What does it mean to write good Creative Non-fiction?
I do not claim to be an expert on the subject. This class was, unfortunately, not offered as an option during my undergrad writing seminars, and the closest I came to my own attempt was the spring I wrote about my experience at a fashion magazine in New York. Despite my best efforts, I heavily dramatized my life well past the point of Non-fiction, flying straight on into the compelling realm of the Creative. The genre in question, though, of course requires a good dose of each—the Creative and the Non-fiction.
For that reason, it is one of my favorite genres—sort of like when you watch a really excellent movie and those startling, delightful lines appear either at the beginning, or the very end: “Based on a true story.” There is truth in Creative Non-fiction, somebody’s real story, someone’s actual life. But there is also humor, memory, reflection, and the sort of detailed observation that turn an ordinary life into something delightful, interesting, and even profound.
In celebration of this genre, I present for you four authors of Creative Non-fiction who have captured my interest with their enchanting stories. They are not connected in any particular fashion. Some are more creative than others, but all authors harness their stories within real-life events, chronicling their own truths and experiences as they (mostly) really happened.
1972: James Herriot, All Creatures Great and Small.
James Herriot (b. 1916, d. 1995) lived and worked as a veterinary surgeon in the English countryside during the middle years of the twentieth century. Author of many stories and anecdotes about his work and clients (both animal and human), Herriot published All Creatures Great and Small as the first of four main volumes. I like Herriot’s writing for his frank and often amusing eye when it comes to the locals. He captures an era of farming and village life that has since left the English country, and he writes during the end of that transition from man to machine. Starting at the beginning of his career as a vet, Herriot documents his struggles to learn his trade and build his practice in this book, and he writes in accessible technical detail about being a vet in each case presented, yet also remembers to capture character and compassion. After enjoying Herriot’s work, I highly recommend the BBC production, found under the same title.
1972: Madeline L’Engle, A Circle of Quiet
Madeline L’Engle (b. 1918, d. 2007) is likely best known for her fiction, notably A Wrinkle in Time, however she also published a set of four works titled The Crosswicks Journals. A Circle of Quiet is the first, and starts to tell of L’Engle’s personal journey through life, capturing the bits of wisdom and knowledge she collected over the years, noting family stories, and chronicling her life and musings as a writer. Writing personal, at times philosophical and religious, passages, L’Engle intersperse her own thoughts with a general autobiography, from her childhood spent in New York and Europe, back to New York and the theatre world, and on to the old farm house in the Connecticut countryside, in which she and her husband raised their family, a house they named Crosswicks. An “easy” read, this book nonetheless prompts a certain self-searching train of thought alongside L’Engle’s own pondering journey. I like this book for her rolling waves of story, wandering in and out of theories and life events, and of L’Engle’s willingness to ask big life questions without the need for absolute certainty. I propose keeping a journal or highlighter handy during your read for L’Engle’s quotable passages.
1989: Peter Mayle, A Year in Provence
I stumbled across Peter Mayle’s (b. 1939) book during a beautiful weekend at our cottage in Maine. I was looking for a beach read and pulled this volume off the shelf. I promptly lost myself in his tale of the year he and wife packed up their lives in England and moved to rural Provence with their two dogs and a limited ability to speak French. Mayle’s writing appeals to me because he spends so much time talking about food, wine, and the simple struggles he and his wife faced—new language, cold house, and strange customs. His book tempts my imaginary senses (many lush descriptions of cheese, picnics, and beautiful weather), and he alluringly writes the story many of us wish we had the courage to live out for ourselves. I suggest reading this book with a nice glass of red close at hand.
1994: Jill Ker Conway, True North
Jill Ker Conway (b. 1934) enchants me with with her elegant, clear writing, touching on many subjects near and dear to my heart. The first woman president of Smith College, Conway wrote her autobiography across three works, the second being True North. This book explores her education at Harvard in the 1960s, still as a part of the minority as a woman, her marriage to her professor, John Conway, and their time spent teaching in the university system in Toronto. Conway records her early years growing up in the Australian outback in her first book, but I like this second volume for the transitions she illustrates—moving from young, single, and searching, to an older, established career, and the foundation for her years at Smith, as told in her third work. I advise an open internet browser as you read True North, because Conway can’t help but inspire you into furthering your own higher education.