Writing Creative Nonfiction That Editors Can't Refuse

“The artist is one who takes the world into the self, sifts it through the self, and then gives it back to the world.” — Gabriel Garcia Lorca

“Memoirists, unlike fiction writers, do not really want to tell a story. They want to tell it all—the all of personal experience, of consciousness itself. That includes a story, but also the whole expanding universe of sensation and thought that flows beyond the confines of narrative and proves every life to be not only an isolated story line but a bit of the cosmos, spinning and streaming into the great, ungraspable patterns of existence.”.— Patricia Hampl

Over the past two years, in addition to my work as a writer of creative nonfiction and editor of other writers' works, I've served as faculty adviser to Two Hawks Quarterly, a digital literary journal published by Antioch University Los Angeles' creative writing students. Every month we receive a great number of creative nonfiction pieces: memoir, essay, and everything in between. Reading them has forced me to really think about what distinguishes the extraordinary from the mediocre. What compels me to say yes to a piece, to argue for its publication, to want to contact its author immediately? Though there are always matters of taste and every literary journal is different, I suspect that many editors respond as I do.

So here are the elements that make me say yes.

A Strong and Distinctive Voice.  The best memoirs and essays create authoritative first-person voices that readers will follow anywhere. A compelling story with sensational events is always a bonus, but writers like Jo Ann Beard (“The Fourth State of Matter”) or Joan Didion (The Year of Magical Thinking) or Bernard Cooper (Truth Serum) can make nearly any situation fascinating because they communicate their own interior life in all its contradictory complexity. Their distinctive and authoritative voices make readers trust them, and they don't sound like anyone else. They appear, in writer, teacher, and critic Vivian Gornick's words, to be “truth tellers.” What holds us to a text is not the events depicted so much as the way the observing self describes and struggles to understand them.

Balance of Showing and Telling. The old bromide “show, don't tell” only goes so far when it comes to creative nonfiction. There needs to be a balance of experience depicted through scenes and reflection: Here is what happened, and here is what it means. The events need to be depicted vividly and convincingly, of course, but showing isn't enough. In the most effective works, the narrator reflects on events to help the reader understand their multiple layers of meaning.

Tension. Another truism: writing needs tension or conflict to hold a reader. The suspense of plot—what's going to happen next?—may be the easiest way to produce tension. Readers will turn pages just to find this out. Fiction writers can make it all up; they can put their characters into jeopardy or crisis, then pull them out, give them epiphanies, and put them into danger again. Memoir and creative nonfiction need to find other sources of tension beyond plot. Some of the conflict in this genre comes from the tension between what is revealed and what is concealed, and the process of revelation. When too much is withheld or glossed over, readers become frustrated and give up. A reader may discredit a narrator who doesn't seem to want to face the truth, seems self-deluded, or who understands or sees less than the reader does. Conversely, a narrator who spills too much too soon may dissipate tension and lose the reader's interest.

Stakes. Life and death are not at stake in every piece of creative nonfiction. Some pieces are about objectively trivial matters, and yet the writer has to make it clear that how the story turns out or what has been learned—matters. It matters because it affects not only those particular events, but also the narrator's stance in the world or understanding of herself. It matters because the writer is a stand-in for the rest of us. The best creative nonfiction succeeds in finding the universal in the specific. The reader gets that the story isn't just about the narrator but tells us something larger about being human.

Authenticity. The work needs to feel true, as if the writer knows that subject well and is striving to get to the heart of it. The reader quickly gets a gut sense that the messiness of experience isn't being denied, and that the writer isn't taking easy ways out or writing just to enlarge an ego but is struggling to express what is true. What was wrong with James Frey's memoir A Million Little Pieces may not have been just that he lied, but why he lied–to self-aggrandize. When writers address topics they haven't taken the time to understand deeply and from multiple perspectives, their work can lack this sense of authenticity.

Complex Characterization. Writers of creative nonfiction don't have the latitude of fiction writers to create characters out of whole cloth. The real people they write about need to be three-dimensional beings, not just foils or targets for the narrator. No one is all good or all bad.  In The End of the World as We Know It, Robert Goolrick makes his nasty, drunken, neglectful, and abusive parents tragic figures. He does this by first depicting them as frail and needy and by showing us too how much he is like them. He cannot simply condemn them, because he is of them. We immediately like him so we cannot condemn them either. When you learn fairly late in the book that his father raped Goolrick as a young child, you've already come to see him as a failing, pathetic old man. This is an excellent example of how withholding information creates tension and also allows for multifaceted characterization. If we'd known from page one that his father raped him, we'd have written the father off.

Originality and Freshness of Language. The best authors create their own distinctive languages; at the least, there should be an absence of cliché and worn-out language. As with fiction, concrete, specific, and vivid images and sensory details allow writers to create their own worlds of words. Original language can make even familiar places, people, things, and events feel specific, distinctive, unique, new.

Surprise. It's amazing how many pieces are submitted to us where you can predict the whole outcome a paragraph or two in. How much more exciting and tantalizing to be surprised. Great work is unpredictable. Again, plot is not the only way to create surprise. Surprises can come in fresh metaphors, in the turns and twists of relationships, in the narrator's unexpected and yet resonant digressions, in the narrator's shifting take on the world. An element of this surprise is often paradox that comes when the author positions opposites in ways that cause the reader to reconsider what she thought she knew and to question conventional wisdom or the status quo. The conflict of the story resolves not in one side winning and the other losing but in a startling new hybrid truth or alternative to both of them.

Fractures/Plays With Time. The simplest chronology is to tell a story in the order in which events occurred. This is often the dullest and least revealing way to tell a nonfiction story. Other representations of time—nonlinear, cyclic, recurrent, simultaneous—are closer to the way we experience time in our heads. These other ways of organizing time can be used in creative nonfiction to great effect. For example, showing the consequences of an act twenty years down the road and then moving back in time to when the act took place may maximize the reader's appreciation of the stakes. Foreshadowing an event ups the tension. Flash forwards artfully placed can help us make connections we wouldn't otherwise make between the past and the present. In creative nonfiction, a writer can slow down time to fully describe a moment or speed it up to show the relative emotional weighting of events. A writer can return to the same moment over and over again, each time understanding it differently or seeing it more fully. Flashing forward and back can also be ways of commenting on the ephemerality of experience. Some critics would argue that the subtext of any fine work of memoir is the passage of time and our helplessness to stop it.

Of course, no one piece of creative nonfiction contains all these elements; even one of them expertly accomplished can be enough to make a piece really shine. Before you send your work out, consider whether you can incorporate more of them.

A Title as Strong as the Piece. And one last thing: the title. Editing the journal has changed the way I think about titles. My own used to be neutral and a little flat. I assumed that the piece itself would do the work of convincing an editor of its merits. But so many journals now are using Submittables or another online submission system that the first thing editors read is the title of your piece and your name in a long list of other titles and names. They've got to click to see the first page, the cover letter, or the author's biography. An intriguing or surprising title gets editors to click faster. If, when I start to read, a title seems to have no relation to the work itself, I'm turned off and doubt the authority of the author. And then there are some titles so wonderful that they make you start to fall in love with a piece even before your first click.

Copyright (c) 2012 Deborah A. Lott. Please contact the author deborahlott@earthlink.net for permission to reprint.

Deborah A. Lott, MFA
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