The 5 R’s of Creative Nonfiction

There is a term that I throw out repeatedly on this blog. It’s almost everywhere—the title banner, the about me page, and most of the blog posts. Literary True Crime. It’s a term that lies at the heart of what I want to accomplish with this blog.

Maybe you’ve noticed it, and wondered “What the hell is that supposed to mean? Isn’t all writing literature?”

When I say literary true crime, I’m referring to true crime writing that engages the reader, recreates personal experiences to discover a higher truth beyond just the facts of the story.
The writer must do more than just regurgitate the facts and details. I’m talking about the genre of creative nonfiction (or narrative nonfiction), and it means exactly what it sounds like: nonfiction that’s creative. This isn’t your everyday news article or research paper. This is reconstructing a true story in a vivid, dramatic and compelling way while simultaneously integrating original details, facts, an other information. It’s knowing how to use some of the tools of fiction writing to craft nonfiction narrative that does more than just relate a story—it takes the story and goes beyond.

It is important to note that there is a difference. Traditional nonfiction provides information (such as journalism or scholarly writings), while fiction is mostly the product of the imagination. CNF sits in the space between the two fields, using techniques from fiction to tell the factual tale in a way that brings the story alive.

CNF has been a cornerstone of literature for years. You can take your pick of examples: Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff; James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son; Ernest Hemingway’s Death in the Afternoon. These stories are true. They convey fact, but they do so in a dramatic, engaging way. They read like a novel instead of a book report.

These books are also good examples of the broad range of topics CNF covers. CNF can tell a personal story, like Baldwin’s memoir, or report a story like Wolfe’s The Right Stuff. Some books fuse the two, telling their own story within the context of a larger one (i.e. Private vs public). Hemingway’s is an example of this. These hybrid stories are often referred to as “literary journalism” today.

Some writers saw this kind of writing as the New Journalism. Writer Gay Talese once described it this way: “Though often reading like fiction, [it] is not fiction. It is, or should be, as reliable as the most reliable reportage, althout it seeks a larger truth than is possible through mere compilation of verifiable fact, the use of direct quotations, and adherence to the rigid organizational style of the older form.”

Herein lies the magic and draw of creative nonfiction: the hard truths and facts of journalism, with all the freedom and narrative strength of fiction. CNF writers build scenes, develop dialogue, and recreate not only the facts of the story, but the experience and the world it occupied. It allows, even encourages, the writer to partake and become a part of the story. The writer is invested in their craft and its results, opening them to self-discovery, flexibility, and freedom from conventional journalism.

It’s this liberty from the strict guidelines of conventional journalism that draws many writers to the creative side of the fence. They are no longer bound by form or forced to ignore their own beliefs and experiences for the sake of objectivity, and are instead allowed and encouraged to put their own mark on the subject.

Not everyone is comfortable with this idea, though. To some writers, this flexibility and personal influence on the reported facts is unsettling. The sudden disappearance of rules and guidelines disorients them, leading many to question and search for similar guidelines in CNF.

Writer Lee Gutkind believes this to be a personal question more than a stylistic one. Such things are driven by personal convictions, “ethical and moral boundaries and, most important, how hard writers are willing to work to achieve accuracy and believability in their narratives.”This is yet another appealing aspect of CNF: even its rules are personal.

CNF encourages both writer and reader to engage and inhabit the same space as the subject, and to open themselves to whatever they can discover there. Gutkind puts it quite succinctly: “Truth is often more compelling to contemplate than fiction.”

Eventually, some general parameters (pioneered by Gutkind and his staff) have emerged. To Gutkind, there are five essential elements for writing in CNF. Gutkind calls them the “5 Rs,” and represent the questions and considerations a writer should keep in mind.

The first 3 R’s combine personal experience (the real life aspect), intelligent research/reportage, and reflection (exploration that teaches readers). Each of the first 3 Rs is as important as the others and are “vital” to the genre of creative nonfiction. These are also the same characteristics essential to writing literary true crime.
If you’ve ever read a true crime book and found the writing was terrible, the narrative boring (or chaotic, for that matter), you’re not alone. I have, too. More times than I can count. You know why the book was so bad?

It fails in the literary part, and thus the book fails overall. Not only does it add little to nothing to the genre itself, it also fails the subject of the victims and their families. If the writing is all reportage and no personal experience, then it can’t recreate real experiences, not victims, not families, not even the witnesses. A summary of a case won’t lead to any higher truth or discovery, which is how it fails the victim. An examination of the human condition does nothing without the humanity.

1.) Real-life Aspect

The first R represents the necessity for the story to be influenced by experience and reality. It should immerse the writer and reader into the world that is being described, delving into the familiar and unfamiliar while exploring the experiences of others. This allows the writer to use their own life experiences, lending the story an even greater touch of authenticity. This also leads us to the second R.

2.) Reflection

Writers in CNF have the luxury of including their own responses and feelings in their work, provided they do so within the truth of the story itself. Rather than being an opinion piece, the writer should seek to connect to the reader through a shared bond of experience and humanity.

Be cautious here, though; it is easy to stray too far down this path by losing sight of the reader and the necessary connection. Avoid egocentricism—this will fail. It fails the writer, it fails the reader, and it fails the story. In true crime literature, it fails the victims and their memory. You must leave the reader with something that they can take from the work in order for it to succeed.

In addition to not losing the reader, don’t forget the purpose of the piece itself—to provide the reader with information. It may be creative and entertaining, but it is still nonfiction and must inform the reader, leading us to the third R.

3.) Research or Reportage

The aim of CNF is still to inform, and even the most personal of essays will provide verifiable fact about a subect that is connected to the writer. In this genre, experience and research walk hand-in-hand, an give rise to “spontaneous intellectual discourse” (simply put, an open exploration of the writer’s ideas). Annie Dillard is an excellent example of this delicate balance. In her books and essays, Dillard melds her personal thoughts on life with an almost overwhelming amount of detail—natural sciences like botany and biology, history and anthropology, descriptions of the minute details of insects.

The genre of CNF lends itself well to those who are open minded, curious, and self-aware. It appeals to the curiosity, using research and fact to anchor and solidify the creative efforts. In turn, the creative efforts should magnify and inspire the research. To acheive this balance of fact and reflection, three things are necessary.

• Know about your subject by researching it more than even you think is necessary.

• Find a new angle from which to explore your subject.

• Explore the the contrasting views and reflect to ensure balance.

This brings us to R number four.

4.) Reading

It should go without saying that in order to write, you must read. Read your research. Read the leaders of the field. Read the masters of writing. In order to write like the masters, you must read them and know them, and assimilate from them what is useful for your own craft.

The first four R’s shape the nonfiction component of your work and prepare you for the fifth R.

5.) ‘Riting

The heart of the craft. This is where pen meets paper. It holds all the romance and magic. Here, you create. In its initial stage, it’s loose, spontaneous. It’s creative. Fun.

The fifth R is why we write in the first place.

Later, I’ll explore the next phase of writing, one that is much more technical and difficult—the craft.

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