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I’d Write Creative Nonfiction If I Knew What the Heck It Was

By Angela Hallstrom

Note: This piece is a discussion of the literary genre of the personal essay. While I’ve posted it here on a blog, what I’ve written is not a good example of the genre of the blog post. For one, it’s waaaaaay too long. Hope you enjoy it anyway.

One of the things we want to do here at Segullah is “encourage literary talent.” Of course, one of the ways we try to promote good writing is by providing some examples of it here, at the blog . . . but did you realize Segullah isn’t just a blog? Seriously! We also publish this pretty little ink-and-paper novelty called a magazine. It’s a cool contraption because you can read it in the bathroom, on the toilet OR in the tub, two places where you might actually be left alone for five minutes at a stretch. (And yes, technically, it’s true the talented among us can manage a laptop in the bathroom. But paperless revolution be darned, I will always and forever have a magazine on top of every toilet in my house, I solemnly swear.)

I bring this up since I’ve heard that some of you blog-readers are interested in submitting to the magazine. This makes sense because nothing much beats seeing your name in print . . . inside a magazine . . . that you imagine sitting on top of toilets in bathrooms around the world. But what’s keeping you from submitting is this: You feel pretty good about blogging, but you’re not so sure about writing “creative nonfiction,” which is what we magazine publish-y types call any kind of literary writing that both exhibits artistic merit and is based in personal experience. (“Isn’t that what blogging is?” you ask. We’ll get to that.) The problem is you’re not sure if you can write “creative nonfiction” because, well, you don’t know what it IS, really.

Here’s a little secret: nobody knows what creative nonfiction is.

Okay, so that’s a little disingenuous. Good creative nonfiction is like pornography, in one way and one way alone: it’s difficult to define precisely, but you know it when you see it. And we here at Segullah want to see more of it. (Creative nonfiction . . . not pornography, of course.)

Within the genre of “creative nonfiction” there are many sub-genres. We’ll focus on one specifically, since it’s the type of creative nonfiction we’re most interested in seeing here at Segullah: the personal essay.

The personal essay has its origins in personal experience. The writer may choose to use a personal experience that happened yesterday or that happened years ago. The “experience” doesn’t have to be earth shattering or traumatic. A personal essay can even stem from a simple, seemingly mundane observation: a child lining up her rows of school supplies, a melted popsicle on the pavement, a limping dog on a busy road.

What’s important, though, is that a personal essay uses this experience to illuminate a point greater than the experience itself. The essayist Philip Gerard says, “The subject has to carry itself and also be an elegant vehicle for larger meanings.” In other words, the explicit topic of the essay must hold our attention. The personal experience you share must be interesting in and of itself—there must be some kind of conflict, or surprise, or pathos, or humor, or something in the story. But that experience must also do what I like to call “double duty”—it must be representative of a greater truth or insight that extends beyond your personal experience, and this greater truth must be somehow communicated to your audience. It seems to me that one of the biggest differences between an average blog post and a well-wrought personal essay is the successful communication of this greater truth.

Creative nonfiction is a literary art and, therefore, uses the techniques found in literature. It is useful to remember that good creative nonfiction often reads much like fiction, employing the skillful use of dialogue, scene, figurative language, etc. With fiction, however, the writer isn’t supposed to be intrusive, telling the reader what the story means. The writer is supposed to tell a story and let the reader figure it out. But with the personal essay things tend to get trickier: the writer is expected to intrude, at least a little bit, and interpret the events for the reader. Usually. Kind of.

I’ll let Janet Burroway, author of Imaginative Writing, explain: “A [personal essay] is a story, and like a story it will describe a journey and a change; it will be written in a scene or scenes; it will characterize through detail and dialogue. The difference is not only that it is based on the facts as your memory can dredge them up, but that you may interpret it for us as you go along or at the end or both: this is what I learned, this is how I changed, this is how I relate my experience to the experience of the world, and of my readers. ” Burroway also gives this practical bit of advice: “The success of your essay may well depend on whether you achieve a balance between the imaginative [the story] and the reflective [the interpretation]. . . . Often the story and its drama will fill most of the sentences—that is what keeps a reader reading—and the startling or revelatory or thoughtful nature of your insight about the story [the interpretation] will usually occupy less space.”

This is hard to do well. One of the reasons I prefer writing fiction to nonfiction is because it is so very difficult to balance the story and the interpretation, the showing and the telling, in a satisfying way. And being Mormon bloggers, the Mormon side of our writerly personality may sink our personal essay in one direction, and the blogger side many sink it in another.

The Mormon side of our writing-selves might be tempted to write a sacrament meeting talk instead of a personal essay. We’re so used to the format: introduce topic, illustrate with anecdote, flesh out the “moral of the story” with scriptures and quotes from church leaders, bear testimony, amen. While this method may (or may not) help you keep the attention of 300 hungry/hot/wiggly humans trapped in a room on a Sunday afternoon, vary rarely is it the recipe for a successful personal essay. The problem is the writer intrudes too much with this method. You approach the essay as one who’s been assigned a “topic” instead of as one with a story to tell . . . and is it no wonder this method, based as it is in preaching, comes off as preachy? Almost always, the story itself should be the center of your piece. Nothing turns a reader off faster than too much authorial pontificating.

