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Finding Your Footing: Sub-genres in Creative Nonfiction

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Memoir is perhaps the “flagship” of creative nonfiction, the sub-genre most familiar to those outside of literary and academic circles. Most human beings lead interesting lives filled with struggle, conflict, drama, decisions, turning points, etc.; but not all of these stories translate into successful memoir. The success of the memoir depends on the writer’s ability to sequence events, to tell a story, and to describe characters in believable ways, among other things. Writer Carol Spindel reminds us that in the mid-2000s a scandal surrounding writer James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces erupted after he was forced to admit that large sections of his “memoir” were “fictionalized:” he’d embellished, made things up. A memoir that strays from the truth is not far removed from lying, because regardless of the writer’s intention, the story deceives the reader. Spindel writes that, unlike in novels, “The knowledge expressed in the memoir has the legitimacy acquired through first-hand experience.” Good memoir also provides reflection on the events that have happened to the writer, so it “can give readers insights into society, and even into the larger meaning of life itself” (Spindel).

The Braided Essay

The braided essay is a good tool for introducing writers—especially student writers—to the CNF genre. In a braided essay, the writer has multiple “threads” or “through-lines” of material, each on a different subject. The essay is broken into sections using medial white space, lines of white space on a page where there are no words (much like stanzas in poetry), and each time there is a section break, the writer moves from one “thread” to another. Braided essays take their name from this alternating of storylines, as well as from the threads the story contains; there are usually three, though to have four or two is also possible. Though there is not a strict formula for success, the form usually contains at least one thread that is very personal and based on memory, and at least one thread that is heavily researched. Often, the threads seem very disparate at first, but by the climax of the essay, the threads being to blend together; connections are revealed.

Topical Writing

Perhaps the genre closest to an essay or a blog post, topical writing is an author’s take on a given topic of specific interest to the reader. For example, nature writing and travel writing have been popular for centuries, while food writing is gathering steam via cooking blogs. Nature writing involves exploring the writer’s experience in a beautiful and thoroughly rendered natural setting, such as a cabin on a mountaintop. Travel Writing, as the name implies, details the writer’s experiences while traveling, whether by choice on a vacation or out of necessity due to business or serving in the military. Finally, contemporary food writing explores the writer’s connection to cooking and enjoying food of any variety. All three will occasionally step into the writer’s personal experiences via memories, but these episodes are always related to the topic driving the essay.

Whatever form a creative nonfiction piece takes, it must remain based in the author’s actual lived experiences and perceptions. Like academic writing, the piece must be accurately researched and the sources must be documented. Finally, the author must also always leave room to reflect on how their experiences have shaped them into the person they are now. It’s the reflection that makes the reader feel satisfied: it offers something to the reader that they can carry with them, a way of seeing the world.

Works Cited

Cokinos, Christopher. “Organized Curiosity: Creative Writers and the Research Life.” Writer’s Chronicle 42.7: April/May 2015. 92-104. Print.

Ironman, Sean. “Writing the Z-Axis: Reflection in the Nonfiction Workshop.” Writer’s

Chronicle 47.1: September 2014. 42-49. Print.

Spindel, Carol. "When Ambiguity Becomes Deception: The Ethics of Memoir." Writer's

Chronicle (2007): n. pag. AWP. Association of Writing Programs, 1 Dec. 2007. Web. 13

Sept. 2015.

Terrill, Richard. "Creative Nonfiction and Poetry." Writer's Chronicle (2004): n. pag. AWP.

Association of Writing Programs, Oct.-Nov. 2004. Web. 3 Oct. 2015.