category writing

Creative Nonfiction in Memoir & Biography

Your job in writing your memoir is to make the story as true to yourself as possible. Often we think of nonfiction as being written in a dry, “just the facts” style that takes all the joy out of reading. While this style is just fine for technical, legal, scientific, and other factual writing, it does not lead to an interesting memoir. That’s where creative nonfiction comes in.

What? How can nonfiction be creative? Doesn’t creative mean that you have stepped away from the truth? No, it does not. Creative nonfiction is factual material written in a way that tells a story. While the writing style may be similar to a novel, creative nonfiction sticks to the facts. This is the old “show me, don’t tell me” part of writing that authors must master if they want to keep their readers’ attention and make them keep turning the page. Writing creative nonfiction means that you write in a narrative style, and that you offer scenes, dialogue, and descriptions whenever possible.

Memoir can also involve the use of historical fiction. This is another method a shy memoirist may use to tell their story while hiding the fact that it is true, and that the events actually happened. Or it can be used to include information from the past that is relevant to the memoir or biography.

Creative nonfiction techniques allow you to use dialogue and descriptions for events in which you either were not present or for which you do not have a clear memory. You may want to describe events that happened before you were born, as I do in my hybrid memoir Hibiscus Strong. The book includes stories of events in my parents’, grandparents’, and great-grandparents’ lives. Although the stories were told to me often as a child, obviously, I was not present when many of these events happened and cannot know exactly what my great-grandfather said to my great-grandmother at a specific time, or their exact motivations. For example, consider this excerpt:  

“I don’t like it. You know the Weather Bureau says there’s a hurricane coming.”

“Mary, the Weather Bureau is about as reliable as a chocolate teapot,” Herbert scoffed.

His reaction didn’t sit well with his wife. Mary sniffed loudly, trying to make the sound scornful, but he knew very well that she was trying to hide her tears. After almost thirty years of marriage, she couldn’t fool him. Mary didn’t like his job. Well, that wasn’t strictly true. She used to like it. She had liked it until five years ago. That was when he’d switched from the Miami-to-St. Augustine run to the Key West run.

It paid more and it was only a half-day trip, which theoretically meant he was home most nights. He only had to stay over in the Keys if there was a problem. However, there were a lot of those. Even five years after its inaugural run, Mr. Flagler’s Overseas Railroad was still called “Flagler’s Folly” by most Miamians. And that was Mary’s issue. The daily trip to Key West was dangerous.

Obviously, I wasn’t present for this conversation, but I can make an educated guess about what was said and the motivation of the characters based on my knowledge of my family. This is the type of writing that adds color to a memoir. Your memoir is your story, and you can write it any way you want. So don’t let someone else tell you that you are not writing memoir, or not writing nonfiction, if you add a scene such as this one. It is important to make clear to the reader, however, what you know as a fact and what you are making an educated guess about after researching your subject.

To sum things up, your story can be told in any number of ways. The important point is to lead your readers on a journey of discovery to the one important idea or theme that you want them to understand when they finally reach the end of the book.

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