This past semester, I spent the last three weeks of my creative writing class studying creative non-fiction. I looked forward to this part of the course from the beginning. Even though I didn’t necessarily know the term per se prior to my class, the idea and technique long fascinated me. It is one of many reasons why I am so intrigued with Laura Ingalls Wilder’s work. As an adult, I learned that many scenes and even characters in the Little House on the Prairie series were compiled from various people and events from Wilder’s childhood. For example, Nellie Oleson is actually a compilation of three of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s classmates. Combining traits to create a more threatening character and condensing the chronology of events just makes for a better story. This is largely what we do with the stories we tell ourselves anyway.
I view creative non-fiction as simply getting those stories, the stories we tell ourselves about our past and our world, in writing. Both of my parents are wonderful storytellers and have this process down, but they rarely commit their stories to writing. Without adding fictional elements, a straight non-fiction approach to family and personal stories would not have the same impact. It is an art to get it just right. The true story cannot be lost in the fiction; at the same time, there are people, places, and events that may need to be stressed or rearranged to make a compelling story.
One of the most surprising ideas that came out of three weeks of studying creative non-fiction is the sheer variety of writing that can fall under the creative non-fiction umbrella. It can include works addressing personal memories; essays on people, places, and ideas that inspire or fascinate the writer; or exploration of a real event through creative writing. That is just the beginning. A writer can take a real event from his or her personal history and explore it through the eyes of someone else. I’ve also taken a piece of fiction I wrote earlier and expanded on it, explaining what really happened and what inspired the story in the first place.
I now have a home – a label as a writer. I could never fully say that I write fiction or non-fiction. Neither label fit. I now have a name for what I’ve long known: In order to write about real life well, writing must contain all or most of the elements of fiction. It is as simple and as complicated as that. I am ready to explore it all.