The No B.S. blog about Travel, Writing and Life

What is Creative Nonfiction? Think the Three Little Pigs, part 1

In December, I graduated with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction (CNF). So for the last couple of years, I have spent an enormous amount of time pouring through books and thinking about the subject of fact and fiction and truth in writing. I have to admit that I want to occasionally make my story more interesting by having a spaceship land, filled with Martians, to spice things up in my otherwise real story. The subject of fact has also popped up numerous times in conversations with other writers and in the news. Does anyone remember James Frey?

Facts are particularly important as travel writing falls into CNF. While travel writing seems easy enough to define, it is also important to have a personal understanding of the term “creative nonfiction” for practical use. The following is my understanding of CNF and my opinion only. I wanted pick up where definitions and terminology stopped.

The first is the term itself, “creative nonfiction.” The description implies that creative nonfiction is the opposite of fiction – facts versus fiction. So it follows that anything that is written with a literary quality and is factual makes the genre CNF. Unfortunately, this is really not a fair description. I think some folks assume CNF is similar to academic writing using flowery words rather than fancy academic words and footnotes. However, I have to ask myself, is CNF more than a cookbook filled with accurate recipes? There is more to literature that facts and fiction, right?

Fortunately, last year I attended a lecture exploring this exact topic. The lecturer, Andrew Panibianco, pointed out that truth is different from fact. Fact is something that can be scientifically proven without editorializing, something that we could take a snap shot of and come to a group consensus is a fact. Here is my on-the-fly analogy.

Let’s take the story of the three little pigs. The second little pig lived in a house of sticks. In the story, that’s a fact. We could take a picture of the house of sticks and the pig inside making pancakes. Great! We might be shocked by the sight of the pig living in a two-bedroom house but we could agree on it if we saw the picture. However, when the Big Bad Wolf comes along and blows the whole thing down, we could be left with several different but equal truths.

First the pig’s point of view, “That terrible wolf huffed and puffed and blew my house down. The Wolf growled and mocked me as I stood there trembling with fear. I knew he was going to eat me. It was terrible I tell you. I think I have Post-Traumatic-Stress disorder. I will call my therapist, Dr. Ham, later…”

Then the Wolf’s perspective, “I smelled bacon. Who doesn’t love bacon? So there was this bacon in this little rickety house making pancakes and I sneezed and it fell over. The bacon ran away and I was left hungry and thought I would starve, so I ate the pancakes”
Then there are other perspectives from people watching the whole story unravel. They might root for the wolf, “It’s the circle of life, and the wolf is supposed to eat the pig.” Or they might be a fan of the pig, “That pig sure was scared but he took off running into the woods. It was brilliant self-preservation. Kudos to the pig!” Or “Jeepers, I just saw a wolf wearing overalls chasing a pig in a top hat. They both spoke English! I think I need a vacation.”

All of these interpretations are all true but not necessarily fact. Truth comes from perspective, opinion, and interpretation.

House of sticks. House falls down. Pile of sticks. Fact.
Kudos to the pig. Brilliant self-preservation. Who doesn’t love bacon? What does it all mean? What is the interpretation? Truth.

Just as any writer will have an interpretation and understanding of any experience he or she is writing about, but it doesn’t end here.

What is Creative Nonfiction, part 2

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