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Million Little Pieces of Creative Non-Fiction

million little piecesIn April of 2003, a man named James Frey published his memoir, A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, to much critical acclaim. His was the tale of a 23-year-old alcoholic whose journey to rehabilitation and sobriety tugged at the heart strings of millions of Americans.

Then, after a spotlight on Oprah, the Smoking Gun conducted a long investigation into the facts of A MILLION LITTLE PIECES, and Frey was eventually forced to admit that portions of his tale were fabricated. This spawned a worldwide debate about the ethics of creative non-fiction.

Let’s be clear: A MILLION LITTLE PIECES is not creative non-fiction. In order to be classified in the genre, all of the facts, recollections and summaries put forth in the work must actually be true, and Frey’s exaggerated memoir simply does not fit the bill.

However, the controversy over James Frey’s novel brought to light the startling deficiencies in the publishing industry regarding fact-checking. If just anyone can publish a memoir without having to prove its legitimacy, how much of what we read is factual?

More importantly, how many beads of fraudulent wisdom and droplets of misbegotten insight have we deluded ourselves into believing?

What is Creative Non-Fiction?

Rather than defining creative non-fiction, it is a bit easier to tell you what it is not:

  • Fiction
  • Dramatized Reality
  • Technical Writing
  • Editorial
  • Poetry

Creative non-fiction is less a genre and more a form of expression. It is a non-fiction piece (be it book, article, whatever) delivered in the author’s own unique voice and style. Although a creative non-fiction piece should include only fact, it might be written in an informal style or with subtle humor.

In other words, creative non-fiction both teaches and entertains.

I like to think of this blog as creative non-fiction because, while I disseminate facts, I also try to keep my readers interested through humor and personal anecdotes. I write in an informal style, using contractions, for example.

Purposes of Creative Non-Fiction

Blogging is just one example of how creative non-fiction can be used to attract a wider audience and appeal to more people. Would you rather read a humorous story with personal stories and a non-conventional style, or a formal journal article filled with industry jargon and dry phrasing?

Most people who read non-fiction prefer the creative brand because it isn’t boring. It maintains all the integrity of a non-fiction book—unless you bend the rules, as James Frey did with A MILLION LITTLE PIECES—but adds a bit of personality.

Creative non-fiction is also used to connect with the reader. If you can relate a personal story or inject humor into your writing, you have a far better chance of being understood. People are busy these days, their lives cluttered with plenty of boring things to read, so elective reading should entertain as well as inform.

In other words, who goes home and reads a textbook for fun?

I would say that most non-fiction books published today fall under the category of creative non-fiction. This is not, of course, limited to memoirs, and can fit any other genre of writing that exists today.

Identifying Creative Non-Fiction

If it walks like a duck and talks like a duck and thinks like a duck…this is the line of thought that is usually used to identify creative non-fiction. Experts in the field can’t define it, but they know it when they see it. Like pornography.

In many cases, creative non-fiction reads like a story. It might be mistaken for fiction prose, as it contains all the elements: characters, setting, plot, conflict. The difference, however, is that creative non-fiction is true.

This is why A MILLION LITTLE PIECES cannot be considered creative non-fiction, though that was how it was categorized in the beginning. If you have to fabricate any part of the story, you’re not writing creative non-fiction, but fiction “based on a true story”.

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