On Creative Nonfiction

Much of my writing output is poetry and short fiction. I’m most comfortable and familiar with these two genres, read them the most, enjoy them the most. I teach both of these genres in my role as a college educator; however, I also teach creative nonfiction within the context of a prose creative-writing class. Lately, I have been discovering (rediscovering?) some of the pressing issues in writing creative nonfiction. And I’m thinking about some of these issues because I know an individual who is working on a memoir and asked me, “I’m trying to be as honest as I can, without hurting people I love. Any advice on that?” Whew. That’s a tough question.

Two weeks ago, I received an acceptance of a piece of creative nonfiction, a piece that I presented at the 2014 Texas Association of Creative Writing Teachers’ Conference. I was excited of course. I felt good reading the piece at the aforementioned conference, and I am glad the piece has found a “home” in a magazine I admire. Although I have my share of poetry and short fiction publication, this piece will be my first published creative nonfiction, which is also exciting.

In his excellent creative nonfiction text, The Truth of the Matter, Dinty W. Moore addresses the idea of the writer’s motivation in writing creative nonfiction: why are you telling this story? When teaching this genre to writing students, I pose this question, as well as these two: are you trying to get revenge on someone? Are you trying to make yourself look better than you were/are? For me, these are three fundamental questions in creative nonfiction because the “characters” are real people. I want to be fair, as truthful as possible, and yet in that truth-telling, I must also practice tact. What to include, what to omit, how to say what I want say–these are all considerations, too.

After I received the question quoted above, I began scouring the internet for available articles that I thought might be helpful to pass along. At the same time, I had this feeling in my gut that I needed to reexamine my forthcoming publication. In the piece, I am recounting a series of incidents from my time in a Christian rock band and a weekend tour that was a disaster (from my perspective). In portraying the concert promoter and the visiting evangelist, I realized that I was being uncharitable at the expense of delivering a few more jokes, jokes that were essentially cheap shots. When I read the piece aloud at the conference, it generated a good response. Laughter in the places where I had hoped to achieve laughter. But the promoter is still involved in lay ministry. The evangelist/church planter has a growing ministry. And despite some of my theological disagreements, they were (and still are, as far as I can discern) genuine people, “real” people–not simply “characters” in a story that’s “made up.” I had to think about my motivation for telling this story, arriving at the conclusion that the main target of the piece is really me (as a 21-year-old) and some of my assumptions and my self-inflated ego.

In discussing these matters, I do not intend to paint myself in a more positive light as though I’m some “holy roller” who has it all figured out. I’m only trying to engage the core questions with which I challenge my creative writing students. I am trying to answer these questions, confronted by my own lack of charity. So there is rewriting to do, and I’m grateful that I can do so (since the piece won’t be published until the fall sometime.) As the late Richard Marius wrote in “Writing and Its Rewards” (a wonderful brief essay), “Writing is a parable of life itself.”