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Creative Nonfiction: True Stories Well Told

Why dramatic technique is not enough to write great creative nonfiction: You need an unwavering blend of hard-won facts and the drive to find them.

An image showing newsprint to illustrate the craft of creative nonfiction
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Although demanding, creative nonfiction is rich territory for writers. It’s attractive to journalists and fiction writers alike, a place to exercise strengths – like the research skills of a reporter or the dramatic technique of a novelist – and build skills you don’t currently have.

Or, if you’re willing to do the work, you just make creative nonfiction your thing from the start by taking classes, attending workshops, or pursuing an appropriate MFA.

Creative Nonfiction Definition

Creative nonfiction is a broad category, chock full of an array of subcategories. Memoir and essays, of course, but also (it’s a long list) writing about things like food, travel, crime, music, and history. A subgenre can be broken down further. For example, under travel/adventure, you can find disaster nonfiction: think Into Thin Air, Jon Krakauer’s terrifyingly vivid, detailed journalism from the top of Mount Everest.

The controversy long dogging creative nonfiction (a.k.a. literary nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, narrative journalism, etc.) is in its defining properties. As Lee Gutkind, founding editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, described in his 2012 book, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Creative Nonfiction From Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between, one of the chief complaints about the term “creative nonfiction” is that the word “creative” must suggest that “making things up” is OK.

Gutkind succinctly argues that the “creative” in creative nonfiction refers to literary craft, not yarn-spinning fabrication.


“In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz,” Gutkind writes. “It’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself.”

He continues: “The goal of creative nonfiction is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. But the stories are true.” Any belief that the word “creative” gives the writer license to “make up facts and embellish details” is, Gutkind states sharply, “completely wrong.”

Creative Nonfiction & Facts

In his book, Gutkind explores one of the more sensational episodes of the debate, when Alex Heard, longtime editorial director of Outside magazine, found certain anecdotal stories in the books of David Sedaris beyond belief. He was a fan of Sedaris, but his editor’s sensitivity to the implausible tripped an alarm. Heard proceeded to don a fact-checker hat and went about interviewing Sedaris’ friends and relatives.  And Sedaris himself. There was a there there, and Heard’s work culminated in a 2007 piece for The New Republic, entitled “This American Lie.”

Heard started off with the following:


“‘The events described in these stories are real,’ humorist David Sedaris wrote in the introductory note to Naked, his 1997 collection of nonfiction essays. The New York Times was convinced: When Naked hit the best-seller list, it categorized the book as nonfiction.”

One story from Naked that Heard fact-checked was Sedaris describing how, when he was 13, he volunteered at a mental institution and ultimately was bit by an elderly patient. In his research, Heard talked to a registered nurse who would have been working at the hospital at the time and faxed her a copy of the story. “He’s lying through his teeth!” she said back to Heard, listing a number of factual errors in the story.

Spurred by the nurse’s revelations, Heard drove on with the project, checking on other stories within the Sedaris canon – each presented as nonfiction – with a “fleet of e-mails and idiotic-sounding cold calls to dig deeper.” Some out-there stories, to Heard’s surprise, turned out to be true. But he also uncovered a number of “outright fabrications” that “collapsed like a shaky Jenga tower.”


Sedaris admitted to Heard that he sometimes made stuff up – that it’s all about telling “good stories.” Sedaris justified his position by saying if he were to find out that Frank McCourt’s Pulitzer Prize-winning memoir Angela’s Ashes had been cooked up, he wouldn’t care because he liked the story so much.

To which Heard responded, “OK, but last time I checked, you’re supposed to call that fiction.”

No Free Pass

As you can imagine, the New Republic story sparked debate about what the boundaries are or should be for humorists like Sedaris. Should humorists – in the interest of presenting larger truths – be granted more latitude than other creative nonfiction writers when it comes to facts?


“Real stories, factual stuff, reported accurately and skillfully, can evoke many emotions, from humor, to tragedy, to fear,” writes Gutkind in his analysis. “It doesn’t follow that humorists alone should receive a free pass – and a shortcut to larger truths.”

For my part, I agree with Heard and Gutkind, if only for my own enjoyment as a reader. The first (and second) time I read “Ticket to the Fair” by David Foster Wallace, his hilarious account of the 1993 Illinois State Fair for Harper’s Magazine, I loved it – in part, I imagine, because I grew up in Iowa and once spent a week at the Iowa state fair, selling magic tricks for a magic supplies store. I was 15 at the time, and it remains one of the weirdest experiences of my life, from seeing what was then called a “freak show” to being around “carnies” to going to a Styx concert (this was in 1978). Still, some of the stuff in “Ticket to the Fair” was so funny it was hard not to wonder if Wallace the novelist couldn’t help himself. That said, I wanted his anecdotes to be real because this is what fueled the humor. Unfortunately – for me anyway – my suspicions were at least partly confirmed when I read D.T. Max’s biography on Wallace. This is when I initially found out that one of the characters in Wallace’s story – referred to as “native companion” – was not his high school prom date as told in the story but a manufactured version of a woman Wallace had been dating at the time. From then on, I wasn’t sure what to believe and what not to believe in Wallace’s nonfiction.

