Posts Tagged ‘Creative Nonfiction’

What distinguishes historical fiction from creative nonfiction about historical events? I’ve been thinking about that question since Katherine Howe’s recent talk at Lenoir-Rhyne. In her February 12 presentation, Howe–L-R’s current writer-in-residence and one of the featured authors in the university’s Visiting Writers Series–spoke about her historical novels and the seemingly contrarian nature of the form:

Historical fiction seems to embody a contradiction. If we want to know what happened, we can consult an archive. If we want a transcendent experience, we read fiction.

As a writer of historical fiction, Howe does both, conducting research for accuracy and crafting fictional worlds that breathe life into the past. When Howe mentioned the question of whether the chandelier in her forthcoming novel burns gas or whale oil—a question her research hasn’t answered yet—I was reminded of Janet Burroway’s reflections on her novel Cutting Stone, set during the Mexican revolution:

In the only historical novel I have ever written, I decided that I could put an ice house in a rural Arizona town several years before there was actually such a thing, but that I could not blow off the arm of a famous Mexican general two years before, historically, it happened (240).

Such blending of fiction and fact differs from creative nonfiction about historical events, not because creative nonfiction doesn’t include a mix—it does, sometimes—but rather because creative nonfiction doesn’t place us in the past.

Holocaust Girls (2002) / indiebound.com

Holocaust Girls (2002) / indiebound.com

Take for example “Margot’s Diary,” (one of the essays in Burroway’s chapter on creative nonfiction in Imaginative Writing), in which writer S. L. Wisenberg speculates about the life of the Frank sister who is unknown to us because her diary didn’t survive, as Anne’s did. Wisenberg writes an un-diary of sorts, an essay in nine sections, the last titled “At Bergen-Belsen, Winter 1945.” But Wisenberg doesn’t place the readers at the concentration camp where Margot died, nor does she place us in the Frank houses in Frankfurt, Germany and Amsterdam in the earlier sections. Instead, Wisenberg imagines what Margot may have written before she “ran out of language” (255). Her aim is not is not to return us to the past, as Howe does, but to leave us with an unfinished portrait that conveys a profound sense of loss.


Wisenberg, S. L. “Margot’s Diary.” Imaginative Writing: The Elements of Craft by Janet Burroway. 3rd ed. Boston: Pearson/Longman, 2011. Print. 252-55.

 

 

Making Shapely Fiction (1991) and a draft of this blog post

Making Shapely Fiction (1991) with a draft of this blog post

In preparation for Jesmyn Ward’s recent campus visit—as one of the featured writers in the Lenoir-Rhyne Visiting Writers Series—my students and I read excerpts from her novel Salvage the Bones (the subject of my January 17 post) and her memoir Men We Reaped. For writers reading greedily, the first paragraphs of Ward’s memoir offer a model of what writing teacher Jerome Stern called negative positive knowledge: “the technique you use when you want to tell readers what is not happening. It addresses the problem of how to call readers’ attention to what a character is not saying, or doing, or thinking (165). In the prologue, which recounts Ward’s visits to her father in New Orleans after her parents’ separation, her brother, Joshua, tells her that there’s a ghost in her father’s house, that someone died there. Following his words, Ward writes: “‘You just trying to scare us,’ I said. What I didn’t say: It’s working.” With one line, Ward lets the reader hear both what she said and didn’t say to her brother. Ward also uses a variation on negative positive knowledge, negative positive setting, when she describes her father’s living room as “TV-less.”

Men We Reaped

Men We Reaped (2013) / npr.org

Writing Ideas Torn from the Prologue of Men We Reaped (and from Making Shapely Fiction)

  1. A scene that conveys what a character is not saying, doing, or thinking
  2. A description of a room that includes something that isn’t there

Stern, Jerome. Making Shapely Fiction. New York: Norton, 1991.