Creative Non-fiction: Memoir Monday on Tuesday


This is a subject I find is often very misunderstood. People often think that because of the word ‘creative’ that the piece is not strictly true, that the author has allowed some creative narrative content into the piece. That they have made it up. Adjusted the story for their own means. This is not the case at all. Lee Gutkind, the father of the genre creative non-fiction defines it as “True stories told well.” I cannot define it better myself.

What is a true story? Anything which is not made up and that includes a whole spectrum of works ranging from memoir and autobiography to journalism and everything in between. The creative refers to the use of fictional techniques in order to make the narrative flow and allowing the story to be told compellingly.  Gutkind describes the range of writings that fit this genre as being at one or other end of a pendulum.One side he classifies as stories which are private. Are owned by one individual and the other people that feature in it. They are personal stories. The other end he classifies as being public. Stories which are in the public domain that are available for anyone to research and write up. One good example of this is Rebecca Skloot’s The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. If you have not read this book I highly recommend you do. It is the story of Henrietta Lacks who died from cervical cancer. Cells which were taken from her became immortal in the medical laboratories and were invaluable for medical research and are still used today. It is a story of the treatment of an African American woman, the ethical issues of the case, the writer’s relationship with the family and the uncovering of what had occurred to Henrietta. It was a powerful book and a good example of creative non fiction that fitted at the public side of the creative non fiction pendulum. According to Gutkind the best creative non-fiction occurs when the pendulum swing comes closer to the point midway between the two extremes. That is when private information is added to public and in the private public information is added. By private it does not refer to personal diary type of information which should remain just that  but rather personal events and memories that have occurred to the author that are suitable to be put into the public domain. Can I give an example – a memoir writer may for example include information on what was happening in the world arena at the time they were experiencing the portion of their life that they are writing. Conversely if someone was doing a piece on war torn Syria if they added information on how they felt whilst gathering the information this makes it become much more a personal story as well as being factual.

So what creative tools from fiction are used?  That will be the topic of next weeks post.

About Irene Waters 19 Writer Memoirist

I began my working career as a reluctant potato peeler whilst waiting to commence my training as a student nurse. On completion I worked mainly in intensive care/coronary care; finishing my hospital career as clinical nurse educator in intensive care. A life changing period as a resort owner/manager on the island of Tanna in Vanuatu was followed by recovery time as a farmer at Bucca Wauka. Having discovered I was no farmer and vowing never again to own an animal bigger than myself I took on the Barrington General Store. Here we also ran a five star restaurant. Working the shop of a day 7am - 6pm followed by the restaurant until late was surprisingly more stressful than Tanna. On the sale we decided to retire and renovate our house with the help of a builder friend. Now believing we knew everything about building we set to constructing our own house. Just finished a coal mine decided to set up in our backyard. Definitely time to retire we moved to Queensland. I had been writing a manuscript for some time. In the desire to complete this I enrolled in a post grad certificate in creative Industries which I completed 2013. I followed this by doing a Master of Arts by research graduating in 2017. Now I live to write and write to live.
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7 Responses to Creative Non-fiction: Memoir Monday on Tuesday

  1. As someone who writes creative nonfiction myself but has a hard time describing it to other people, I find this post very useful! It makes total sense to view creative nonfiction as a spectrum from intimate, private stories to public, impersonal ones. Thanks!

    Liked by 3 people

  2. Sherri says:

    What a fascinating thought, I had always thought of creative non-fiction just as you describe it here Irene and quoted ‘True stories told well’. And what a great quote. I’ll remember that…it is that simple isn’t it? You taught me what a BOTS is, fictionalising a true story. I had never heard of that term before. I am eager to read your next post in this series as a follow up. The book is one I’ve not heard of but am now fascinated to read. I never thought of the definition of the public versus private element to such an extent. I have written about a couple of instances in my memoir about something private taking place against the backgrop of a very public, worldwide event, because I remember it so very clearly at the time and it is part of the setting and era. Could talk with you all day about this! ❤

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yes it is a great quote and says it all in 4 words. Rebecca Skloot’s book is great and well worth a read and is a really great example of creative non-fiction and public being mixed with private. Doing what you have done with a world event is a great way to bring your memoir alive for a much wider audience. I’m looking forward to reading it and wish that we did have the luxury for a longer chat. ❤

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Norah says:

    That’s a great definition: true stories told well. 🙂
    Thanks for the reminder of Henrietta Lacks’ story. I only became aware of it reasonably recently in an ethics discussion. I must read it.
    I look forward to your future posts.

    Liked by 1 person

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