The Elements of Nonfiction

Like all craftspeople, writers use tools. What distinguishes creative nonfiction writers is that they probably wear more different tool belts than just about any other type of writer. At any given moment in any given nonfiction piece, a writer might utilize any of the following:

  • The Storyteller’s Tool Belt is the most general one. You can use it to go in either direction — to present objective facts that are causally related and/or to fashion subjective, speculative works of the imagination. You can use it in nonfiction. You can use it in poems. You can use it, of course, in fiction. In short, this is where you find the Phillips-head and other fundamental, much-used tools like it.
  • The Poet’s Tool Belt is where you’ll find a heightened attention to language, rhythm, form, image. Narrative and logic give way to intuitive leaps, resonant juxtapositions of words and images and sounds. Poets also pay attention to how their work looks on the page.
  • The Journalist’s Tool Belt is sometimes underutilized in “literary” writing. These tools help you get things down as you see them with at least some semblance of objectivity. There’s a feeling that events, as they happen resonate, by themselves and a subjective interpretation would just get in the way. The specific tools are those of reporting: paying attention to current events (locally, globally, and all points in between), conducting interviews and in-depth research, seeking out interesting or unusual experiences with the express intention of writing about them. Narrative and language are still important, but they take a backseat to an accurate, authentic accounting of (so-called) real life.
  • Then there’s the Essayist’s Toolbelt. The Essayist is a thinker, a talker, a persona. The Essayist thinks deep thoughts and has a comment to make about the world around her or him. It is a funny comment. Or a deep one. Or a smart one. Or an irascible one. Etc. Often it’s several of those (and more). The Essayist’s are the tools of classical rhetoric; she’s going to use some combination of logic and (or) emotion and (or) his/her own credibility as a thinker (either as somebody who’s really smart or really experienced or really knowledgeable about the topic or really wise in general or maybe an old soul or…something). Facts can play a role for The Essayist, but interpretation is king — and The Essayist wears her interpretation on her sleeve.

So here’s the takeaway:

If you’re writing a straight news article for the front page of the New York Times, you’ll make a mess for yourself if you use anything but the Journalistic Tool Belt. Likewise, if you’re writing a pure lyric poem, all the interviews in the world won’t do you much good. (Neither will an exquisite insight into character, for that matter.) But not all writing is so cut-and-dried, and that’s especially true of “creative nonfiction.” In creative nonfiction, you have access to — and use for — every single tool in each of the belts. At all times. The trick is knowing which ones to use when.