Writing Your Peace Corps Story
Writing your Peace Corps Story
Lee Gutkind who started the first Creative Nonfiction program at the University of Pittsburgh writes simply that “creative nonfiction are “true stories well told.”
In some ways, creative nonﬁction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of favors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. Creative nonﬁction can be an essay, a journal article, a research paper, a memoir, or a poem; it can be personal or not, or it can be all of these.
Creative nonfiction is also known as literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction and is a genre of writing that uses literary styles and techniques to create factually accurate narratives. Creative nonfiction contrasts with other nonfiction, such as academic or technical writing or journalism, which is also rooted in accurate fact, but is not written to entertain based on writing style or florid prose.
The words “creative” and “nonﬁction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques 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.
The word “creative” has been criticized in this context because some people have maintained that being creative means that you 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, 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!”
For one text to be considered creative nonfiction, it must be factually accurate, and written with attention to literary style and technique. “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.”
Literary critic Barbara Lounsberry—in her book The Art of Fact—suggests four constitutive characteristics of the genre, the first of which is “Documentable subject matter chosen from the real world as opposed to ‘invented’ from the writer’s mind”. By this, she means that the topics and events discussed in the text verifiably exist in the natural world. The second characteristic is “Exhaustive research,” which she claims allows writers “novel perspectives on their subjects” and “also permits them to establish the credibility of their narratives through verifiable references in their texts”. The third characteristic that Lounsberry claims is crucial in defining the genre is “The scene”. She stresses the importance of describing and revivifying the context of events in contrast to the typical journalistic style of objective reportage. The fourth and final feature she suggests is “Fine writing: a literary prose style”. “Verifiable subject matter and exhaustive research guarantee the nonfiction side of literary nonfiction; the narrative form and structure disclose the writer’s artistry; and finally, its polished language reveals that the goal all along has been literature.
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I love the reference to “Creative non-fiction is like jazz” which reflects the complexity of combining fact with lyrical prose. And the emphasis on good research which is often overlooked as a part of the mix. And yet writing in such a way that it will be widely read.
I’m starting my next book, The Guatemala Reader which will hopefully reflect the best of this fascinating genre.
Many of the sixty-six stories posted in the Museum of the Peace Corps Experience meet the criteria of “creative non-fiction.” We invite volunteer editors to polish each narrative and choose meaningful images from the writer’s experience. You can read these short “gems” at this URL—https://museumofthepeacecorpsexperience.org/stories. If you want to share your own story, a link below the globe image will invite you to submit it.
If I recall rightly, some PhD invented the term “Creative Non-fiction.” He or she probably earned tenure. The concept is this: tell a good story using all the tricks they use in dime novels. To achieve this, most study fiction.
Of the four dozen or so Peace Corps memoirs I’ve read, only two successfully used this method including Allen Fletcher (Heat, Sand and Friends) and Kris Holloway (Monique and the Mango Rains). Both of these books are page turners.
Everything is about audience. If this sounds like too much work just write down what you can and hide it away in an attic trunk for your descendants. They will appreciate anything you choose to share. If you had a larger audience in mind, take a class or two in writing fiction. Earn your chops before you actually sit down to tell that Peace Corps story. How to start? An outline. Once you have a third draft, recruit an editor or two. Follow their advice. Share the fourth draft with at least a dozen readers (not Aunt Tillie or mom). Keep whittlin. Keep sandin’.
If you need a bit of structure to begin your writing, try How to Write a Novel in 100 Days by John Coyne. No you are not writing a novel but the structure in the book and the assignments day by day will get you writing every day. You probably will not finish in 100 days but you will find that by using this as a guide you will accomplish a lot of writing, rewriting and research.