Monday, June 12, 2017

Creative Nonfiction: The Power of Story, The Love of Truth

Edie here. Today I'm excited to introduce you to an author whose work I love. I've been after Marcia Moston to share her insight and instruction regarding creative nonfiction here on The Write Conversation and she's finally agreed. I know you'll be as inspired as me! Be sure to give her a big TWC welcome!


Creative Nonfiction: The Power of Story, The Love of Truth
by Marcia Moston @MarciaMoston



We were flying over Cook Strait, a treacherous strip of water separating the south island of New Zealand from the north. Our flight was supposed to be nonstop to Auckland on the far northern tip, so we were surprised when the pilot came over the speaker a short time after takeoff.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as some of you know, weather permitting, we try to accommodate our Wellington travelers and make a quick stopover on the other side of the strait so they don’t have to backtrack from Auckland. It’s a bit stormy out there, but we’re going to have a go at it. Make sure your seatbelts are securely fastened.”

A bit stormy? I stared at the dark clouds whipping by the window. Visibility vanished into the wingtips. The plane nosed down steeply. Overhead bins banged. People uttered collective gasps as the plane buffeted side to side, up and down.

New Zealanders delight in exhilarating sports like bungy jumping and mountain climbing, but I couldn’t believe we were doing a courtesy drop of passengers—in the middle of a storm, no less. After several harrowing moments, the plane eased back up.

Before I could heave a sigh of relief, the pilot came on again.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, as you can see, we didn’t make it that time. But,” he said with a cheeriness that presupposed our disappointment, “we’ll have one more go at it.”

One more go at it. I held my breath. And down we dove.

Storytelling. 
We love story. We also love information. The genre of Creative Nonfiction offers writers a way to take advantage of both.

For many of us, nonfiction is synonymous with Detective Joe Friday’s idea—“Just the facts, ma’am.” Ninth-grade essays, dreaded research papers, and impersonal articles.

Creative nonfiction, however, uses dramatic narrative to engage readers in topics they usually wouldn’t read. Characterized by personal voice, scenes, dialogue and other storytelling and literary techniques, it’s, as Lee Gutkind, editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine says, “true stories, well told.” 

That’s not to say there isn’t a time for the Who? What? When? Where? Why? and How? of traditional reportage.

But what can you do if you’re struggling to get your kids interested in reading about the trials and triumphs of Grandpa Henry who forged his way through the Great Depression and went on to become a successful entrepreneur? Or to snag that editor’s attention in your essay about bats, which you know will do much to dispel the infamous reputation attributed to them? Or to rouse the interest in that article about propitiation that you know it deserves?

One way is to put a human face on the topic. This is what Rebecca Skloot did with her bestseller on the cell research industry, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Years of scientific attention had been given to a strand of unusual cancerous cells that kept reproducing, but until Skloot inquired—decades later—no one knew anything about the person these cells once belonged to.

Through scrupulous research, dramatic narrative, and artful writing, Skloot was able to humanize Henrietta Lacks’s story and bring attention to a potentially overlooked topic.

Regardless of the piece you’re writing—newspaper feature, book-length historical account, science essay, faith article, or memoir—you can enliven your facts and research by incorporating some or all of the following:
  • Scenes and dialogue in place of stark facts and quotations
  • Developed characters and settings
  • Metaphor and literary devices  
  • Reflection and conjecture—telling as well as showing
  • Personal and compelling voice

Creative nonfiction operates under as many aliases as fictional CIA rogue Jason Bourne—literary nonfiction, literary journalism, narrative nonfiction, and dramatic nonfiction, to name a few. It embraces a multitude of forms ranging from personal narrative to pieces about public issues.

No matter what you call it, or what subgenre you choose to write in, be true to your contract with your reader. Although much of creative nonfiction is rooted in story, it is first and foremost, nonfiction, regardless of how creatively you’ve crafted the piece.

