Understanding CNF

Understanding CNF

This blog post was originally published on the AvidBards blog and has been republished here with permission of the author.

“IT IS A WAY OF LOOKING AGAIN AND AGAIN AT ITSELF FROM ALL ANGLES IN ORDER TO SEE ITSELF MOST FULLY.”

– BRET LOTT ON CREATIVE NONFICTION.

An area of publishing that is getting increasingly popular is the field of creative non-fiction (also known as literary non-fiction). From the onset, however, the term itself sounds like an oxymoron. How can non-fiction be literature? Welcome, to the topic of today’s post. 

Creative non-fiction (CNF) refers to a piece of writing that uses typical literary styles or techniques (such as figurative language, playing with tenses and/or narrative perspectives etc.) to tell factually faithful narratives.

Sounds simple enough, and yet, it still seems incredibly obscure.  

Though it did not have a specific term for a long time, the style of writing has a long history with author’s such as George Orwell and Ernest Hemingway penning, “Shooting an Elephant” and “Death in the Afternoon” respectively, some textbook examples of CNF.In 1973, Tom Wolfe published a book entitled New Journalism, which was in fact referring to what we now know as CNF. In the introduction to the book, Gay Talese describes the genre, saying,

‘Though often reading like fiction, it is not fiction. It is, or should be, as reliable as the most reliable reportage, although it seeks a larger truth than is possible through a mere compilation of verifiable facts, the use of direct quotation and the adherence to the rigid organizational style of the older form’. 

The focus here is on ‘the larger truth’ offered through the style. Indeed, many would argue that this is in fact the forms greatest advantage, offering a simultaneously emotional and factual way of describing truth and experiences. The use of literary techniques in the creation of scenes and dialogue, of metaphor and simile, specific language and intentional structures. Whether we identify it or not, CNF is used a lot more frequently than fiction in popular magazines and newspapers. We see it in autobiographies and biographies, testimonies and personal essays. Indeed, many would consider CNF to be synonymous with the personal essay. But unlike Wolfe’s implication of journalistic intention, CNF sees literary writers and poets crossing genres in droves. 

Lee Gutkind, the founder and editor-in-chief of the journal Creative Non-Fiction, identified in the genre five main elements he titled ‘The Five R’s’: Real Life, Reflection, Research, Reading and (W)riting

Much like the tongue-in-cheek addition of the final ‘R’, the writing is where authors get to be creative, but before that, CNF requires a commitment to the real, to reality. 

For example, biographies and autobiographies intend to tell the true story of someone’s life but often endeavour to make the style of writing and the experience of reading similar to that of fiction. The aim in the most general sense is to tell a story, differing from non-fiction writing that intends to inform, such as textbooks or self-help books. What CNF is not is simply determining what has happened and why it is important, but writing in relation to oneself about what has happened.  

A popular example of CNF is John Krakauer’s Into The Wild, the biography of Chris McCandless. The biography was not solely about what led McCandless into the wilderness, or what caused his death, but Krakauer’s attempt to explain how McCandless’ death impacted him and how he sees himself in relation to the subject of McCandless’ death. The point was to explore himself as much as it was about the fact of McCandless’ life and circumstances of his death. As Bret Lott states, ‘It is indeed self that is the creative element of creative nonfiction.’

In a roundtable looking to address the question, ‘What is creative Non-fiction’, Bret Lott made the point that,

‘We can no more understand what creative nonfiction is by trying to define it than we can learn how to ride a bike by looking at a bicycle tire, a set of handlebars, the bicycle chain itself.’

The construction of works of CNF are as thought-out and crafted as your favourite novels. But rather than rely on the story to illuminate the writer’s creativity, it is the writing itself that displays creativity. And in that vein, one might aim to construct tenants of the genre, fixed rules and structures—we are unsurprisingly creatures that love patterns and order—but doing so eliminates the most vital element of creativity: experimentation. 

There is no better way to explore CNF and yourself that experimenting with your writing. You might not get it right the first time, or the fiftieth time, but you’ll get there. Just keep experimenting. 

Scheherazade Khan
Scheherazade Khan

Scheherazade is currently completing her PhD in Intersectional Analysis at the University of Edinburgh and while simultaneously working as an undergraduate teaching assistant and freelance proofreader and editor.

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