Q & A: The Genres of Our Lives

cafe table :: karl chor

Question: I know that I am writing creative nonfiction of some form. But when a writer asks me what kind of creative nonfiction I write, I stumble. What are the differences between things like memoir, personal narrative, and other kinds of creative nonfiction writing?

I'm not sure which part of this makes me respond faster, the "what do I write?" part, or the dreaded "what do YOU write?" question that comes up all too often. Moving beyond the potential frustration that can arrive when someone asks us to define what we write, I love the chance to talk about the different kinds of creative nonfiction.

First, a definition of creative nonfiction itself, from Lee Gutkind -- often cited as the "grandfather of creative nonfiction" -- who says simply, creative nonfiction is true stories, well told. Gutkind writes that the word creative refers to "the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner."

Gutkind also discusses the difference between more personal creative nonfiction {memoir, personal narrative/essay, meditative essay, and lyrical essay} from the more public or "big idea" creative nonfiction {think of Rebecca Solnit's Wanderlust, or Joan Didion's Salvador}. While his magazine Creative Nonfiction focuses on publishing "big idea" pieces, many other journals and magazines will publish well-written and thought-provoking personal creative nonfiction. If not, there may not be an audience for such writers as Terry Tempest Williams or Cheryl Strayed.

Thinking of creative nonfiction as a genre {much as we think of fiction and poetry}, we can begin to discern the sub-genres of creative nonfiction. Sue William Silverman {an upcoming guest on In Her Room, wrote a fantastic essay exploring the primary sub-genres of creative nonfiction. I won't republish it here, but will reference a few key points that explain the more distinct points that discuss the differences between personal creative nonfiction forms.

Memoir Perhaps the fastest growing sub-genre of publishing is the memoir. From books like Eat, Pray, Love to Wild, memoirs find a place on our shelves and in our hearts. Focusing on a specific time and place within the story of our lives, a memoir tells us about an experience {by recounting the facts} and share the deeper learning behind it {with metaphor and a sense of "greater wisdom"}. When I think of memoir, I typically think of a longer {book-length} format, allowing for a full development of characters, settings, and themes. Memoir takes us on a journey, one that hopefully teaches us about the author and ourselves along the way.

Silverman discusses the importance of finding and employing distinct voices in memoir. "The innocent voice relates the facts of the story...The experienced voice, on the other hand, plunges us deeper into the story...to reveal the author's progression of thought and emotion." It is the use of these voices that provide us with the creative and nonfiction elements of the lived experience.

Unlike an autobiography -- a chronology of a life lived to this point, with very few creative elements -- a memoir has this kind of laser focus and explores the self {identity, understanding, discovery} through it's creation and sharing. It is the story of a writer's truth from a time and a place that they have lived. And it is the kind of story that only a writer can tell about one's self.

Personal Narrative Often called "personal essay," personal narrative is a sub-genre that focuses on an even smaller piece of life. I am reminded of radio essays here, about the birds of New Hampshire or kayaking down a creek in September. Using an even narrower scope, personal essays are written about what we know best. It may be our dog and her tracking habits, or the way dew catches on a spider's web in the sunlight. I think of Virginia Woolf here, and her fabulous essay "The Death of the Moth," which recounts the experience of watching a moth in a windowsill at her desk, and the life that spins in and around this moment. It may have been just five minutes of her day, but it inspired an essay that has lasted over 70 years.

Silverman shares that the sub-genre of personal essay includes such things as food and travel writing {think Michael Pollan and Orhan Pamuk}, writing about nature {Terry Tempest Williams and Annie Dillard}, and commentary on social and political issues {Oliver Sacks, Temple Grandin, and Barbara Ehrenreich come to mind}. In these ways, the writer might not just explore a moment that has already passed, but also consider the implications for the present -- and perhaps for events yet to occur.

Beyond these sub-genres, Silverman's essay discusses meditative and lyrical essays. For any writer interested in honing their understanding of the craft of creative nonfiction, I cannot recommend her essay enough.

Other places to read and learn more about the sub-genres of creative nonfiction {and read some really wonderful stuff}, I would point you to perhaps the longest-running publication, Creative Nonfiction, the magazine created by Lee Gutkind. Also available is Fourth Genre, a literary journal from Michigan State University.

I hope that this gives you a little clearer understanding of the "personal" sub-genres of creative nonfiction. I'm so glad you asked, as this really has me examining my own kind of creative nonfiction writing -- both where I have been, and where I want to focus my attention in the future!

Have you got a question about writing, storytelling, personal ritual, or life? Drop me a note — I would LOVE to answer your question on the blog!