Writing Creative Nonfiction: Objective Facts v. Personal Truth

Slide1Readers who are not writers may wonder what “creative nonfiction” is. Many writers wonder also. How can nonfiction be creative?

I recently attended a program at The Writer’s Place in Kansas City on Creative Nonfiction. Our presenter was Kate Meadows, a freelance writer and editor.

The definition Kate used for “creative nonfiction” was “telling true stories in a meaningful way.” Under her definition, I hope this blog is creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction looks for the real story behind the facts. It is more than the “who, what, where, when, why, and how” of journalism. Those are the facts.

In creative nonfiction, the story matters more than the facts. Creative nonfiction moves beyond the ostensible objectivity of journalism (is any journalist really objective?) to find and articulate the author’s perspective.

Many of my posts tell stories about my life and the people and places and objects in it. Other posts tell stories about historical figures and events. I try to craft these posts to give my perspective on my family and on history.

After I’ve written some of the family stories on this blog, I’ve had relatives tell me, “That’s not the way it was.” And that may not have been how it was for them. I tell the stories as I remember them and the truth as I see it.

That’s all I can do.

One of the important issues in writing creative nonfiction is the difference between fact and truth. As someone who has worked in the legal and Human Resources fields for many years, I understand that difference.

The words of the legal oath—in which witnesses are sworn to tell “the whole truth”—are impossible to satisfy. No one person can tell “the whole truth.” We can only tell our own version of the truth, the portion of the facts that we saw or heard, and what it meant to us.

In a conversation at work about an employee’s performance, for example, the words that a manager says to the employee are fact. The meaning behind those words, however, is truth. There is only one set of objective facts, but there can be many truths. The employee may believe “My boss thinks I’m no good,” while the manager intends to be encouraging—“Here’s how you can do better.”

Perhaps my experience is what has led me to want to write personal essays and editorials, though I’ve never wanted to be a journalist. I want to tell the story as I see it. I do not want to stick to the facts. I want to shape the story.

Authors of creative nonfiction use fictional devices to tell their stories. They craft scenes into a satisfying story arc, with beginning, middle, and end. Like short story writers and novelists, they use plot, dialogue, voice, selective description, and figurative language to get at the meaning of the story.

Kate suggested that as we write creative nonfiction we answer the questions:

So what?
Who cares?
Why now?

cropped-mc9001498821.jpgIntentional use of my personal perspective on the story I tell gives me the “so what”. Tales of the emigrants to Oregon in the mid-19th century fascinate me because of our ancestors’ courage in seeking a new life. I want to convey my awe to readers as well, and I hope that we all learn courage by hearing these tales of earlier times.

Almost by definition, if I’m writing about something, at least I care about it. As I tell a story, I try to point out universal themes that we all experience in our lives, and I hope that my readers then care as well. (And that more people come across this blog and are moved to follow it.)

And the why now? I often have a reason for when I time my posts, but not always. Sometimes it’s because it’s near a relative’s birthday or a holiday. Sometimes I just need something to meet my Monday/Wednesday posting schedule.

And sometimes it’s because I just attended an interesting workshop and want to pass along the tips I heard.

Writers, what does creative nonfiction mean to you? How do you honor the truth, when you know you only have a part of it?

Posted in Family, History, Philosophy, Writing and tagged , , , , , , , , , .


  1. I taught Creative Nonfiction at Avila for several semesters. And while universal themes are important, the research you are doing and which you insert into your blog posts, along with a story, is what makes them “creative nonfiction.” Two books: “The Art of Creative Nonfiction” by Lee Gutkind. Lee Gutkind sort of invented the form, or at least first codified it and introduced it into university writing programs. I have two copies of that book so if you want it, I can send it to you. The second book is the one I prefer and taught from. “Writing True, The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction” by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz. Both of them are also college teachers. Hope this helps.
    As for family feedback on “that’s not the way it was….” maybe you’d want to do research and writing on memory and why we remember things the way we do! That’s probably NOT the way it was for them… but that doesn’t make your memory of it untrue.

  2. PS: another really good resource. “The Memoir and the Memorist” by Thomas Larson. While Gutkind is pretty academic, both Larson and the Sondra Perls/Mimi Schwartz books are accessible and even fun to read.

  3. I thought immediately of Lee Gutkind and Creative Nonfiction magazine which he edits and that offers excellent examples of CNF. See especially Special Issue #29 in which Gutkind gives a synopsis of the creative nonfiction movement — “A Million Little Choices: The ABCs of CNF.”

  4. Theresa,
    I am awed and humbled by your words and your insights here. I still hang on to one thing you said at the workshop, that death is not the only thing that kills people; loss of memory is a form of death, too. How poignant and true, especially when we seek to write true and meaningful stories that involve others and, perhaps, trespass upon or conflict with others’ memories (or lack thereof).
    I am also fascinated by the unique perspective you bring to the creative nonfiction genre, as a former lawyer. Indeed, your understanding of fact and truth must run deep. I would love to hear more from that perspective as you continue on your writing journey.
    I am excited to have found you on WordPress!

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