7 tips for writing creative non-fiction

Tuesday, September 20, 2016
Lee Kofman

Photo of Lee Kofman
Lee Kofman

To follow on from last month’s post in which I sang the praises of creative non-fiction, I’d like to share with you some things I have learned about working in this often misunderstood genre (after much trial and error). Here are my top tips:

1. Writing is reading

The most obvious, and least sexy, tip is that to engage deeply with creative non-fiction you have to read as many books in this genre as you can. Of course every writer knows, or at least so I hope, that reading for writers is as important as the writing itself. Yet, in creative non-fiction, reading may play even a more significant role, because – as mentioned last month – works published in this genre are so diverse, playful, surprising and elusive to definition, that the best way to understand creative non-fiction is by experiencing it.

I suggest starting with creative non-fiction classics – the likes of Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’, Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ and Joan Didion’s ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’. It is also not a bad idea to read some popular creative non-fiction ­– Gretchen Rubin’s ‘The Happiness Project’, for example. Finally, read the most adventurous current practitioners, such as Geoff Dyer, Maggie Nelson and David Shields. If you haven’t read these writers yet, I’m really jealous of you. Reading them is a sort of revelation.

2. Shape yourself into a character

Craft your ‘I’ with great care, as if you were a fictional character. Be creative and don’t be too earnest. It is commonly understood among creative non-fiction writers, and also dedicated readers, that the ‘I’ in the work doesn’t equal the author, that it is a version of her, shaped to fit the story. For example, my memoir ‘The Dangerous Bride’, was set during a troubled time in my life when my marriage was unravelling. To fit the narrative’s drama I underplayed the more organised aspects of myself and emphasised my confusions and inconsistencies. I even portrayed myself with constantly dishevelled hair even though in reality I sometimes do brush it. I wasn’t faking, but rather working along the lines of advice from Robin Hemley who in his book about creative non-fiction, ‘Immersion’, wrote: “It’s possible to be completely honest about yourself and at the same time selective and manipulative in the details you choose, for the sake of keeping the prose focused.” To reveal the emotional truth of our stories without boring our readers silly we are ‘allowed’ to reveal about ourselves just the stuff that is relevant to the particular story we are telling.

3. Be honest about the limits of your memory, but not too honest

In writing creative non-fiction we often engage with our past. Yet memory, as we all know, is a fickle, capricious princess. Sometimes it’s worth admitting that our memory is more a suspect than a trustworthy assistant and to write this tension between truth and fiction into the work. Here is a warning, though – discoursing on memory has become somewhat of a cliché in creative non-fiction and it is all too easy to slip into self-indulgence here. I have little patience for memoirs and personal essays where every second sentence contains qualifications, such as “but maybe the wallpaper was yellow, not brown” or “I don’t remember why I decided to slap my sister”. My suggestion is to tread lightly in this territory and discuss memory’s puzzling workings only where it is crucial to the narrative and/or when you can say something fresh on the topic. After all, what your readers are really after is a good story and thoughtful reflection, not tedious mumbling.

4. Your ethical concerns are often your story

Ethical concerns, such as this question of memory’s accuracy, proliferate in creative non-fiction, which is what makes this genre so risky to work in and therefore exciting too. It may ease the pressure a bit if we, as writers, admit that such concerns are actually a part of the story we are writing, rather than something to deal with on our own, in guilty secrecy. In fact, sometimes, when written into the story, our dilemmas can become the most interesting part of the work, deepening it greatly. Helen Garner’s investigative journalism is a fine example of such writing. In her true crime book, ‘Joe Cinque’s Consolation’, for example, some of my favourite parts are where Garner questions her own motives for following the murder story and her biases in how she interprets the case, because these passages illuminate the complexity of human psyche and make us, the readers, question ourselves too.

5. Don’t force your endings

Make your work reflect life’s complexity; don’t look for neat resolutions where there are none. One of the things that can kill a work of creative non-fiction is an imposed simplification of the reality being explored. Such simplification is particularly common with bad memoirs where authors often rush to offer redemptive endings to their sometimes harrowing life dramas as if every difficulty can be ‘fixed’. Instead, I suggest, stay with the ambivalence and uncertainty if this is what’s true to our experiences.

6. Beware of fiction writers

The following advice may sound arrogant but I think it’s just practical, and may even make the difference between your finishing your project or losing confidence in it: Don’t show your works-in-progress to fiction writers! The parameters and conventions of creative non-fiction differ significantly from fictional ones, despite the many overlaps, and are often quite alien to fiction writers, particularly those who focus on the storytelling aspects of writing and are less interested in ideas. Showing your personal essay to a novelist would be like asking a news reporter for advice on a poem.

7. You don’t actually have to write creative non-fiction

Finally, I think it’s important to be vigilant about how emotionally honest you are prepared to be in your creative non-fiction project. If there are many things you feel you cannot say because you are not prepared to offend people, or because you don’t want to expose yourself and make yourself vulnerable, then in my view it is not worth writing this particular work. It is better to focus on writing something else, maybe fiction, than to end up with a falsely ringing, sentimental piece of writing. 

About Lee Kofman

Lee Kofman is an author of four books, including the memoir ‘The Dangerous Bride’ (Melbourne University Press), and co-editor of ‘Rebellious Daughters’ (Ventura Press), an anthology of memoir by prominent Australian writers. Her short works have been widely published in Australia, UK, Scotland, Israel, Canada and US, including in ‘Best Australian Stories’ and ‘Best Australian Essays’. Her blog was a finalist for Best Australian Blogs 2014. More information at leekofman.com.au