering off at tangents, letting off steam, pouring anything you feel like saying onto the page. Some lovely creative non-fiction feels relaxed and anecdotal - Bill Bryson's for instance - but easy reading is hard writing. The need for an opening promise that this will be worth it is just as strong, and there must be narrative drive and structure to keep the reader turning the pages: a properly-connected chain of ideas and events, and an ending which satisfies. So structure, voice, point-of-view, how to handle researched material and imagined material, showing and telling, tenses, and even psychic distance, all need deciding about and working on just as much as they do in fiction.
So, what are you writing? It's your book, and your rules. You just need to make some.