April 17, 2003

Dear Chip:

I was wondering if you could give me any advice on breaking into the field of creative non-fiction. I’m a 45-year-old voracious reader who’s always wanted to write, but in college I was too much the capitalist to endure the starving artist path and changed from an English major to Computer Science. I try to write 1,000 words a night in a journal and read “everything” but realize that’s nothing more than doing mental push-ups and have no idea how to “get an assignment.” Any tips or insight you could shed would be greatly appreciated.


Gary Leydon
Systems Administrator
Yale Univ. Sch. of Med
Department of Neurobiology

Dear Gary,

Thanks for writing.

I’d like to tackle your question in two parts. On Thursday, I’ll address the challenges of breaking into the field. But let’s start by defining “creative nonfiction,” a term that confuses some and appalls others. (“You mean as opposed to ‘uncreative nonfiction’?”)

Creative nonfiction is also known as:

  • The Art of Fact

  • The Art of Truth

  • Gonzo Journalism

  • Neo-gonzo Journalism

  • The Fourth Genre (after poetry, fiction and drama)

  • The Literature of Reality

  • New Journalism

  • Literary Journalism

  • Narrative Nonfiction
Whatever you call it — and as you can tell from the list I’ve just enumerated, the genre goes by lots of names — in the last decade there’s been an explosion of interest in the form.

Creative nonfiction is the latest name for fact-based writing that can perhaps be best understood as the union of storytelling and journalism. In that respect, it’s old wine in new bottles. Its lineage extends from the essays of Montaigne written in the 16th century to John Hersey’s World War II documentary reportage in “Hiroshima.”  

By necessity, this is a primer, the barest outline drawn from a vast and growing literature on the subject. Here’s a reading list of texts and anthologies, accompanied by a sidebar of some online resources that expands this brief description.

What is it?

Creative nonfiction:

• Includes personal essay, memoir, literary journalism, academic/cultural criticism, narrative history, feature articles, documentary drama

• Braids “narrative telling with fictional and poetic techniques; Combines portraiture and self-reflection with reportage and critical analysis” (Root, Steinberg)

• Is “based on actual events, characters, and places; it is written with a special concern for language; and it tends to be more informal and personal than other types of nonfiction writing” (Minot)

How is it reported and written?

Creative nonfiction relies on:

• Immersion reporting and research
• Documents (public and private records)
• Tools of literary realism: Scene-by-scene construction; Dialogue: Point of View; Status details (Wolfe)
• Description (Sense of place, character, time)
• Reflection
• Narrative frames (Chronology; parallel narrative; In media res)
• Segmentation
• Extra-literary design
• The “line between fact and fiction” and John Hersey’s “Legend on the License” — None Of This Is Made Up

Where can you publish it?

Creative Nonfiction markets include newspapers, magazines, literary journals and books. Here’s a short list of the major outlets: 

Fourth Genre
River Teeth
Creative Nonfiction
The American Scholar
The Georgia Review
The New Yorker
Natural Bridge

[ What’s your favorite piece of creative nonfiction? ]

>>Coming Thursday: Part 2, Breaking into Creative Nonfiction

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Christopher “Chip” Scanlan (@chipscanlan) is a writer and writing coach who formerly directed the writing programs and the National Writer’s Workshops at Poynter where he…
Chip Scanlan

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