“In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz.” (Gutkind) I rather like that statement. Jazz is a musical art form that mixes elements of different styles together. It flows, it ebbs, it is often spontaneous in nature and it is always growing, developing. Jazz is a symbol of unrestricted creativity. It allows interaction between the listener and performer, and places equal value upon the performer and the composer. It is unique, but instantly recognisable. It is adaptable and often makes strong comments on society and societal values. If creative nonfiction is anything, it is the literary version of jazz.
So let’s break it down. Jazz may be a spontaneous and emotional musical art form, but it still has a basic structure, the same can be said for creative nonfiction. The essence is in the name. Nonfiction is, of course, a tale that is true. It is a factually accurate genre. Nonfiction is most commonly found in the forms of essays, articles, research papers and memoirs. Adding ‘creative’ before the title allows for changes to the literary techniques used in creating the written piece. Suddenly the writer has expanded their creative field to poetry, scripts, novels and various other engaging reads. Despite these writing pieces being factual, adding a creative element to them allows a more compelling, engaging and vibrant experience for the reader. Just as a musician performs a jazz piece, they take the structure of the music, build upon it and the next thing you know they’re performing a freestyle solo.
Of course, with the title ‘creative’ comes the questioning of validity. Does adding a creative element to a nonfiction piece allow for exaggeration, embellishment and the creation of facts by the author? The answer is not a simple yes or no. Embellishment and exaggeration are most likely to occur in the form of descriptive language, persuasive tone and the other literary techniques employed that are not standard to often dry factual pieces. In saying this, however, the nature of nonfiction, the factual elements of the piece, are not altered. The author has made a promise to the reader when penning a nonfiction piece. It may be entertaining, but the facts are true.
The true glory of a creative nonfiction piece is the same as jazz music, it is usually quite personal. ‘It is writing about and from a world that includes the author’s life and/or the author’s eye on the lives of others.’ (Borich). When reading a poem or personal essay the identity of the author, the writer’s voice, is identifiable. The author of a piece of this nature is present within their work and they often take on the role of a physical character. The “I” persona the author takes on leads the reader through the story, a hand held out to them to guide them through memories, experiences, observations, opinions and whatever else the author is discussing in their writing. It becomes a simple task for the reader to identify with the author and allows the reader to feel a level of comfort in the knowledge presented to them. The reader is able to identify more when the work before them is presented as creative nonfiction. As with a great performance, the very soul of the writer is evident.
The personal nature of creative nonfiction does not mean that the work is just thrown together though. A great jazz musician is not just born, they practice and practice. Many nonfiction pieces are researched quite extensively through the means of interviews, personal experience, literary forms, the internet, forums, public discussions and even simple observation of the world around the author. There is a large element of reportage in creative nonfiction as well. The author is often required to document events in the world, the location they are writing about and even their own lives whilst explaining the experience to the reader. The description of these experiences are presented as a story with elements of setting, scene, plot, dialogue, theme and everything else that makes up a narrative, poem or short story.
Creative nonfiction is not a new phenomenon. The art form has been around for not only years, but centuries. It is only in the more recent few decades that the term ‘creative nonfiction’ has been applied however. Some of my personal favourite nonfiction pieces include works by the controversial Jonathan Ames, ‘Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas’ by Hunter S. Thompson, ‘Angela’s Ashes’ by Frank McCourt and ‘Friday Night Lights’ by H.G. Bissinger. The last novel I mentioned I read after my partner began watching the television series it inspired. I really should get around to reading ‘Eat, Pray, Love’ by Elizabeth Gilbert as well, it’s supposed to be a fantastic piece. When reading any of these, it is easy to become involved in the stories presented. They’re engaging, insightful and really make you think. Just as I lose myself in a wonderful jazz rendition, tapping my feet and singing along, wishing it would never end, I find myself either encompassed in the author’s world, or curious to learn more about them.
As you may well tell, I rather enjoy this genre of literature, both the reading and the writing of it. Creative nonfiction is simply storytelling, except these stories really happened. They’re engaging reflections upon society, livelihoods, food, culture, fashion and everything else that makes up our big bad world. The very nature of creative nonfiction is eclectic. It’s jazz, in literary form.
‘What is Creative Nonfiction’. Creative Nonfiction Collective Society. Web. Accessed 5th October 2014.
Gutkind, Lee. ‘You can’t make this stuff up.’ Da Capo Press. 2012. Book.
Hood, David. ‘Writing Creative Nonfiction’. Find Your Creative Muse. 17th February 2010. Web. Accessed 5th October 2014.
Borich, Barrie Jean. ‘An Introduction.’ Barrie Jean Borich. 2001. Updated 2013. Web. Accessed 5th October 2014.