I had to write a blog for uni, addressing the question: “What is Creative Non-Fiction?”
This was what I wrote:
If I woke up one morning to find that the number 2 no longer existed, and I wanted to simply inform people of that fact, I could just say that “the number 2 no longer exists.” If I wanted to say any more on the topic, I would have to do a bit of research before I discovered that it disappeared some time during the night. I don’t know where it went, or who took it, but it’s gone. I might run this strange phenomenon past my family, to see if they noticed it too. Maybe I tried to ring a friend whose number didn’t have a 2 in it. Then I’d go around town, talk to notable members of the public, and try to gather the facts.
Yeah, it’s a pretty interesting story, but if I write it as a list of facts or statistics, things that have happened, and what the results are, it won’t really be a story. I could recount how I obtained the information I did, my journey about town, searching for 2, or anyone who might have seen it or know any more about it than me. That’s a story. It’s non-fiction. But it’s not really creative, either. In addition to looking at what happened, creative non-fiction should also look at why it happened.
The number 2 went missing. Fact. Why? Should I structure my story to reflect what it means to me that 2 is missing? Should I place emphasis on the importance of finding it and bringing it back into my world? The facts I churned up since 2 went missing are a product of my own subjectivity. To the people that don’t know, the missing 2 is just a rumour, if it is even present in their lives at all. I am always bound by my own subjectivity, and this begins as soon as I start acknowledging and registering facts. It becomes apparent when I choose what facts to include, what to omit, to what detail, and how they are arranged. This is a part of every work of non-fiction, whether it is a textbook, news article, a photo album, a personal essay, or a memoir.
If I want to tell a story, if I want to insert myself into the story, and (in addition to the facts) if I want to talk about my own opinions, experiences, feelings, and thoughts – or if I want to tell someone else’s story containing those things – I’d get creative. If there’s more to the story than the truth, I feel like I’m dealing with creative non-fiction. If there’s something to be learned, an experience to be shared, a feeling to be captured, I would have to select my facts around that. To construct that layer of meaning, to bend and twists the facts to fit accordingly. Not to lie. Never to lie. But to play a little narrative magic, to acknowledge my own subjectivity and use it to my own advantage. It seems to be the best thing to do.
You will notice that the missing 2 is a hypothetical situation. That’s what I love about creative non-fiction. I can’t lie to fill in the blanks of a story I don’t know, but, on those instances where research lets me down, I am able to project my thoughts into the story and say, “I don’t know exactly what happened here, but I think it might have been aliens that stole the number 2. It might be that 2 never really went missing, but everyone just forgot what it looked like and just failed to recognise it any more.”
I could even write a scene full of facts without any real narrative information. People want to know what happened to the number 2, but while I was trying to find that out for myself, I went down to the park to meet with a friend. It was first thing in the morning, and there was still morning dew on the grass. I propped my bike against the side of a bench and sat down on the bench. The ride down here had got my blood pumping, and I breathed clouds of condensation. I yawned, I scratched the back of my neck, I looked at my watch. That’s when I noticed I read the time wrong back at home, and my friend wasn’t due to meet me here for another hour.
This hypothetical reality creates a mirror that reflects the scene, the character, the plot, so that the reader can look in on everything, and take away the feeling that they know this character, they shared that experience with me. They know what it was like for me to sit on that bench, knowing my mistake, my frustration and disappointment while I waited for my friend. The reality of creative non-fiction is not in the truths, but in the setting and the characters. It reads more like fiction. You can do so many things with creative non-fiction that you can’t do with other forms of writing. I wouldn’t disagree with someone if they said it was its own genre. Nor would I have any issues if they wanted to call creative non-fiction a style. Perfectly valid arguments can be made in both cases.
But I suppose I should address the question that must be on your mind: Why the missing 2? What is the point of transporting myself into a hypothetical world where the number 2 no longer exists?
I’m primarily a fiction writer, and I don’t have the knack for writing reality as well as other people do. I spend my days transporting my mind to strange, surreal places, where I think up all sorts of hypothetical truths. These are the places, stories, and characters I’d be ready to attack in a moment, should I be writing fiction. However, right now I’m working with non-fiction, and this is my way of bending the truth to fit my story.
I have woken up in a world without fiction. It may be that aliens stole it. It may be that I’ve just forgotten what it looks like. But I’ve been searching for six weeks now, and it seems that the only solution is to find something comparable to take its place. Something that still feels like my writing, yet also fits within the definition of creative non-fiction.
I never did end up finding that missing 2.