Different Ways to Tell the Truth: A Primer on Creative Nonfiction Subgenres

Yes, yes, creative nonfiction does sound like an oxymoron, and even though it seems to have become en vogue only recently, it’s really the oldest genre there is. In the long, long time ago, there was little distinction between writing that was based on fact and writing that conveyed a fictional story. I’m sure there is room for debate here, but consider the etymology of the word novel.

That said, there are now so many permutations of nonfictional writing that it can make your head spin. In fact, there are so many that I am going to focus on the more literary of the nonfiction subgenres and leave out the more utilitarian varieties—reports, technical writing, history, scientific writing, user manuals, textbooks, self-help, etc.

Here are just a few ways to tell a true story:

Essay

The essay may be one of the oldest forms of what we consider literary nonfiction today. The essay can take many forms—a political rant, a manifesto, a personal story, a persuasive argument, a philosophical (and rhetorical) debate, a rambling and seemingly pointless musing—it’s quite flexible.  The thing that most essays have in common is that they are told from the writer’s point of view. The opinions expressed are the author’s, whether a distinctive “I” is used or whether it is written with a generalized voice (as they so often teach in grade school English classes.)

Even though it seems to have become en vogue only recently, [creative nonfiction is] really the oldest genre there is.

The forefather of the modern essay is generally thought to be Michel de Montaigne, a French nobleman who lived during the 1500s whose essays on the human condition echo the modern essayist’s introspective tone. His essays mused on such pedestrian topics as memory loss, his father, raising children, avoiding fame, the intersection of religion and politics in his time, the general fallibility of humans, and—of course—death.

Though, these days, we seem to have divvied up the essay pie-slice into even smaller, more specific pieces, the essay remains one of literary nonfiction’s most flexible and most organic forms.

If you want to read a really great compendium of essays from a wide time period, check out The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present, edited by Philip Lopate. Check out the essays “Hateful Things” by Sei Shonagon and “Blindness” by Jorge Luis Borges, if you need a place to start.

Memoir (autobiography)

It’s a powerful thing—a person telling their own story. It lends automatic authority and emotion. However, not every memoir is moving, and—don’t kid yourself—many memoirs are not written by the person who lived it. Celebrities, politicos, and those 15-minutes-of-famers often have ghost writers who do the heavy literary lifting for them. Just because you lived and interesting life or experienced something terrible/miraculous/insane, it doesn’t mean you can write. Conversely, just because you can write, it doesn’t mean your life or experiences are interesting. (When I wish to be cynical, I tend to believe that most nonfiction writing programs are filled with people who are only there to start work on their sure-to-be-bestselling memoirs—I know I was.)

The best memoirs come from those lucky few who have not only lived through something interesting, but have the ability to write beautifully about it, and have the gumption to talk about it honestly to strangers. Here are few of my favorites:

Mary Karr’s The Liars' Club: A Memoir, Orhan Pamuk’s Istanbul: Memories and the City, Dave Egger’s A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, and, of course, anything by David Sedaris—with the exception of that chipmunk book.

Biography

Long before I married and changed my last name to Houston, I dressed up like the Texan pioneer, Sam Houston, for a 4th grade book report on a biography. You, too, probably had to read a biography in grade school and do some sort of report or presentation, so it’s likely you are familiar with the concept of a biography—it’s a long piece that details the life (or a significant part of a life) of some influential person.

Biographies can be written long after the person has lived and died or during the person’s lifetime. They can be written with the person’s permission and involvement (authorized) or not (unauthorized). When biographies are penned after the person’s death and by a person who never knew the subject, a reader has to rely on the authority of the writer and his or her sources to decide whether the work is credible or bogus. Many, many, many books appear on the shelves each year that are labeled biographies. The same person can appear 10 different ways in 10 different biographies. Even though biographies are considered standard nonfiction writing, it does seem to me that it can also be one of the most likely of the subgenres to include a lot of subjectivity and potential for fictionalization.

Obviously, if the writer knew the subject during his or her lifetime, it could be safer to assume they have authority. Consider Charles Dickens’ good friend and biographer John Forster. Though published posthumously, Forster’s three volume work, The Life of Charles Dickens, is considered the most authoritative biography of the popular writer because Forster knew Dickens and was a long-time agent, advisor, editor, friend, and observer of the man.

Profile

Unlike a biography, a profile gives only a glimpse into the world of a particular person as observed by a third party (i.e., the writer). Most profiles take the form of a writer following this or that person around for a while and then creating an article from what they witnessed. Profiles often include descriptions of small scenes and snippets of dialogue that will be used to demonstrate the character of the person. Was the person nice? Or was he/she an asshole? What do they like to eat for breakfast? What do they think of the current president? The writer sometimes co-stars in his or her profile because it’s hard to write about a person without admitting on some level that you were following them around and some of that person’s behavior may be due to being followed around by a writer. Some writers, however, suppress their involvement and write themselves out of the piece entirely so that it reads like an omniscient narrator. Also, the subject of a profile tends to be of a living (or recently deceased) person, and the writer tends to have met the subject of the profile in person.

The New Yorker has long published profiles. In fact, they sell a collection of some of the best profiles published in the magazine: Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker.

