The practice of narrative and social witness reportage can be traced all the way back to Daniel Defoe’s (fictional) as well as to 18th century “disaster journalism.” In the 1960’s the New Journalists revolutionized modern journalistic form by insisting on inserting the first person into their reportage.These writers, such as Tom Wolfe and Joan Didion, were interested in bringing the presence of an individual awareness to the work, acknowledging that the writer is incapable of complete subjectivity and is constantly interpreting what he or she observes.At one time the actual memoirist was considered insignificant to the memoir.
Public events were considered historical, while private life was seen as inappropriate to the written word, unless you were a person considered of singular historical importance—Winston Churchill, or a Kennedy, for instance. Feminism has privileged the personal, changing the paradigms of what is worthy of cultural notice and recovering the stories of lives previously absent from history.
Identity and cultural politics redirected attention to people of color, gays and lesbians, the disabled, and anyone else who was up to that point missing from the public record.
We creative nonfiction writers can make form out of whatever containers we are capable of imagining, and still be working within the wide parameters of the actual.
I end with my favorite words on the subject of creating creative nonfiction literature.
This is a quote from Annie Dillard, from her famous essay “To Fashion a Text.” When I gave up writing poetry I was very sad, for I had devoted 15 years to the study of how the structures of poems carry meaning.
But I was delighted to find that nonfiction prose can also carry meaning in its structures, can tolerate all sorts of figurative language, as well as alliteration and even rhyme.
The report, the critique, the rumination, the lyric impression and the hard fact are all found in contemporary creative nonfiction writing.
It is the mix of all these elements that make creative nonfiction an illuminating and moving form of historical documentary, as well as lovely literature.
As a devotee of this form I like to define the genre in as broad a way as possible.
I describe it as memory-or-fact-based writing that makes use of the styles and elements of fiction, poetry, memoir, and essay.