What Is Creative Nonfiction?

Simply put: Creative nonfiction is true stories, well told.

If novels are fiction and poems are, well, poetry, then what are memoirs? What about essays, narrative journalism, and so many other kinds of true stories that give us new ways to consider the world around us and our place in it? From books to magazine articles to podcasts, creative nonfiction surrounds us.

The banner of Creative Nonfiction defines the genre simply, succinctly, and accurately as “true stories, well told.” 

In some ways, creative nonfiction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques, some newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonfiction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, a tweet; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these.

It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.

The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques writers use to tell stories about real people and events—that’s the “nonfiction” part—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to communicate a bit of  the real world—a personal experience, a scientific discovery, a history, a place, a person—in a way that will sing on the page, inform and change readers, and make an impact.

The word “creative” has been criticized in this context because some people think it implies the writer can pretend or exaggerate or make up facts and embellish details. This is completely incorrect. It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.

“Creative” doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen or reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie.

The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated.

This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: You can’t make this stuff up!


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Nuts & Bolts

History of the Genre

Why True Stories Matter

Under the Umbrella

Learn more about subgenres


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About Lee Gutkind
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Lee Gutkind is the author and editor of more than thirty books, including You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, Almost Human: Making Robots Think, The Best Seat in Baseball: But You Have to Stand, Forever Fat: Essays by the Godfather, and the award-winning, Many Sleepless Nights: The World of Organ Transplantation.

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Lee's Latest Book

My Last Eight Thousand Days

This revealing, candid, and vivid portrait of one man’s view of aging written by the man who played a crucial role in establishing literary, narrative nonfiction in the marketplace and in the academy, examines male aging in a way we’ve not seen before.

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