Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Creative Non-Fiction ~ Factual & Fascinating

. . .recycling is important. But what of our own natural resources? Our humor, our compassion, our curiosity? What could be more earth-friendly. . .

~ Shannon Martin, 2008 ~

Recently Jasia (Creative Gene) wrote A Plan For Writing My Family History where she asked if anyone had written a family history similar to hers "where there is virtually no personal information on any of my ancestors."

Chery Kinnick (Nordic Blue) and I both recommended "Creative Non-Fiction" as a genre that would lend itself to Jasia's and many family historian's situation. Family history can, without question, be creative non-fiction. The key word being "non-fiction" or a factual recounting of our family history.

I think it would be advantageous to all family historians to gain an understanding of this relatively new genre.

Creative non-fiction (also known as literary or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing which uses literary craft in presenting nonfiction. It is factually accurate prose about real people and events written in a compelling and vivid manner.

Creative non-fiction writers don't make things up they make ideas that already exist more interesting and accessible. Forms within this genre include personal essays, memoir, travel writing, food writing, biography, literary journalism, and family histories.

In the book, The Art of Fact, literary critic Barbara Lounsberry suggests four characteristics of the creative non-fiction genre:

Documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘invented’ from the writer’s mind.” - the topics and events discussed in the text verifiably exist in the natural world.

Exhaustive research,” - allows the writer “novel perspectives on their subjects” and “permits them to establish the credibility of their narratives through verifiable references in their texts.”

The scene”. - the importance of describing and revivifying the context of events in contrast to the typical journalistic style of objective reportage.

Fine writing: a literary prose style”. “Verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research guarantee the nonfiction side of literary nonfiction; the narrative form and structure disclose the writer’s artistry; and finally, its polished language reveals that the goal all along has been literature.”

The following is a scene I'm writing for my Salter family history. I was not there, none of my ancestors were there. The information was taken from four newspaper accounts, two biographies, a history of Carnegie Hall, and two Carnegie booklets (citations have been included in the history - omitted here for brevity - provided upon request). It is factually accurate, based on documented sources, but written as creative non-fiction.

THE BAND IS PLAYING THE CASTLE AIR FROM “DAS RHEINGOLD” AS WALTER Damrosch escorts Mrs. Andrew Carnegie from the platform. She carries a bright gold ceremonial trowel that she uses to pat the edges of the mortar around the cornerstone of what is to become one of America’s most beloved institutions, Carnegie Hall.

The platform is filled to overflowing, as is the surrounding enclosure. The interest by lovers of music is demonstrated in the sheer numbers of representatives and members of all the New York musical organizations attending this outdoor ceremony. The Oratorio Society has turned out in full force. The “parent organization of advanced musical culture in New York”, the Philharmonic Society, has sent an equally large delegation. Box holders from the Opera Society are sprinkled throughout the crowd as are the many musicians attending. All the Brooklyn and New Jersey musical organizations have arrived to show their enthusiasm and support. Never in the history of the City has so illustrious a group of music, finance, and social elite been brought together in one place for one purpose.

Andrew Carnegie is introduced to thunderous applause; he is the man of the hour, this is his vision. Once into his speech it is clear his vision appears to be markedly different than that of the gathering, but no one notices, or no one cares. Carnegie extols the Hall’s subsidiary function as a lecture platform. His vision is summed up in his hopes that the hall will stand for ages and intertwine itself with the history of the country. His only reference to the world of music comes as he dedicates the Hall as a temple, a shrine to the Goddess of Music, “hovering over and ennobling whatever use may be made of it.”

It is a simple ceremony witnessed by an uncharacteristically boisterous, enthusiastic, hand clapping crowd of New York music high society. Walter Damrosch tosses his hat in the air; the ceremony has come to an end, music history is just beginning.

This is how I see "Creative Non-Fiction." When I write my family history I include more characters than my family, their friends, and neighbors. For the Salters I include Carnegie Hall, New York City, transportation, the year, the weather, etc., as characters in my family history and write about them as well.

Two excellent examples of creative non-fiction writers within our community of GeneaHistorians who blog are L.H. Crawley of The Virtual Dime Museum and Chery Kinnick of Nordic Blue. Read their work. It is factual and fascinating, exactly what we want our family history to be.

This is simply an introduction to creative non-fiction. More information can be found in the following:


Dillard, Annie; Gutkind, Lee (2005). In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Gutkind, Lee (1997). The Art of Creative Nonfiction: Writing and Selling the Literature of Reality. New York: Wiley.

Gutkind, Lee, ed. (2008). Keep It Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction. New York: W.W. Norton & Co.

Associated Writing Programs; Forche, Carolyn; Gerard, Philip (2001). Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs. Cincinnati: Writer's Digest Books.


Creative Non-Fiction - The voice of the genre.

Bruce Dobler's Brief Reading List for Creative Nonfiction - A must read!



Blogger Terry Thornton said...

Excellent --- interesting and practical advice with a well-done example.

I wish, however, you had shown how this fascinating glimpse is to be woven into your specific family history. In other words, how do you make the transition from what is "REAL" family history within the "CREATIVE NON-FICTION" you are writing. It seems to me that the transitons/moving between real and creative non-fiction could be fraught with pitfalls unless one is most careful.

My only experience along these lines was to attempt to write a historical fiction using only the dates, names, locales, and major documented evidence of some of my family within a framework of completely "made-up" events and narrative. It can be interesting to put words into the mouths of ancestors --- and even more interesting to set into motion decisions to account for "why" certain family events took place.

Thanks, Maven, for such a thought provoking article.

July 23, 2008 at 4:49 PM  
Blogger Caroline said...

I am currently reading True Women by Janice Woods Windle (Putnam, 1994) and recommend it as an example close to this genra. I came across it while sorting books for my local library's used book sale. It caught my eye because a line on the book jacket describing it as "two books in engrossing novel built upon her real ancestors." I think your readers would find it an interesting example. Clearly Ms Windle had some great family stories.

July 25, 2008 at 5:00 PM  
Blogger footnoteMaven said...

Caroline - thanks for the example. I'm off to see if I can find one.


July 25, 2008 at 5:07 PM  
Blogger my Heritage Happens said...

Helpful article! I need to read and study about writing my family stories, writing is not one of my best qualities. Another reason I hesitate on writing a blog! I am going to look for the book Carolyn has described also! Cheryl

July 27, 2008 at 8:38 PM  
Blogger Chery Kinnick said...


My, thanks for the mention! You did a far better job of explaining creative fiction than I ever could...

July 28, 2008 at 11:24 AM  

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