Sunday, June 26, 2022

A Comprehensive Explanation of Creative Nonfiction

by Craig von Buseck @CraigVonBuseck
Creative nonfiction is a blending of two previously separate literary worlds—and the results can be breathtaking. The genre—including narrative nonfiction and memoir—has become extremely popular, often dominating the best-seller lists.

The word ‘fiction’ comes from the Latin fictio, the act of fashioning. Merriam-Webster defines fiction as “something invented by the imagination or feigned specifically an invented story.”[i] Fiction is created by the imagination of the writer. It is not factual, though it is most often based on the real world and refers to it.

A Definition
Nonfiction is defined by Merriam-Webster as writing or cinema that is about facts and real events.[ii] This is a straight forward description that seems rather uncomplicated. The nonfiction writer draws from real life without making anything up, or worse, lying.

“I don’t know actually coined the term ‘creative nonfiction,’” writes Lee Gutkind. “I have been using it since the 1970s, although if we were to pinpoint a time when the term became ‘official,’ it would be 1983, at a meeting convened by the National Endowment for the Arts to deal with the question of what to call the genre as a category for the NEA’s creative writing fellowships. …the NEA had long recognized the ‘art’ of nonfiction and [had] been trying to describe the category so writers would understand what kind of work to submit for consideration.”

“‘Essay’ is the term used to describe this ‘artful’ nonfiction,” Gutkind recalls, “but it didn’t really capture the essence of the genre for the NEA or lots of other folks experimenting in the field. … ‘creative nonfiction’ precisely describes what the form is all about. The word ‘creative’ refers simply to the use of literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner. …creative nonfiction writers do not make things up; they make ideas and information that already exist more interesting and often more accessible.”[iii]

“The word ‘creative’ refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques of fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. But the stories are true.”[iv]

“The word ‘creative,’” writes Gutkind, “has to do with how the writer conceives ideas, summarizes situations, defines personalities, describes places—and shapes and presents information. ‘Creative’ doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie. The word ‘nonfiction’ means the material is true.”

Gutkind emphasizes that in creative nonfiction, “you can’t make this stuff up!”[v]

“This may be creative nonfiction’s greatest asset,” argues Gutkind, “it offers flexibility and freedom while adhering to the basic tenets of reportage. In creative non-fiction, writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously. Creative nonfiction writers are encouraged to use literary and cinematic techniques, from scene to dialogue to description to point of view, to write about themselves and others, capturing real people and real life in ways that can and have changed the world.”

“The key concept in transitional narrative is that a dramatic story,” writes Jon Franklin, “whether it be the old fiction or the new nonfiction, must be a world unto itself … a world which the reader can enter and become absorbed in. This results from a phenomenon that short-story writers called ‘suspension of disbelief.’”

“In its original meaning, ‘suspension of disbelief’ had to do with the reader’s willingness to jump from the world of reality into the world of imagination,” writes Franklin. “With the rise of nonfiction drama, however, it has come to include the process by which the reader moves from his own reality to someone else’s equally real world.”[vi]

“This general meaning of the term is basically acknowledged and accepted in the literary world,” Lee Gutkind explains, “poets, fiction writers, and the creative writing community in general understand and accept the elements of creative nonfiction, although their individual interpretation of the genre’s boundaries may differ. The essential point to acknowledge here is that there are lines, real demarcation points among fiction, which is or can be mostly imagination; traditional nonfiction (journalism and scholarship), which is mostly information; and creative nonfiction, which presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact.”[vii]

Revenge of the Historians

An increasing number of historians have become creative nonfiction writers and are now being described as “narrative historians.” One of these, Ron Chernow, began his career as a freelance journalist, writing more than 60 articles in national newspapers and magazines from 1973 to 1982. Having spent time in the world of finance for a time, Chernow started writing biographies of great financiers of American history, including J. P. Morgan and John D. Rockefeller, Sr. In an attempt to avoid being caught in a rut of financial books, Chernow broke out with his 2004 release of Alexander Hamilton.

Chernow began the writing process for the Hamilton biography in 1998 by going through more than 22,000 pages of Hamilton’s papers and archival research.[viii] Chernow also took a deep dive into Hamilton’s personal history. He traveled to important Hamilton-related sites and archives. He held the dueling pistols used in the famous Burr–Hamilton duel. He visited the Saint Croix prison where Hamilton’s mother was held in jail. He traveled to the island of Bequia, the place where Hamilton’s father fled after abandoning his illegitimate son. Chernow even had a lock of Alexander’s hair genetically tested for his racial makeup.[ix]

The details from this in-depth research fascinated Lin-Manuel Miranda as he read Chernow’s Hamilton book while he was on vacation in 2008. Miranda was moved by Hamilton’s difficult childhood in the Caribbean islands and his courageous move to New York as a young man. He was greatly impressed by the dramatic role Hamilton played in the American Revolution and how he worked his way to eventually becoming the U.S. secretary of the treasury. 

