In an article posted today on the journal River Teeth‘s website, Eric LeMay tackles the common question: What is creative nonfiction? I like LeMay’s approach because he succintly addresses many of the definitional issues that nonfiction faces–those that nonfiction writers struggle with in categorizing their own work and those that people from outside the genre try to impose on it. This article is a great example of what happens when genres are unstable. Also, this:
And yet, here’s a thought: Creative nonfiction may be the most useful term we’ve got for any genre, not because it’s descriptive (it isn’t), but because its failure to describe sparks one of the more productive questions a writer can ask: What is this thing I’m making?
Answer poem, and you’re on relatively sure footing. Fiction, likewise. But answer creative nonfiction, and suddenly the terra ferma feels less firm. The term slides apart. Creative calls up endless possibility, where fancy and imagination rule, but nonfiction demands obedience to the facts, to observation and documentation, where artistry has little place. Nonfiction jars against creativity, creative against nonfiction.
“What is this thing I’m making?” is a question that I’m asking all the time whenever I write. Because the kind of creative nonfiction I do doesn’t really fit neatly into any of the pre-established categories (memoir, journalism, etc.), I have to decide what the things I make are, and in the process, articulate what goals I have for them and how I want them to look–which I think has helped my writing a lot. I haven’t settled on a neat category and the closest I get is some kind of cultural history or creative/academic essay-of-intellectual-inquiry hybrid, but trying to theorize what this is has helped give me direction in what I’m doing.
I think this article is also interesting in that it points to a certain dissonance betwen “creative” and “nonfiction,” and a (false, I think) dichotomy between artistry and information/documentation, which is also fascinating to investigate in terms of the question of what it means to write creatively, what it means to write intellectually or academically, and whether “creative” writing can do “academic” work–questions that I think all creative writing genres, but especially nonfiction, are well-positioned to investigate.