There are many different philosophies used to craft creative nonfiction essays. When considering long-form journalism, personal essay, memoir, biography, lyric essay, and other non-narrative or disjunctive forms, we find that the essay is not just one thing. However, there are governing principles that cover almost every essay, principles which I feel are not discussed enough in creative writing courses. What are some of the tenets every essayist should take into account before putting pen to page or, in some cases, fingers to keys? Read on to find out.
1. The core of a creative nonfiction essay is not the story you need to tell, but the idea that you need to explore.
We recently had a conversation in my nonfiction workshop about this very issue: what constitutes the core of an essay? At first blush, we may consider the narrative storyline to be the most important part of an essay. However, recounting or disclosing revelatory information just to tell a good story cannot make a successful essay on its own. There are many books out there that are based on this inspirational story model. But for serious readers, this falls flat without evidence that the writer is asking questions of his experience.
Get in the habit of interrogating yourself. Why am I writing about this now? What is so interesting about this experience or information I am disclosing? Any conclusion you come to in an essay should be the result of self-reflexive writing, meaning that you asked yourself a lot of questions along the way and meditated on the page about possible answers to those questions. As Columbia College professor David Lazar puts it, “Essayists write about the experience of experience.” Write not just what you feel, but how you feel about what you feel. Narrative in essays is instrumental, meaning it is an instrument used to reach the work’s core, rather than the core itself.
2. Interlocutors are important.
No matter what you’re writing about, someone has probably written on the same or a related topic in the past. It’s your responsibility as an essayist to find these fellow voices and “have a conversation” with them on the page. In other words, citing key ideas from others is necessary in a critically-thinking essay. The writers and thinkers you choose to converse with, otherwise known as your “interlocutors,” help take your work to a higher level of complexity of thought.
Working with interlocutors helps make your essay less self-centered, and also allows the reader to better understand your thought process and interior life. They get to read your ideas alongside the interlocutors you quote. Quoting the ideas of those who come before you helps establish a context for readers, and gives you a clearer opportunity to alter that context with your own thoughts. It adds credibility and complexity to your essays that your best readers crave.
3. Write with intention, and write for your best reader.
Every essayist has been in a position where they wonder if they should alter a word, sentence, or section of an essay to make it easier to understand. There is no honor in flattening out your work in order to chase larger appeal. Creative writing is a practice that requires intention. Every decision you make accumulates to turn your essay into a cohesive work. There are no inconsequential details, there are no arbitrary metaphors. Everything is a choice. This is the unsaid pact that all readers enter into when reading creative work. They assume that the writer meant to do everything that appears on the page. We don’t read a published essay and wonder if the writer means what he writes.
In order to uphold our end of the pact as writers, we have to own every decision we make, and that means writing with intent. Some readers will understand nearly everything. Other readers might put your work down because it’s “too hard.” They shouldn’t stop you from taking risks and fully realizing your ideas. Wouldn’t you rather have an essay or story that your best reader will engage with on every level, rather than one lazy readers will understand?
Take these ideas into account before starting any essay. Do you have a different process that helps you write your essays? Help me refine my ideas! Drop me a comment or stop by the Publishing Lab and we can compare notes. Talking about writing is often just as helpful for improving your craft as doing the writing itself. I hope, for my part, that I’ve ushered the conversation in a productive direction for all you nonfiction writers out there.