Journalism

I think the key element in a journalistic-type piece is that is contains research and a balanced approach to the information it presents. We rely on (supposedly) objective journalism to tell us what is going on in the world every day. We call it “news” and it’s meant to be the nonfictionalized subgenre of all nonfiction writing. It should include information from all sides and not appear to lean any particular way. It can be short form (news article) or long form (book) or any length in between. Journalistic writing implies that it is telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth. (Though, we all know that is an ideal, not a reality.)

I used to think journalism required an omniscient narrator, but these days—not so much. Plenty of journalism includes a speaker (writer) who is present and part of the article in some way. In some of these works, it may be hard to distinguish between memoir and journalism, but in many cases it can lend authority in a way that a book written without the author’s appearance may not be able to. Consider Rebecca Skloot’s book The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. The book not only talks about the life of Henriette Lacks and her family, but also of how, while researching the book, the author became involved in their lives. What could be a dry explanation of how a cervical cancer cell from an unknown woman became a medical breakthrough is really a warm and personalized account of an amazing story that affects just about all of modern Western medicine.

Letter

Letters are written by a person with another person or group of people specifically in mind. They typically reveal things that only the writer and the recipient are meant to know. The speaker of a letter is never hidden, and the audience is also obvious. Letters are authoritatively nonfiction because they are honest, and yet they are entirely fallible. The information in a letter is always subject to doubt because it comes through the filter of the first-person point-of-view of the writer. Any events described in a letter that did not happen directly to the writer would be considered hearsay, and therefore without the necessary authority to convince a third-party reader of its absolute truth. And yet, because there is little pretense in a letter and because letters are generally meant to be read only by the recipient, there is a level of honesty that memoir or biographies can’t attain.  

Diary or Journal

Actually, this might be the most nonfictionalized subgenre of all nonfiction writing because there is no one to impress. Even though the word diary is etymologically linked to the word for “day” and originated as a daily log of events, it has evolved over the years to mean an intensely private piece of nonfiction written by a writer for his or her eyes only. The point of a diary is that it NEVER be published, and yet, many have been—and sometimes by the person who wrote it! One of the most famous published diaries is, of course, that of Anne Frank, the ill-fated Jewish girl in Nazi-occupied Holland. There are, however, many other published diaries of famous people—Lewis Carroll, Harry Truman, Kurt Cobain, the Marquis de Sade—that are sure to whet your appetite for the unadulterated truth (and scandal).

Travelogue

Stuck wherever you are? Want to go somewhere else? Pick up a travelogue and leave your life behind. Travel writing lies somewhere in between memoir and journalism in that is relies on the writer’s experience AND research to give it authority. A person who has never been to Dubai cannot write a credible travel piece about it no matter how much research they do. The writer has to have been there. A good travel book is totally subjective, I’ve found. Some people want to read about the best food and prettiest destinations (Under the Tuscan Sun: At Home in Italy by Frances Mayes) while others prefer to read stories about places that are less popular, not so nice, and maybe not even that far away (AA Gill is Away by A.A. Gill or Fugitives and Refugees: A Walk in Portland, Oregon by Chuck Palahniuk).

Food

While almost a subgenre of travel writing, food writing has grown in popularity quite a bit. The funny thing about food writing is that it is entirely subjective and totally voyeuristic. As a reader, you rely on the descriptions of the writer to allow you to also taste whatever it is the writer is eating. Even an article about some ridiculous dish you’d NEVER wrap your lips around can allow you to pretend that you are adventurous enough to try raw squid or monkey brains or fried meal worms. In fact, like travel writing, I think the key to food writing is the voyeurism, the seduction of food, and the tasting a forbidden or unattainable dish based on a writer’s description. A lot of food writing is just a step up from pornography—it’s a total tease.

The new food writing literary magazine Lucky Peach will make your mouth water. As for books, I do love Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential,  but I am eager to read Toro Bravo: Stories. Recipes. No Bull. , the book by John Gorham, the chef-who-opened-that-Spanish-restaurant-in-Portland-that-I’ve-been-dying-to-try called, you guessed it, Toro Bravo.


What is your favorite nonfiction subgenre or book? Share with me—I need some inspiration on what to read next!

Image of The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present
Author: Phillip Lopate
Price: $16.67
Publisher: Anchor (1995)
Binding: Paperback, 777 pages
Image of Life Stories: Profiles from The New Yorker (Modern Library Paperbacks)
Author:
Price: $17.60
Publisher: Modern Library (2001)
Binding: Paperback, 624 pages
Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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Comments

Peter Taylor's picture
Peter Taylor November 14, 2013 - 1:24am

Thanks for this, Taylor.

My YA in progress is a creative biography of a wealthy 19th century English hermit who boarded himeself up in the family home for 25 years. He wore only a horse blanket, never washed, never cut his hair or nails and slept on ashes. Up to 400 onlookers a day (Charles Dickens included) came to see who would receive gin and cash and who would be abused and pelted with rock hard stale loaves. While the hermit was in the house, his siblings couldn't realise their inheritance - so my account is written from his brother's imagined point of view. But there's still a lot of research to do...

All best wishes from Australia

Peter

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Portland, Oregon is reading 'Alexander Hamilton' by Ron Chernow November 14, 2013 - 10:14am

Wow, Peter, that sounds fascinating! Good luck to you on your research and writing. If you feel like sharing it once you've finished it, I'd love to read it.