At Antioch, I also sat in on Jerry Dennis’s Creative Nonfiction (CNF) talks. He is a master storyteller and a swell writer. (I am currently reading his book The Living Great Lakes.
He says our goal (and challenge)in CNF is to take a personal story and make it universal. He likens this process to fishing tales, which all have a narrative arc.
Biography, journalism, and travel writing are nonfiction, but they are not necessarily Creative nonfiction.
The key difference is CNF is told with a narrative arc. CNF writers use fiction like techniques to tell a story, yet the story is based on truth. (Jerry recommends studying legal briefs to study language.)
He cites Sue Williams Silverman "Fearless Confection: a Writer's Guide to Memoir", as a good source, as well as her suggested reading list.
Here are several examples of CNF:
Memoir is autobiography that is not the whole story. Usually a memoir shows only a brief period of time in the author's life. A good example is This Boy's Life, by Tobias Wolff. The memoir covers a period of about five years of Wolff's boyhood.)
(Biography- is less creative form than memoir. Tells the facts, but not necessarily a story. Relies more on "telling.")
Autobiography- 1st person memoir often a public figure
Immersion Journalism, like Nickel and Dimed by Barbara Ehrenreich. (The author lived for a year working minimum wage jobs to see how one survives doing that.)
Personal essay - where an author refelcts on an idea or experience. A personal story that has wide appeal.(I recall a fine essay a student of mine once wrote about seeing the ocean for the first time. It was his own experience, yet the details placed the reader at the scene with him.)
Meditative essay and Lyric essay share some of the qualities of personal essays. Think Diane Ackerman or .
in all cases, CNF writers pay attention to narrative, language, and reflection. Like good poetry, CNF is not just about the writer, even if the piece is a memoir. The purpose goes beyond the self. For example, Jerry's The Living Great Lakes includes stories and scenes of his adventures on the lakes, but the book is not about him; it's a living history of the lakes.
Jerry discusses the Terrible Blank Page: What to Write?. All writers suffer anxiety in front of the blank page or the blinking cursor. Jerry begins with an image, such as skating on a frozen lake. He believes images help engage and ground the reader. “[Creative Nonfiction] should give you more than expectations. It should explode.” He recommends reading Ian Frazier, who conducts immersion journalism, ‘relevant tangents just for the joy of it’, and E.B. White, who writes unexpected sentences. Jerry discusses how “surprise is crucial in nonfiction, as in any form of writing. “ I want to read a sentence and not know how it’s going to end.” Surprise can be subtle, but it keeps readers reading. “You never know where White is going with the sentence,” Jerry says. “Good sentences give off a little light, they are charged, they are alive. Start [ your manuscript] from the alive sentence, from the part that interests you.”.
Jerry also discusses the ‘two conflicting voices that coerce you or prevent you from writing.” It’s a paradox because the same voice that compels you to write , (this is great stuff, oh yeah, can’t wait to share this one) can also block you from writing, (This sucks. Nobody wants to read your work.)
His advice is to just write. And when that doesn’t work, go out and live. Then write about it.
The following are examples from Jerry Dennis’s work:
The first sentence of his book proposal of The Living Great Lakes:
“When fresh water becomes as precious as gold, the Great Lakes will be the mother lode.”
From his blog:
“Last week Glenn Wolff and I posed as poster children for an upcoming campaign by the Grand Traverse Conservation District to raise awareness about the beautiful and fragile Boardman River.”
To give you an idea of Jerry’s character, he calls his blog ‘Bountiful World’
Me with Jerry Dennis at Antioch Writers' Workshop 2012