In Praise of Creative Nonfiction & the Lyrical Reflective Essay

I love (heart) creative nonfiction

I enjoy all kinds of writing, fiction and non-fiction alike, but recently I’ve become enamored and enthralled by the genre known as creative nonfiction, or more precisely what John D’Agata calls the lyrical essay.

Let me lay the groundwork for a few comments wish to make by including the following extended quote from the Wikipedia article on “creative nonfiction.”

Creative nonfiction (also known as literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction) is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not primarily written in service to its craft. As a genre, creative nonfiction is still relatively young, and is only beginning to be scrutinized with the same critical analysis given to fiction and poetry.

 “For a text to be considered creative nonfiction, it must be factually accurate, and written with attention to literary style and technique. “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.”[1] Forms within this genre include biography, food writing, literary journalism, memoirs, personal essays, travel writing, and other hybridized essays. Critic Chris Anderson claims that the genre can be understood best by splitting it into two subcategories—the personal essay and the journalistic essay—but the genre is currently defined by its lack of established conventions.[2]

Literary critic Barbara Lounsberry — in her book The Art of Fact — suggests four constitutive characteristics of the genre, the first of which is “Documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘invented’ from the writer’s mind.”[3] By this, she means that the topics and events discussed in the text verifiably exist in the natural world. The second characteristic is “Exhaustive research,”[3] which she claims allows writers “novel perspectives on their subjects” and “also permits them to establish the credibility of their narratives through verifiable references in their texts.”[4] The third characteristic that Lounsberry claims is crucial in defining the genre is “The scene”. She stresses the importance of describing and revivifying the context of events in contrast to the typical journalistic style of objective reportage.[5] The fourth and final feature she suggests is “Fine writing: a literary prose style”. “Verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research guarantee the nonfiction side of literary nonfiction; the narrative form and structure disclose the writer’s artistry; and finally, its polished language reveals that the goal all along has been literature.”[6]

Aldous Huxley suggested that there are three different types of essays. The first is the personal or autobiographical essay. The second is the objective, factual, concrete and particular essay about about given topic. The third is the abstract, universal, philosophical essay. Huxley himself saw no necessary contradiction in writing essays that combine all three elements.

The essay is a literary form of creative nonfiction. Some literary historians trace the birth of the essay to Montaigne, but Montaigne himself was influenced by reading the classical Greek and Roman essayists and by reading Plutarch‘s “Oeuvres Morales” (Moral Works” about exemplary men of antiquity. Influential historical exemplars of the best writing of creative (or literary) nonfiction include Matthew Arnold, Joseph Addison, Richard Steele, Samuel Johnson, Edmund Burke, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, William Hazlitt, Charles Lamb, Leigh Hunt, Thomas de Quincey, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and in the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot, Robert Louis Stevenson, Willa Cather, Virginia Woolf, Edmund Wilson, Charles du Bos, Lionel Trilling, E.B. White, George Orwell, and many others. Other literary essayists who have influenced my sensibility and perspective include Wendell Berry, Loren Eiseley, Annie Dillard, Morris Berman, Edward Abbey and Lewis Lapham. There are literally hundreds of brilliant contemporary writers of creative nonfiction to choose from. One can easily find on the Web selected lists of the best living exemplars of the lyrical essay and creative nonfiction.

My recommendations for introductions to the art of the literary essay and creative nonfiction include “The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology from the Classical Era to the Present,” by Phillip Lopate, and “The Lost Origins of the Essay,” and “The Next American Essay,” by John D’Agata.

“Creative nonfiction” in general and the “literary reflective essay” in particular serve as a “personal lingual playground” that encompasses and illumines the rich diversity of human experience –whether of nature or culture, myth or history, spirituality or sexuality, art or science. The lyrical essay educates the mind, delights the senses, enchants the  imagination, and expands new horizons. Quite simply, it makes some beautiful music.


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