What Creative Nonfiction (CNF) Means to Memoir Writers

by Jerry Waxler

I was invited by Christine Weiser and Carla Spataro, publishers of Philadelphia Stories, to participate in a panel of writers at the 2010 “Push to Publish” writer’s conference. My job would be to offer insights about the Creative Nonfiction Craze. At first, I hesitated. The last time I thought about this literary genre was at the same conference, last year. How could I speak authoritatively about it? I reviewed what I knew.

The first Creative Nonfiction book I read was in 1981. The microcomputer revolution was kicking into high gear and I devoured the trade rags, welcoming news releases from chip manufacturers with the same enthusiasm as I greeted Beatles album in the 60s. I was especially excited when 8-bit microprocessors gave way to the new 16 bit variety. The book “Soul of a New Machine” by Tracy Kidder offered an inside look. He camped out in a computer research lab, and from his intimate position, he introduced me to the engineers who sweated, brainstormed through the night, and then kept coming back for more, vowing to climb the highest intellectual mountains they could find. “Soul of a New Machine,” for which Kidder received a Pulitzer Prize, was a harbinger of the Creative Nonfiction wave.

Flash forward almost thirty years. In 2010, memoirs are everywhere. Hundreds of them spill off my shelves onto the floor. On my blog, I’ve posted hundreds of essays and interviews about reading and writing memoirs. I wrote one book about how to write a memoir, and I’m working on a manuscript about the importance of memoirs in the twenty-first century. The center-piece of my project is my own memoir-in-progress.

I look back across the decades and see how one thing led to another. The Creative Nonfiction genre, referred to by its abbreviation CNF, is now so widely respected it runs like a river through the literary landscape. And the memoir wave flows into and through it, fed by the individuals who share their nonfiction experiences.

Memoir Writers are Immersion Journalists

Kidder’s technique of reporting on a situation by hurling himself into the midst of it became known as “Immersion Journalism,” a specialized branch of the Creative Nonfiction wave. By participating in his subject, he was able to portray a gripping personal account of computer development. The strategy has matured over the decades, allowing a generation of journalists to turn facts into engaging stories. Memoir writers do the same thing and use many of the same tools. Here are some of the CNF techniques they share.

Immersion — You researched your material by living it.
Protagonist — Share yourself so the reader can identify with you.
Suspense — Generate reader interest with delay, urgency, and dramatic conflict.
Scenes — Let the reader see, hear, smell, touch, taste the things you did.
Character –Give characters real emotions, cues and quirks.
Dialog — Show people talking.
Story arc — Use dramatic tension and release, character development, and other story glue.

Memoirists Branch Out to Other CNF Topics

As you craft your memories into readable form, you attend classes, read books about writing, and share your work with critique groups. The final product, a finished memoir, offers interior as well as literary benefits. But what can you write next? Thanks to the skills you have learned while writing your memoir, you can go in a variety of directions.

By applying immersion journalism, suspense, characterization, and other CNF ideas, you can discover book ideas almost anywhere. You might even decide to use immersion journalism techniques to enhance your memoir itself. Many memoirs contain elements of investigative journalism. This can be especially helpful if you feel insecure about the importance of your own life. If you don’t think you are interesting enough to read about, weave in another theme, based on your observations. These satisfy the reader’s urge to learn more about the world and potentially make the book more exciting, relevant, and readable.

Some memoir writers find interesting material by taking a trip. For example Doreen Orion’s memoir “Queen of the Road” is about her travels around the United States with her husband in a luxury RV. In “Zen and Now” author Mark Richardson follows the same route Robert Pirsig traveled on his famous Zen motorcycle trip. Sarah MacDonald went to India and wrote about her religious tourism in “Holy Cow.” Author Stephen Markley actually set about to write a book about writing a book. His memoir “Publish this Book” was immersion journalism about itself. As readers, we are guided by cultural habits as old as civilization. If the protagonist is interested and interesting, we keep reading.

The crossovers go both ways. Successful CNF author Tracy Kidder tried his hand with a memoir about his service in Vietnam titled “My Detachment.” The title is apt, since his character was eerily detached from the surrounding war, a character trait that might explain his successful career as an observer.

CNF Authors Attain the Status of Experts

The reason CNF is so successful is because people like stories. But they also want other forms of information such as advice, analysis, self-help, and calls to action. Many aspiring memoir writers try to fulfill these needs by offering information along with the memoir. But in my experience, too much information derails the story’s momentum and disrupts the suspension of disbelief.

Many memoirs successfully offer non-fiction insights by taking advantage of reliable story-telling techniques. They stay as close as possible to the thick of the story and allow lessons to emerge naturally from it. The best practice is to tell the story first. Let the story enter the reader’s mind, and then by the end of the story, it will feel normal that you want to figure out what you were going through.

This notion of ending with a conclusion about life runs very deep in the nature of stories. The most primal of children’s stories often end with a lesson. “And that’s the reason the skunk has a stripe” or “that’s the reason you should follow your mother’s advice.”

Here are a few memoirs that show first and then tell.

  • International charity work: “Three Cups of Tea,” by Greg Mortenson
  • Flaws in the Foster Care System: “Three Little Words,” by Ashley Rhodes Courter
  • False imprisonment: “Picking Cotton,” by Jennifer Thompson-Cannino and Ronald Cotton
  • Parenting of a special-needs child: “Slant of Sun,” by Beth Kephart,
  • Historical insight into the final years of Jim Crow south: “Colored People” by Henry Gates
  • Right and left hemisphere brain function: “My stroke of insight,” by Jill Bolte Taylor

All of these writers earned their understanding through life experience.

Crossing from Nonfiction to Fiction

Many writers cross between fiction and nonfiction. Both literary forms require appreciation for the compelling structure of a story, and both require excellent language arts.

Dani Shapiro wrote a crash-and-burn memoir, “Slow Motion” about her collapse in a heap of sex and drugs when going to college. She has also written several novels. Same with Alice Sebold. She wrote a memoir “Lucky” about being raped in college and also wrote an acclaimed novel “Lovely Bones” about a girl who had been raped. Beth Kephart wrote several memoirs including “Slant of Sun” about raising a son. Then she switched to writing Young Adult novels.

Can Fiction Writers Learn to Write Creative Nonfiction?

Fiction writers already have an excellent grasp on the elements of Story. Now to write Creative Nonfiction, they surrender their license to invent. The results might lack some of the precision they were able to achieve by adding any detail they wanted. But I think lack of precision is an attractive aspect of memoirs and may even be one of its signatures. We nonfiction readers understand that reality is messier than fiction. In fact, a few messy details add realism the way flaws in handmade objects increase their value.

I Joined the Panel

Once I realized that memoir writing falls under this umbrella of Creative Nonfiction, I knew I would be able to contribute to the panel.  So I agreed to join. At the conference, five of us sat in front of an audience of around 40 writers. It turned out I needn’t have worried. The atmosphere was congenial and collaborative. Perhaps I was feeling the glow of the lovely Rosemont College campus on the main line or perhaps it was the glow of collegiality fostered by Carla and Christine, the producers of Philadelphia’s Push to Publish. Whatever the cause, everyone seemed to feel at home and ready to share and help each other. I felt at ease, sitting with fellow writers, talking about a subject I love. After all I had lived the story, and now I was prepared to share my conclusions.

Interesting Article: Why should fiction writers write nonfiction? Carol Ottolenghi

More memoir writing resources

To see brief descriptions and links to all the essays on Memory Writers Network, click here.

To order my step-by-step how-to guide to write your memoir, click here.

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