As for our NZ pilot’s second attempt—well, that didn’t work out. Much to my relief, he pulled out of the dreadful dive and headed on to Auckland. The Wellington passengers would have to backtrack.

So, (yes, I admit that I am trying to stretch this analogy.) if your nonfiction piece seems to be headed into a nosedive no matter how many times you’ve had a go at it, maybe you too need to backtrack and try some of the tools available to you with the genre of Creative Nonfiction.

TWEETABLE


Marcia Moston—author of the award-winning Call of a Coward-The God of Moses and the Middle-class Housewife—has written columns and features for several magazines and newspapers. She has served on the faculty of the Blue Ridge Mountains Christian Writers Conference and currently teaches her true love—memoir and creative nonfiction—at the Osher Lifelong Learning Institute on the Furman campus in South Carolina.    

25 comments:

  1. This is the best description of creative non-fiction I've read, and your "enlivening facts" are helpful for all genres. So happy to see your post here, Marcia!

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  2. Thanks, Marcia, for the tips on getting story into nonfiction. I'm writing my first contacted non-fiction, and I include story in the examples I give, but I'll now look for additional ways I can add story.

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    1. Hi Zoe, There's no surprise in the fact purposeful stories are powerful. The craft is to keep them from sounding contrived. Looks like you're already alert to ways to enliven your nonfiction. Congratulations on your project.

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  3. Thanks so much for your insight. My WIP, our time on the mission field, needs creative fiction techniques.

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    1. Hi Marjorie. Imagine telling a friend different scenes from your experience and notice how you naturally set up the situation. It's also important with memoir to keep in mind the "higher" theme, ideas, beliefs that your personal story illustrates. I find studying examples of others who've told their stories well helps me to discover ways to tell my own.

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  4. I actually like non-fiction told well better than fiction. Some of my favorite books are true stories. So this post really speaks to me. Thanks for your insight!

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    1. Nothing like a "true story, well told!'is there Sally.

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  5. Great advice. This helps add another dimension to my story.

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    1. Thanks, Cindy. The techniques of good writing know no genre boundaries.

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    1. Thanks Susie--as one nonfiction writer to another!

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  7. Oh, wow, my stomach was churning hoping that plane would just skip the nosedive and go on without stopping. I would have been thinking, "Too bad for those other passengers, but good for me!" I hope to write a novel in the future but now my genre is non-fiction and this post had some amazing insights. Thanks for sharing.

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    1. Hi Barbara. I was thinking the same thing! There are so many ways to include literary and narrative techniques and still remain true to nonfiction. Hope you discover new ways to incorporate into your writing.

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  8. Well done! Great writing. Great ideas. Brava!

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  9. Wonderful post, Marcia. In this day and time of sound bites and short attention spans, writers must learn to make their nonfiction come alive and resonate with the reader. :)

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    1. Thanks Andrea. I agree. And now more than ever, perhaps, hope bearers have to make their message heard.

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  10. Thanks for the insightful post, Marcia. Thanks for reminding us of the power of storytelling.

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  11. Thanks for the insightful post, Marcia. Thanks for reminding us of the power of storytelling.

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  12. Thanks, Ingmar. The Bible is our great example of the power of story to present truth.

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  13. I love this, Marcia! I've always had an adoration for speaking and storytelling and I want it to transfer to the written page. What a riveting introduction that pulled me in and had me holding my breath for you and everyone on that plane. :-) Thanks for the tips and your example of how it's done. One more thing, you know my last name is "Friday." My husband, no kidding, had an uncle Joe Friday. And he was a policeman. How cool is that? :-)

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  14. Haha! Bet he heard that expression a time or two.

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  15. Marciia, thank you for this great post. I appreciate the tips and your wonderful insight.

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  16. Fantastic post, Marcia. I'd love to see you post here again. Any advice on techniques will be helpful since I write creative nonfiction as well.
    Breathing life into the facts and drawing out the adventure is essential when writing for children. It distinguishes between books that are endured and books that are adored.

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