The blogging side of our writing-selves gets us in trouble in another way. While an essay styled like a sacrament meeting talk can give the impression of a writer standing at a pulpit, expounding Truth, an essay styled like a blog post can come off like the writer’s in the hall, whispering a secret to her very best friend. In a sacrament meeting talk, the writer is too conscious of communicating a broader point for an audience; in a blog post, the writer’s not conscious enough.

I’m of the opinion that effective blogging is a skill in its own right, but blogs are not essays. For one, a good essay is revised (and revised and revised—and, yes, I realize some of you revise your blog posts, but I’m speaking generally here). But the difference I want to focus on is one of audience. Very often, blog posts are focused on personal daily experience and are written in a chatty, intimate way that doesn’t dwell on the universal significance of the experience shared. As Burroway says, “The personal essay is a form that allows maximum mobility from the small, the daily, the domestic, to the universal and significant.”

Although every once in a while I will read a blog post that is more like a personal essay in that it delves more deeply into its themes and attempts to communicate a greater meaning to a large audience, most blog posts don’t venture too far beyond the bounds of the experience itself. The writer’s stance before the audience is different, too: in a blog post, the writer assumes a certain intimacy with the audience. (And even when a blogger is very popular and doesn’t “know” most of her readers, the assumed intimacy creates a feeling of peeking inside another person’s window and is part of what makes reading somebody else’s blog an interesting experience—that sense of being allowed inside somewhere we’re not entirely supposed to be.) A personal essay, however, assumes a wide audience from the get-go. It’s not a secret whispered between friends that was somehow overheard.

Of course, there are many effective essays that do very little authorial interpretation of the event but still manage to communicate a larger, universal theme to a wide audience. See, for example, Brittney Carman’s Barcelona, Venezuela from Segullah’s Spring 2007 issue. She only gives one line that I read as authorial interpretation: “I understand that, even for the faithful, desperation will run comfortless at timesโ€”deep and wild.” But the greater meaning of her experience is present throughout the entire essay, there between the lines.

Other effective essays may have more philosophizing and interpreting alongside the storytelling. For example, in “Keeping Attendance” by Julie Ransom, Segullah’s essay contest winner in 2007, Ransom begins the essay by telling a story, but uses this story as a jumping off point for rumination on significant themes, using the experience as a metaphor for that greater meaning. (I love how a story about arriving late at church because of a broken foot winds up in a place where the writer is comparing the similar Latin root of the word “ligament” and “religion.”)

These pieces are quite different from each other, but they are both effective—and beautiful—personal essays.

Like I said at the beginning, “creative nonfiction” is very difficult to define, but there are elements common to all effective personal essays that a writer can strive to emulate. And once you do, who knows? You might find your essay inside the pages of a handsome print magazine—and you can put that magazine on a shelf, by your bedside, or on top of the toilet in your guest bathroom. It’s entirely up to you.

Do you write creative nonfiction as well as blog? What are the differences as you see them? Do you want to write personal essays but haven’t made the leap? What’s stopping you?

And, if you’re interested, I’m teaching beginning creative writing at the BYU Salt Lake Center this fall. Thursday nights from 7:30–10:00. You don’t have to be a matriculated BYU student to attend.

About Angela Hallstrom

(Advisory Board) grew up in Utah, then moved to Minnesota, then came back to Utah, then packed up her husband and four kids and moved to Minnesota--again!-- in the summer of 2010. Although she loves the Land of 10,000 Lakes, she dearly misses Slurpees, Sunday dinners at her Mom's house, and eating a whole entire Cafe Rio pork salad while lunching with her Utah-based Segullah sisters. And yes, she finds it telling that everything she misses about her hometown is somehow related to food. She has an BA in English from BYU, an MFA in creative writing from Hamline University, and has taught writing to high school and college students.

22 thoughts on “I’d Write Creative Nonfiction If I Knew What the Heck It Was”

  1. Angela, I'm going to print this out and keep it on my toilet so I can read it a few times over. ๐Ÿ™‚

    Great job! Thanks for the fabulous info.

  2. Angela, this was excellent. You've distilled the difference between a blog post and a personal essay very well, articulating things I have thought but not quite put words around.

    For me, creative nonfiction has to evolve. The few essays I've written have taken months of scribbling out a fragment here and a related fragment there, and then trying to find the connections between what I've written.

  3. Agreed. This is great. I'm still very wary of the genre, though. I feel like it's too much assemblage and not enough story or something. I don't know.

    It's like poetry: like it when I like it, but I have a strained relationship with it as a genre/style/field.

  4. Another thing to me that makes an essay different from a blog post is the effort to really bring the reader into the situation — to create scenes and experiences in the reader's mind with more deliberateness than I would with a blog post alone. I often tell more than I show when I blog; I definitely show more than I tell in an essay.

  5. m&m – Great simple definatel difference of the 2 that is readily understandable.

    I like creative non-fiction – one of my favs – so cool to read a post on explaining it so well.

