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IWW Practice-W Exercise Archives
Exercise: Creative Nonfiction

These exercises were written by IWW members and administrators to provide structured practice opportunities for its members. You are welcome to use them for practice as well. Please mention that you found them at the Internet Writers Workshop (http://www.internetwritingwor kshop.org/).

Prepared by: Patricia L. Johnson and Gary Presley
Posted on: March 21, 2004
Reposted on: April 4, 2005

Many literary journals and magazine publications accept works of creative nonfiction. Some of the definitions vary depending on the editor and the publication, but in general it involves relating events (via essay, memoir, or narrative journalism) using the techniques of fiction (scene, character, dialogue, foreshadowing, parallels, point of view, etc.) to send readers on a journey of discovery of the human condition and the world around them.

Often the subjects are considered important and may include interpersonal family relations, politics, economics, art and science. It brings new dimensions to writing by incorporating aspects of reporting, novel techniques like the ones mentioned in the first paragraph, poetic wordplay, and analytical techniques. Creative nonfiction is as old as storytelling itself.

Gay Talese (in his profiles of Frank Sinatra and Joe DiMaggio) is considered the father of narrative journalism. Tom Wolfe (in his early work for ESQUIRE) is someone whose early essays got tagged as "creative nonfiction." Then, of course, there are heavy-hitters like Barry Lopez, Edward Abbey, John McPhee, Lewis Thomas, and (Gary's favorite) Richard Selzer.

In 400 words write about an event or encounter that taught a life lesson or revealed a personality to you. Be sure to write the truth in a style that is as accurate and informative as reportage yet also as personally provocative and dramatic as fiction. When giving critiques mention specific examples that manage to blend facts with fiction techniques.

Learn more about creative nonfiction at the following sites.

For a list of several creative nonfiction definitions and a comprehensive reading list visit these URLs:

Have fun!

Patricia L. Johnson and Gary Presley's wrap-up
Posted on: April 6, 2004

Gary's comments:

I've come to believe creative nonfiction should teach or expose. Teach, by rendering something small into something universal. Expose, by illustrating something common to the human experience, but which in turn must teach.

Some of the submissions accomplish that. But many of the others are anecdotal or confessional in a way that allows a reader to feel some empathy, but to what end?

Conversely, I do have friends who are accomplished and experienced essayists. One says to expect an epiphany puts us in peril of missing the story. I can understand that. That is the point of all writing: the story. And that truism means we want basic information about the latest political scandal or we want to delve into the mystical depths of the human spirit. We want "The Story."

That friend, coincidentally, thinks "creative nonfiction" is a trendy label for an old craft. Need an example? Follow this link to a report from the front lines of World War II, written by the marvelous Ernie Pyle.

THE DEATH OF CAPTAIN WASKOW by Ernie Pyle http://www.kwanah.com/txmilmus/36division/archives/waskow/appenda.htm or http://tinyurl.com/81wq

Patricia's comments:

The creative nonfiction exercise inspired lots of submissions, which is encouraging. There were many different themes, most were family-centered. Some were tragic, others were slices of life. Only a few used humor.

There were several stories that used literary story telling techniques together with reportage to successfully write creative nonfiction. These stories had clarity, were honest and real. They managed to keep enough distance to allow the reader's emotions without being too sentimental. They allowed reader interpretation without over telling. They also used showing more than telling. The narrator's voice was strong and consistent. Characters were well developed and believable despite the exercise's short length.

Many crits mentioned a need for more details, exclusion of unnecessary details, and a need to add setting in place and time to give the writing clarity.

Many submissions did not fit the creative nonfiction exercise for several reasons. Often a life lesson was not apparent, and/or reportage was missing. Some story accounts were unclear or lacked cohesiveness from beginning to end. Others were didactic. These are things to improve upon next time.

Thanks to each of you for all your submissions and critiques. Remember you can use this exercise in a free-for-all.

Web site created by Rhéal Nadeau and the administrators of the Internet Writing Workshop.
Modified by Gayle Surrette.