Miranda recognized that Chernow had presented an important American story—one that needed to be told. This inspired him to write a rap piece about Alexander Hamilton that he performed in 2009 at the White House Evening of Poetry, Music, and the Spoken Word before President Barack Obama and others.

In 2015, Miranda and his production company presented “Hamilton” the musical Off-Broadway at New York City’s Public Theater. The show featured a racially diverse cast, with Lin-Manuel starring in the main role of Alexander Hamilton. It was instantly successful and quickly made the move to Broadway in July of that year.

In 2016, the smash hit, “Hamilton,” received the Pulitzer Prize for Drama and was nominated for 16 Tony awards. The production won 11 Tony’s, including best musical. Lin-Manuel Miranda won Tony’s for best book and best original score.[x]

And the rest, as they say, is history.

“Strong writers of compelling narratives had, by the 1980s, taken over the popular market for history,” Lee Gutkind explains. “Unwilling to concede the past to nonprofessionals, some historians looked to strike back. But they knew that this meant rediscovering their field’s deep narrative traditions. It meant taking on the big topics. It also meant imitating the narrative strategies deployed so well by journalist-historians like Goodwin and Caro—with, of course, fatter footnotes and longer bibliographies.”

“Reflecting the trend,” he continues, “in 1989 Princeton Professor James M. McPherson crafted Battle Cry of Freedom, a vivid, even moving account of the military history of the Civil War. In the following decade Joseph Ellis, of Mount Holyoke College, published American Sphinx, an elegant look at the private Thomas Jefferson. This triggered a sort of founding fathers revival, as professors, this time with the journalists following, raced to see who would get out the next book on Hamilton, Jefferson, or Adams.”[xi]

Some of the most popular books in the last quarter century have been the product of these ‘narrative historians.’ Biographies and history books of note include the Pulitzer Prize-winning Truman by David McCullough; Team of Rivalsby Doris Kearns Goodwin, which won the Lincoln prize; The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot; The Rise of Theodore Roosevelt, by Edmund Morris, which won the Pulitzer Prize; Unbroken: A World War II Story of Survival, Resilience, and Redemption by Laura Hillenbrand; American Ulysses by Ronald C. White; Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt, winner of the Pulitzer Prize; and Washington: A Life by Ron Chernow.

I like to think of myself as a part of this august group of writers through my books I Am Cyrus and Victor!—with hopefully more exciting projects to come.

“History is scholarship,” says author and historian Stephen J. Pyne. “It is also art, and it is literature. It had no need to emulate fiction, morph into memoir, or become self-reverential. But those who write it do need to be conscious of their craft. And what is true for history is true for all serious nonfiction. The issue is not whether the writing is popular, but whether it is good, which is to say, whether it does what it intends.”[xii]

*Adapted from Craig’s new book, Telling the Truth: How to Write Narrative Nonfiction and Memoir—coming later this year from Bold Vision Books.


Dr. Craig von Buseck is an award-winning author, popular speaker, and the Digital Content Manager for the Parenting section of More from Craig at

[i] Merriam-Webster Dictionary, “Fiction Definition”. Accessed April, 2022.

[ii] Merriam-Webster, “Nonfiction.” Accessed April, 2022.

[iii] Gutkind, Lee, Keep It Real, 11-12.

[iv] Gutkind, Lee, Editor, You Can’t Make This Up, 6.

[v] Gutkind, Lee, Editor, You Can’t Make This Up, 7.

[vi] Franklin, Jon, Writing for Story, 138.

[vii] Gutkind, Lee, Keep It Real, 11-12.

[viii] Freeman, John, “Hamilton Envisioned U.S. Power.” South Florida Sun Sentinal. Accessed May, 2022.

[ix] Maslin, Janet. “Biographer Fills in Hamilton’s Background.” Arizona Republic. Accessed May, 2022.

[x] Bedtime History, “The Story of Lin-Manuel Miranda and the Making of Hamilton,” Accessed May, 2022.

[xi] Gutkind, Lee, Editor, Keep It Real, 76.

[xii] Pyne, Stephen J. Voice & Vision: A Guide to Writing History and Other Serious Nonfiction (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2009), 2.


  1. This idea is affirming to me, Craig. I rewrote the stories of Jesus' encounters with women in "Unexpected Love." But I was horrified when a reviewer accused me of taking liberties, not solely giving the plain facts from the Scriptural passages. (I did give the entire passage verbatim, but then offered a Creative Non-fiction account, adding color and additional facts from research about the first century and Jewish society and beliefs. Most reviewers loved the creative and said it made Scripture come alive. We just really have to be careful to only add things that we find in our research, rather than going off on a limb. When we do, Creative Fiction becomes a very effective tool to reaching the readers' hearts.

  2. Thanks for the great post. I had a grad school class where we studied Truman Capote's IN COLD BLOOD and Tom Wolfe's THE RIGHT STUFF, called "Literary Nonfiction." Creative Nonfiction" is a much better--and less stuffy--name for such a wonderful genre! I've described it as using all the tools of fiction--character development, setting and conflict--to tell a true story. Praying for great success for your new book!