    Good Job!

  6. Emily, yes, that evolution is so important. Revision is more than simply cleaning up a piece. For example, I wrote this post in two one-hour settings, one last night and one this morning. Since I posted this, I've gone back and changed a few words, fixed a couple of typos, and rewritten two sentences that were bugging me. That kind of fiddling is editing, not revision.

    If, however, I wanted to write an essay ABOUT the personal essay and submit it for publication somewhere, I would use the ideas I've expressed above, and probably a sentence from here or a paragraph from there, and I'd end up distilling meaning in some places and expanding it in others. I'd make it cleaner and tighter.

    But even then, the post I've written today wouldn't be a *personal essay.* Nope. The post you just read is an expository essay, pure and simple: an essay that explains something using facts. If I wanted to write a personal essay ABOUT personal essays, at its core there would have to be a story–there would need to be some way I could include scenes and dialogue and figurative language to evoke a sensory experience for my reader. I'd have to start over completely, with an utterly different intention.

    And m&m, you're exactly right that blog posts often tell more than they show, whereas personal essays ought to show more than they tell. In a blog post someone might write, "So the other day I hauled my kids to McDonald's playland." A personal essay might begin, "The smell of deep fried chicken thighs and sweaty toddler feet hit me the minute I walked into the room."

    The tendency to tell more than show in a blog post arises, I think, from the fact that we assume a certain intimacy with our blog readers. We don't feel we NEED to recreate a scene for them because they "know" us, our kids, what McDonald's playland smells like. (Even if they *don't* know us, we write as if they do.) But with the personal essay you're writing for "the world," and when you do that you feel a responsibility to create that world as visually as possible, if that makes sense.

    Have I said that the reason I'm no good at the genre of the blog post is because I'm no good at the whole "short and pithy" thing?? Sheesh, I go on.

  7. Thank you, Angela. What a terrific description of personal essay writing. (Your examples make me want to spend days reading through the archives, too.)

  8. I thought this was really good too. I've tried and failed many times to write personal essays and creative nonfiction. My husband is a writer and has many writerly friends from doing his MA at BYU. I started my blog four years ago because many of our friends were starting these wonderful, creative, witty blogs that I wanted to copy. And mine isn't like that. I have tried a few times to write personal essay but I need a lot more practice. I'm very good at expository writing and criticism, but creative writing eludes me. I would love to take your class but I don't know if this fall would work for me. I'll have to think about it (I'm pregnant and semi-high risk so I need to be careful). Anyways, let us know next time you're teaching ๐Ÿ™‚

  9. I love personal essays. This was a wonderful description. Too bad I haven't moved yet or I'd take your class. Maybe in a couple years! Until then, I'll keep working on my essay!

  10. Thank you, Angela. This is so very helpful!

    I agree with Emily about evolution. The personal essays I've written that are most successful start out as a story and the "moral" or meaning comes to me through the process of writing. I usually don't even know what it is when I start!

  11. I was thinking this morning that a personal essay is also not just a chronicle of events: "Then this happened, and then this happened…." So it shouldn't sound like a journal entry or a chapter in one's personal history (if one should write a personal history, which I have not). For example, if you wanted to write a personal essay about your schooling experiences, you would not write an essay that talked about your kindergarten class, and then your first grade class, and then about how you went on to second grade, and then you went to third grade—where you met your best friend, Susie—and then you went to fourth grade and had Miss Brown as your teacher, etc. You would zero in on one particular experience–perhaps talk about how, when you were in third grade, your mother made you take cashews and oranges to school for lunch, or crumbly homemade whole wheat sandwiches with cucumber and cheese on them, instead of the white bread, bologna sandwiches that everyone else took to school, and you traded your cashews and oranges for your friends' bologna sandwiches, and prayed that your mother would never find out. And then you might relate that experience to an overall theme, which could be something about not fitting in, or something about your family's eating issues when you were growing up. Or you could write about how all the boys in your class had a crush on Miss Brown, and it wasn't until years later that you realized that Miss Brown never wore a bra (because it was the 70's), and this could develop into a number of different themes, depending on what the essay is ultimately about—coming of age in the 70's, or feminism, or being clueless about sexuality in fourth grade, or whatever.

    Bottom line is that a personal essay isn't just a list of events, or a chronicle of what happened to you. You still have to shape your material—the experiences that happened to you—into art.

  12. it took me two hours to read this angela! i don't write fast at all. and i only write passably well at my best. but once upon a time a favorite teacher at byu, eugene england, had me write a personal essay, and when i got the paper back and saw what was written on the cover sheet ("A+. Get it published!") i was excited. years later when i re-read that essay, i realized how much my writing had evolved through time, and that he was being generous with his praise. but his encouragement has probably been the single most significant inspiration in me writing at all. i never thought of writing. didn't consider myself a writer. hadn't studied it or aspired to be someone who writes. i've been slowly evolving in my thoughts about writing over the past 2 decades, and because of that i really enjoyed your piece here.

    i tried to find your course on the link you sent. any more specific info that might help? it wasn't in the fall schedule as far as i could see. and do you know how much it costs? just thinking maybe…


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