Creative Nonfiction: Researching And Crafting Stories Of Real Life, by Philip Gerard
The writer of this book is gives a great deal of thoughtful and personal advice about writing creative nonfiction. This is the term that has been more or less settled upon at the present time (and, since this book was published twenty years ago, for quite some time) for those writers whose work sits at the boundary between fiction and nonfiction. Since the time this book was published, the writing of personal essays and other creative nonfiction on blogs has become much more popular, and although this book does not discuss blogging at all, it does discuss the mindframe and attitude one should have towards writing nonfiction that has strong artistic and literary style, and as that category of writing happens to include travel writing , memoir/autobiography , personal essays , book and movie reviews , and similar writings, namely almost all of the writing I do and a large amount of the reading I do, I may be the precise sort of person that would best appreciate this book. I loved it. To be sure, not everyone else will love this book, but if you are a writer and you appreciate good writing about good writing, the odds are significant that you will love this book as well, not only for its content but for the fact that the author writes so well, providing an example of creative nonfiction and not merely a discussion of it.
In just over 200 pages the author manages to cover an impressive scope of material concerning the writing of literary nonfiction that aims to convey a commitment to truth while also showing an admirable attention to a storytelling approach and artistic form. Part of this book is a how-to guide from an instructor of creative nonfiction at the University of North Carolina-Wilmington, showing how to experience the first-hand reality of a story that gives one’s writing a sense of authenticity, writing a grabbing opening, crafting an engaging story using dialogue, plot, and conflict, finding a voice that readers can trust and a style that sings with lyrical beauty, writing other people’s stories in an ethical fashion that avoids lawsuits, and revising a work to bring out its essential core. However, this book rises above the workmanlike effort a mere how-to guide by being itself an example of excellent and moving and lyrical prose itself. The book itself is divided into eleven chapters as the author covers such matters as defining creative nonfiction, finding an original subject that corresponds to one’s passions and knowledge, researching, interviewing, working on assignment, deciding the form of one’s creative nonfiction based on how much material it is and what genre it seems to fall into, telling a true story, putting yourself on the line to build interest on the part of the reader, dealing with mystery and structure, style and attitude, revising, and dealing with legal and ethical questions. The author then closes with a bibliography for readers that includes a selected research list for readers interested in a deeper look at the subject.
Part of what makes this book such an excellent read is that the author knows what he is talking about on several levels. For one, he is an excellent reader of creative nonfiction, with insightful comments such as the following: “We realize, all at once, that they’ve been making art the only way art can be fashioned, out of the imperfect things of this world (15).” The author speaks as a knowledgeable writer of creative fiction, giving voice to the anxieties writers often face in our work: “But in fact most writers I know are just as timid around strangers as the average nonwriter–some even more so. After all, we writers are used to spending long stretches of solitary time in small, isolated rooms, with only the company of our word machines. We hate to bother people. If the person in question is famous, we feel a bit like imposters and are reluctant, even apologetic, about taking up that person’s valuable time. You would think that practice would make it easier to approach complete strangers and ask questions, but in my experience, at least, it never gets easier (56-57).” And the author has also thought long and hard about the tradeoffs made by writers who are under compulsion to write despite its immense costs on their personal happiness and well-being: “In some sense, the writer is always the interloper, the eavesdropper, standing just outside the conversation, on the edge of the memory, participating in it but also already using it, and not always comfortable in the dual role. We feel like spies in the family circle, looters of the family album, under cover agents recording the most intimate conversations of our friends. Informers on ourselves. We give up our lives to make words, telling as many of our secrets as we dare. We give up something–privacy, the freedom of anonymity, the freedom to forget and be forgotten about (146).” It is not only that the author knows how to read and how to write, but pours out of the agony of his soul the struggles faced by a writer who wants to be true to themselves and to the shabbiness of the reality that we often write about, and also to turn that shabby reality into something beautiful and artistic. For those of us who struggle in this task, this is an excellent book to read and reflect upon and apply.
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