Nonfiction, what is it?

I’m constantly being asked this question, since the creative writing program I teach in has a class in it (that I don’t teach, but I’m the program director, so I get asked a lot anyway). It’s a tough one to answer, and usually I list some of the kinds of writing, I think might be in the class with the caveat that since I don’t teach it, the person who does might have other ideas.

But today we were covering creative nonfiction in my creative writing class as we start to think about genre, so I tried to be a little more specific with the help of our textbook. We discussed why some people don’t like the term. It makes fiction seem like the norm and anything else is an aberration. Is poetry nonfiction? By this definition, it is. One writer I was reading in preparation for class wondered whether there should be a genre called non-poetry (and I have to believe she said this somewhat tongue-in-cheek). And why not? Isn’t all prose nonpoetry: somewhat poetic, but not entirely?

The textbook I use (Janet Burroway’s Imaginative Writing) talks of creative nonfiction primarily in terms of the essay that uses some techniques of fiction (and poetry). [My beef with this book is that it doesn’t really do justice to poetry, but I try to compensate.] And nonfiction does or can use strategies from the essay, though it doesn’t have to. It can use strategies, like scene and even character, from fiction, but it doesn’t have to, and it certainly doesn’t use them the same way fiction does, usually. Plot is often less important in nonfiction. The dramatic tension of a scene doesn’t have to be as high or might not even be present. A scene in nonfiction can simply take us to a moment or a place without any drama or change — in a story I would expect that of a scene.

But in a poem, we often have scenic treatment of the material (imagism, for instance) without a plot or dramatic tension. In a poem we might speak of lyric tension. The arrangement of images in a poem or the arrangement of scenes in creative nonfiction often work in similar ways. Juxtaposition is part of the argument. Associations formed between scenes or images that aren’t connected by plot or linear logic work in a poem or in an essay. The poet or nonfiction writer may comment or may not. Associations based on the sound of the language or on the connotations of the words may be as productive as associations strung together on a plot.

As we discussed sub-genres of creative nonfiction, one of my students raised the question of whether blogging would fit. I agreed that often it would, though some blogs may be fiction or poetry, and some blogs might not rise to the level (sink to the level?) that would be called creative. Blogging may be the most ubiquitous form of creative nonfiction: the personal not-quite-essay, not-quite-story, not-quite-lyric-prose-poem. Maybe one day we’ll have to call all other writing nonblogging once blogging becomes the norm and everything else an aberration.

Published by Kendall Dunkelberg

I am a poet, translator, and professor of literature and creative writing at Mississippi University for Women, where I direct the Low-Res MFA in Creative Writing, the undergraduate concentration in creative writing, and the Eudora Welty Writers' Symposium. I have published three books of poetry, Barrier Island Suite, Time Capsules, and Landscapes and Architectures, as well as a collection of translations of the Belgian poet Paul Snoek, Hercules, Richelieu, and Nostradamus. I live in Columbus with my wife, Kim Whitehead; son, Aidan; and dog, Aleida.

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