(By the way, Josh Roiland does an impeccable job of analysis on the subject of Wallace’s role in creative nonfiction in his study, “I’m Not a Journalist – I’m More Like a Novelist With a Tennis Background.”)

Learning the Craft

How exactly do you get on the right path with creative nonfiction? This was my key question when I reached out to the nonfiction editor at the Newfound Journal, Ploi Pirapokin, who teaches for the Creative Nonfiction Foundation. Ploi has an MFA in creative writing from San Francisco State and is accomplished both in fiction and nonfiction. She also teaches classes at the University of Hong Kong, the UCLA Extension writers program, and


As both a writer and a teacher, how do you define creative nonfiction? What kind of boundaries are there?

To quote Creative Nonfiction magazine, creative nonfiction is “True stories, well told.” I had an amazing press run with journalists last year for a viral Twitter thread about witnessing a fight featuring Thai Power Rangers at a ramen restaurant in Oakland. I was able to see, in real time, how journalists collected evidence and worked with the restaurant to write their story within 24 hours.

A photo of Ploi Pirapokin, a creative nonfiction teacher
Ploi Pirapokin

Here’s what I learned: Don’t lie about checkable facts. When in doubt, leave it out. Admit what you did in-page in off-record interviews, to your editor; hell, even admit in your writing that your memory is fallible. The draw of nonfiction is that it’s true, and you had access to that truth and lived to tell it. You always have the freedom to present and express the story in any way, shape, or form that speaks to you based on the facts that were researched or given. Readers enter your nonfiction work with the belief that what you say happened, which is why you have the responsibility as the voice to your story to be held accountable for shining a light to it.

Can you describe your path into the nonfiction work you do? Were there particular writers or teachers who inspired you to build the skills you use?

The allure of being a fiction writer, especially if you’re marginalized in any way, is that everything that you write that appears believable and sincere – especially if it features your culture, ethnicity, any autobiographical information, gender, or sexual identity – will be considered nonfiction.


When I started submitting my short stories over 10 years ago, sometimes panelists, jurors, and editors would ask me if I was writing nonfiction, which inspired me to try it. At the time, I wrote from a place of wanting to prove that my fiction was equal to my nonfiction in craft, heart, and intention. Over time, nonfiction became my playful reprieve from fiction that supplemented my creative practice, but that’s when I saw that nonfiction is more egalitarian of a genre to write in than fiction and much more accessible to the public than short stories.

It’s normal to wonder if an author can write such an accurate and honest story without having endured the exact situation themselves, but does investigating into the parallels between the writing and the author’s life really satisfy our search for the truth? What happens after you’ve found that truth? What can you do with it?

I found personal essays, memoirs, and lyric essays freeing to construct, given that I already had themes, research, and experiences I wanted to explore, and my desire to connect and be in conversation with others has always outshone my desire to simply be seen or recognized.


Coming from Asia, aka “The Cultural Pioneers of Gaslighting,” it was profound when Vievee Francis [a poet and professor at Dartmouth College], one of the first authors I shared my nonfiction with, said my feelings were valid. [Author of Lamdba Literary Award nominee Boy Erased] Garrard Conley inspired me to stand up for what I write – no opposition to my truth will ever feel as destructive as erasing myself again. That gave me the courage to react and participate with contemporary writers who push on form and structure to extend the possibilities of nonfiction and who constantly show us that our imagination is essential to our real, off-the-page lives and for a better world.

When you teach a class in creative nonfiction, what kind of key objectives do you have in mind?

I’m drawn and connected to nonfiction that features our humanity.


We lie. Make mistakes. Respond in petty ways. Cause unintentional and intentional harm. Have blind spots, coping mechanisms, and flaws that contextualize our intentions, behaviors, actions, and even regrets.

Naturally, we avoid sharing our worst selves on the immortal page and wish that the act of confessing and the sensational content of our perceived sins will be enough for our writing to resonate with others. Hiding and prostrating oneself to hordes of strangers you know will judge you, unfortunately, is not sustainable – that’s how you become bitter or resentful.

When teaching, my main objective is to create a community of humility and acceptance. If we can practice compassion, vulnerability, and patience in workshop, it will show up in our writing, and we’ll feel freer to bloom on the page. More than anything, we learn to be more compassionate and patient with ourselves, in our reflections, in how we want to remember things, and how we may want to be remembered as full human beings.

What advice do you have for the new writer who is embarking into creative nonfiction?


Separate a writing career from the actual writing. Writing is a process, and we only catch the highlights of someone’s career when they are on the up and up. No one is on your radar when they’re hibernating to write a book for 15 years or if there’s a personal life matter they must attend to.

What alleviates the pressure for me is as writers, there are hundreds of authors (your worldwide, global co-workers and colleagues) and published examples you can draw inspiration from to help guide or shape your work – as a template, as a launching pad. Your first draft may make zero sense to anyone but yourself. That doesn’t mean you should never write again. If you keep revising, you’ll discover new approaches to language, structure, and tone that could better express what you’re trying to say.

There’s sadly no shortcut to writing something that stands the test of time and has its own life once it has left your fingertips. Rewriting, re-remembering what happened, and repositioning where you are writing from (your distance to the subject matter, the story) takes time, and you deserve to give yourself that space to dream.


T.J. Murphy is the editor of The Writer. Follow him on Twitter @tjmurphywriter.