Thursday, August 5, 2021

Dear O'Abby: What the heck is creative non-fiction?

 Dear O'Abby,

I'm confused and I hope you can help me.  

I've been working on a memoir for several years and have finally reached a point where I feel it's ready for some readers.  I joined an online writing group that was recommended to me by friend who also writes and the feedback I've received thus far has been...well...a little confusing.

Several of the people who have read my memoir have suggested that I ought to think about re-writing it as creative non-fiction to make it more accessible to readers.  I haven't been able to respond to these critiques yet because, to be honest, I have no idea what creative non-fiction actually is.  I thought that memoirs were, by nature, non-fiction because they are telling a true story.  And novels are creative because you make them up.  Are these other writers asking me to make up my own life?

Can you shed some light so I can figure out what the heck these people want from my book?



Dear Baffled,

Creative non-fiction is basically a catch-all term for true stories written in a way that will engage readers the same way a novel might.  It does not in any way mean that you should make up or embellish or exaggerate any of the facts about your life.  By calling your book a memoir, you are creating an expectation in the reader that the events presented in your book are true.

Where the creative part comes in is in the writing, the way you craft the stories about your life.

Without having read your book, it's difficult for me to know exactly what your critique group is referencing, but for me, when reading a memoir, I want more than just a series of events on the page.  I want to know the person whose life I'm reading about and to do that, the writer needs to immerse me in the world they are describing.

A compelling memoir vividly describes place, people, emotions and anything else relevant to whatever event is being written about.  Events of little significance can be left out unless they are linked in some way to the bigger events that might have shaped the writer and brought them to the place they are today.

Actual conversations may not be remembered word-for-word, but the gist or purpose of these conversations will be remembered and can be sparingly re-created to give the event more immediacy and to bring other people important to the writer to life.

If you're writing the story of a life, for it to be satisfying, it still needs to follow a narrative structure with the main character (in this case, you) growing and changing over the course of the book. Basically, what you need to do is make your own story into a compelling narrative.

Hopefully this has been helpful.  Best of luck with your memoir!

X O'Abby

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