Creative Nonfiction: Defining the Genre

by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro, Prose Editor

Creative nonfiction is the fusion of creative writing and journalism. On one hand, it uses principles of journalism to build the skeleton of the story, which, as suggested by the tag ‘nonfiction’, demands to be hinged on facts instead of merely the writer’s imagination (as opposed to fiction). On the other hand, it seeks to be “creative” in such a way that it employs literary devices to retell the fact-based narratives.

The genre, as Theodore A. Rees Cheney noted, requires “the skill of the storyteller and the research ability of the reporter.” Creative Nonfiction Magazine expounded on this thought, saying that the genre “allows a writer to employ the diligence of a reporter, the shifting voices and viewpoints of a novelist, the refined wordplay of a poet, and the analytical modes of an essayist.” The multiplicity of personas that a creative nonfiction writer has to embody in the process of writing his piece unveils the complexity demanded by the genre. A writer ought to be versatile and, needless to say, patient throughout the process.

More than this, a writer has to surrender to vulnerability. This is the same as in other genres; however, creative nonfiction demands a more personal insight from the writer. Creative nonfiction, after all, is the attempt to make sense of the complexities—or mundanities—of real life, and retell them in a more compelling, more bearable way. “The writer of creative nonfiction presents the world—or that slice of it he wishes to focus on—through the prism of his own personality,” Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo writes in Creative Nonfiction: An Overview. “[I]t is writing about oneself in relation to the subject at hand,” Bret Lott writes in Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction. Whereas journalism leaves no room for one to discuss personal takes on issues, creative nonfiction makes it a point to consider and use a writer’s subjectivity in line with what is being written about. “[B]alance is unnecessary and subjectivity is not only permitted but encouraged,” said Lee Gutkind in The Art of Creative Nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is a reinterpretation of real-life events, without the attempt to change what must be taken as “actual.”

Nevertheless, creative nonfiction is a commitment to stay loyal to the facts for the sake of the story’s accuracy. The genre is all about the author’s calculated use of his freedom. The line between artistic license and transgression in the genre still have blurred spots in my understanding.

It reminds me of what The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway called being “within and without.” I cite a person from a work of fiction, which I think should no longer be ironic, considering that the genre itself prides on using borrowed devices from fiction. Carraway curiously went about his days with a sense of detachment from the rest of the world that he was in. He was immersed, but at the same time, he was uninvolved—in the case of creative nonfiction, this might be necessary because, as much as personal connection to the actual event will contribute heavily to the foundation of the piece, events are bound to be misconstrued when perception is tainted with bias and emotion-driven subjectivity.

So then, how do we draw the line between subjectivity and the necessary objectivity in creative nonfiction? Would it even make any difference to know where one ends and the other begins? Would it even matter? Maybe creative nonfiction isn’t so simple after all.

The Struggle to Become a Woman

by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro, Prose Editor

When I was a child, I would write my stories imagining myself as a man. Somehow, I found it hard to see myself as a woman, when I did not know what being a woman meant. I, like every girl my age, had been taught to think that a man is independent and strong. He is capable and wise. He is indestructible and necessary. I wanted my characters to possess the qualities of a man. I wanted myself to possess the qualities of a man, but how can a woman, designed to be subordinate to a man, be ever able to contain these traits?

I was made to wear skirts and dresses, wedges by the age of seven, no matter how
uncomfortable they felt on me. As I grew older, the skirts and sleeves had to be longer, the blouses tighter. I was told I had to learn to wear higher heels. I had to wear a bra to hide my nipples and define my breasts. I could not risk being seen as a distraction to men, but I still had to be attractive enough to get their attention. When I could not pique their interest, I thought it made me less of the girl that I am. Was I not beautiful? Perhaps not. I went on trading dresses for pants, blouses for loose shirts, heels for sneakers. Boys’ clothes felt so much more comfortable than those of the girls. Being a boy felt so much more comfortable than being a girl.

I became the teenage girl whose sexuality puzzled everyone. I started to look like a boy, but my preferences remained the same. I was attracted to men, just as I was expected to. Not long after, my fascination toward the strong personalities of the male grew into a hopeless pursuit of their validation. The clothing I used to despise became my costume, hoping this time around, I could be pretty enough for men. I used the methods only a woman can, slowly dragging my self-respect to the ground as I reach for their approval.

To my younger self, I would write you as many apologies as I could for the rest of my life. You were never meant to become any man’s toy. You were never meant to believe that you were inferior to the male. You did not have to imagine yourself as a man just so you’d feel invincible. Being a woman may be the most difficult task you would ever be given, but it will also be the most fulfilling, when you realize that being a woman is so much more than what you were taught to think. Women thrive in spite of the discrimination; we fight against the stereotypes that cage us. We were not created for the male gaze; we were not made to seek validation from the opposite sex. We were made to create and conquer, to breathe life anew, to hold the universe in our palms and keep its heart beating.