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What Do You Write?

October 7, 2011

At a company party last night—it’s been a long time since I went to one of those!—a new colleague, having heard me identify as a writer, asked me what I write. Without hesitation, I said, “CNF.” I’m so used to just saying it without having to explain it. But as one of only a handful of writers in this group of some 150 teaching artists, I found that, in fact, I did have to explain it. I knee-jerked to the specifics, listing a few of my published pieces, hoping they would add up to a definition. I’m fairly certain it didn’t work, but my colleague smiled anyway and we moved on. This morning, I saw on my beloved VCFA’s blog a definition from widely published author and sought-after writing teacher Larry Sutin. I like how he embodies the tension—the fruitful and fascinating tension—inherent in CNF. It’s so broad, but Sutin needs just a few sentences to define it, leading up to a succinct, sixteen-word core:

“Creative nonfiction, as I envision, is unlimited in its scope and possibilities.  It can explore the realms of personal memory and experience; the experiences of those we have known well or observed closely; or the implications of fields as diverse as science, history, psychology, and medicine.  It can consider the possibilities of our societal and planetary future, or the intricacies of our inner lives, fantasies, and dreams.  It includes and embraces genres such as memoir, personal essay, travel writing, culture theory, history, biography and nature writing.  It is, ultimately, definable only in the broadest terms.  My own definition: Creative nonfiction is writing with compelling honesty and beauty about a subject that interests one passionately.”


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  1. I just returned from the James River Writers conference in Richmond. There was quite a bantering about of CNF in one session — most were amused by Michael Parker’s comment that “Nonfiction is the only genre that defines itself by what it is not.”

    As I’m sure you know, there is some debate about CNF as a legitimate genre. I kind of like it myself, but to be cautious I used periods between the words on my Essays on Childhood tagline: “Creative. Nonfiction. Writers.” 🙂


    • I like that a lot: “Creative. Nonfiction. Writers.” Ultimately, you can take out the middle term—nonfiction—and get to what it really is, creative writing. Or, as I’ve heard many times, literary writing. And what makes great creative or literary writing has nothing at all to do with fiction/non!


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