To broaden my reading horizons, I’ve recently started helping with the review of nonfiction submissions for a literary magazine. I’ll be honest, I was a bit nervous to dive into that slush pile at first. Sure, I read nonfiction every now and then—from memoirs to the occasional New Yorker piece—but I’ve never attempted to write it (I’m more of a poetry and fiction kind of gal). So how in the world was I going to tackle other people’s creative nonfiction? How would I know what was good enough to pull from the slush pile?
Interestingly, the more and more I read of the submissions, the more similarities I found between creative nonfiction and fiction. Many of the most successful nonfiction pieces utilized certain elements from fiction, which made for more compelling narratives and, ultimately, were the pieces that I flagged with a “Yes.”
So, what makes a creative nonfiction piece stand out in the slush pile? Simple: the same elements that make a fiction piece stand out.
When I read fiction, I want a strong sense of conflict (plot) and a cohesive theme throughout the piece (i.e. what am I supposed to take away from this story?). Of course, those aren’t the only elements that make for a fantastic story, but they’re the ones that I find most lacking in a lot of submissions.
Plot: Conflict and Tension
I know what you’re thinking: real life is messy; it doesn’t have a plot! And you’re right. 99.9% of the time, our daily routines are not fraught with riveting conflict (unless I count the time I got pulled over on my way to work one morning). However, the moments you choose to write about in your creative nonfiction typically have had a profound impact on you and/or the people around you. Those are the moments that can be filled with conflict and tension.
Much like fiction writers are encouraged to come up with an “inciting incident” for their characters, the inciting incident in your creative nonfiction is the moment that forces you personally to take some kind of action and, as a result, changes you in some way. Without conflict and tension, this change can’t really occur.
For a good example of conflict and tension in a nonfiction piece, check out Jaclyn Gilbert’s “Core Being,” which was published by Tin House. In her essay, Gilbert discusses the way her body and her relationship with her father slowly deteriorated during her time in college. These dual conflicts push the narrative forward in a way that is heartbreaking, but ultimately hopeful. Gilbert’s essay spans years, however, the memories she chooses to include each serve a purpose: they show how certain moments in her life forced her to take action and change, for better or worse.
So, as you draft your creative nonfiction piece, keep this idea of plot in mind. While it’s true that many of our life experiences don’t have clear cut plots (like in fiction), there are still moments that are ripe with conflict and tension. And, in my opinion, it’s those moments that make for compelling stories—fiction or not.
Theme: The Takeaway
When you’re writing fiction, it’s always a good idea to keep a theme (or multiple themes) in mind; this can create a sense of cohesion throughout the piece. Ideally, a strong theme doesn’t leave your readers confused by the end of the story; instead, they should have a clear takeaway (for example: “This story was about love.” or “This story was about grief.”).
Theme is equally as important in creative nonfiction. There could be several moments from your life that have had a profound impact on you, however, if they are not linked in some way, they can seem disjointed or disorganized on paper. One way to fix this issue is by asking yourself: What is the main thing I want readers to take away from my experiences? Your answer should give you a good idea of the theme of your work, or at least point you in the right direction.
As I mentioned above, Gilbert’s Tin House essay spans years, yet it still feels cohesive. I think this is largely due to her focus on one or two major themes. Relationships played a big role in her past—with her father, with exercise, with her body—and it’s a theme that is present throughout the entire piece. Gilbert doesn’t just haphazardly hop from one memory to another; rather, each memory hearkens back to that one specific theme and they each lead up to a satisfying conclusion.
Over To You, Writers!
If you’re a writer of creative nonfiction, I would love to hear from you in the comments. How do you craft compelling essays? Do you use any techniques from fiction writing? Let me know!
Manuela Williams is a Las Vegas-based writer and editor. She is the author of Ghost In Girl Costume, which won the 2017 Hard To Swallow Chapbook Contest. Her second poetry chapbook, Witch, is forthcoming from Dancing Girl Press. When she’s not writing, Manuela is busy drinking coffee and spending time with her blind Pomeranian, Redford. You can connect with her on LinkedIn and Pinterest.