“She said you could graduate!”
My mother’s news shocked me. I could graduate high school a year early? I don’t even remember saying “yes.” God was directing my path in a different direction than I anticipated, and I could not get in His way. I never envisioned myself at Presbyterian College, and I certainly never thought that on May 11, 2021, I would have completed my freshman year of college.
The bright spot in the middle of my sudden transition from high school to college was a creative nonfiction course my brother suggested. Until then, I considered myself a fiction writer with little interest in pursuing other genres, yet the information the professor sent me about the course drew me in. If you had asked me, “What is creative nonfiction?” I might have said something like, “I don’t know, but it sounds interesting!”
Creative nonfiction is true stories told creatively, open to any interpretation you desire—filling in details you may not know exactly. If you remember the main premise of a conversation, you can form dialogue around it. It does not need to be exactly right, because if the main storyline is intact, it is still true. When you relate a family story with a few embellishments, and someone jumps in saying, “That’s not right!” you are telling creative nonfiction.
How can something be true yet slightly distorted at the same time? My professor gave many examples of conversations where he wasn’t present but wrote the dialogue anyway. I ended up recreating conversations I didn’t completely remember. For example, in my third essay, in which I described my family’s first impressions after watching the pilot of a new television show, I wrote:
“That was weird,” I said to my father.
“It was just the pilot. They aren’t all like that.”
“That was horrible! Why did we watch that? We are not watching that again.” My mom agreed.
My brother wasn’t quite as weirded out as the rest of us. “Let’s watch something else.”
Neither of us were jumping up and down to see another episode.
Not all these words were said at one time. I’m not even sure if they were said at all. But my professor said I needed to describe each person’s feelings to introduce the characters, or each member of my family. It’s the same way you would introduce fictional characters in a story, with a line of dialogue to show their perspectives. And it isn’t false. This is how they felt, even if they didn’t express it that way. I was only eight when this particular event took place, so I don’t remember who said exactly what or when.
But you are not limited to dialogue. In my first essay, I merged time zones to create a complete picture. I described a street in my hometown and the businesses on it, but to make it work, I had to list businesses that weren’t all there at the same time. That doesn’t make it false—they all did exist—my history was just a little off.
Still, I did not really understand what creative nonfiction is until I read one of the required essay collections, The World is on Fire by Joni Tevis. This book is an excellent example of creative nonfiction because it embodies everything necessary for the genre. From personal stories to historical endeavors, The World is on Fire takes you on a journey through the author’s psyche, relaying truths in a personal, powerful way complete with her unique storytelling voice. Within the first pages, I was captivated.
In my favorite passage, Joni Tevis steps inside the life of Sarah Winchester, creating the mysterious Winchester house in California. The author wonders why Sarah Winchester built a maze-like house, with staircases leading up to the ceiling, to nowhere. Sarah Winchester is dead–is there any way to find out? What really grabbed me about this book is how Joni Tevis steps inside the lives of other people—many who died long ago—and tries to understand their thought processes, feelings, essentially why they did what they did. That is something I had never encountered before in writing, and now, I often find myself wondering about people and their motivations.
This book, and the course in general, helped me realize that it’s okay to write about true events. In a way, all fiction is based on something true. I discovered that I am interested in writing nonfiction, and I learned new techniques to improve my fiction writing, including using action verbs instead of “be” verbs with the saying we all know so well: show, don’t tell. Writing creative nonfiction is as much an art as crafting a short story and requires all the plot elements of a short story: suspense, inciting incident, resolution, etc. The only difference is that it is true.
In fact, you might be reading creative nonfiction writing now.
If creative nonfiction could be right for me, maybe it could be right for you, too! Either way, it’s a great writing exercise. Every day in class, we would start with a creative nonfiction prompt and free writing exercise. When you think of a nonfiction topic to write about, what appeals to you and why? From the same one sentence prompt, each student created something unique. I surprised myself with the myriad of ideas that came to mind once I started writing. From abandoned buildings to my favorite television show, each was meaningful to me, and the quest to discover why made the crammed, fifteen-week journey worthwhile.
Here are some prompts I enjoyed which you might want to try:
Visualize a street in your hometown. You are driving down that street. Tell what you are seeing.
Describe an odd family member.
Think of a social function that you and at least one friend attended where something disturbing occurred. Describe the function in the present tense from your perspective, and then, describe it from your friend’s perspective. Be sure to include at least one line of dialogue that is in both perspectives.
And a particularly hard one that really teaches you about yourself:
Describe a time when you saw, heard, or overheard something that you wished you never had.
Kathryn Dover lives in South Carolina with her family including three cats (and counting!), a dog, two fish, and many house plants. She attends Presbyterian College and is studying Math and Creative Writing.