In this exclusive extract from Advanced Creative Nonfiction: A Writer's Guide and Anthology, authors Sean Prentiss and Jessica Hendry Nelson explain their concept around genre and veracity, and encourage you to assess your own writing in these terms by carrying out their writing prompts.
According to most people, there are four genres in creative writing: poetry, drama, fiction, and creative nonfiction. The oldest genre is poetry. The term poetry originates from the Latin word for “poet,” which means “maker” or “author.” The original term poiḗtria refers to all creative writing. So, in the beginning, all creative writing was poetry. Why? Because poetry was born from our need to remember oral narratives. Poetic techniques—including rhythm, rhyming, and meter—helped poets commit poems to memory. The key that makes poetry unique from its sibling genres is the use of the line break. The shape of the poem is one that employs line breaks.
Next-oldest is drama. Drama uses stage directions and dialogue to tell a narrative. The term drama originates from the Greek word for “to take action” and means either a “theatrical act” or a “play.” The shape of a drama on the page is a script.
Most people consider the next genre to be fiction. Fiction includes all invented narratives. The key here is that these narratives are invented by the writer. And then the newest genre would be creative nonfiction. But, as we saw in “History of Creative Nonfiction,” creative nonfiction (and fiction) has been around since, at least, dramas.
Along with the issue of the age of each genre, we have a larger issue, and that is that two of the genres—poetry and drama—are categorized one way (by focusing on shape) and two others—fiction and creative nonfiction—are categorized in another way (by focusing mostly on their reliance/lack of reliance on truth).
To explore this further, we might look to the definition of genre, but most definitions of genre are not terribly useful because they assert that genres can be defined by style, form, or content. For example, music genres include rock (style) and ballads (form) and love songs (content). All of these terms are related to music, but these “genres” aren’t related to each other. The other way genre is defined is as “a kind,” which is so vague as to make it not useful at all. Genre traces itself back to the word for “gender,” which almost offers a bit more clarity until you trace “gender” back to its archaic roots and see that it means “a kind, sort, or class.”
For the purposes of this book, we propose a clearer and simpler definition for genre. In creative writing, we argue, the shape of a work determines its genre. Or, genres are differentiated by shape. Why did we choose this definition? Because the two oldest genres, poetry and drama, are defined by their shape. Poetry uses the line break. Drama uses the script. Truth is left out of the equation. So we look to history to help us unravel the best way to understand a single, clear definition for genre.
But this definition of genre does not work for fiction and creative nonfiction. These two are defined by their relationship to truth. Fiction and creative nonfiction don’t follow the same rules concerning genre that poetry and drama do. Instead, fiction and creative nonfiction are something separate from poetry and drama, defined by a different measuring stick. Most people define creative nonfiction by this simple formula: Truth + Prose = Creative Nonfiction. For fiction, we could merely replace “Truth” with “Invention.” But if fiction and creative nonfiction have a different definition for genre (one based on truth or invention), how can we clarify this confusion?
We propose that there are only three genres. We have poetry, drama, and prose—writing shaped by paragraphs. The term prose is birthed from the Latin word for “straightforward,” since most prose is more linear than poetry. Prose uses paragraphs, sentences, and (usually) traditional uses of punctuation. Prose doesn’t care if things are invented or true. That is outside the domain of prose (and genre). Prose only cares if the writer uses paragraphs.
There are just three genres: poetry, drama, and prose, and each one of these is clearly defined by its shape.
A: But What Is Creative Nonfiction If It Is Not a Genre?
If we agree that creative nonfiction is not a genre—since it is not defined by its shape—then what is it? To help us figure this out, we can contrast it with fiction. If fiction uses invented characters, settings, dialogue, and/or action to tell a narrative, then creative nonfiction is the opposite: telling true narratives about real characters in a real place who say real things and perform real actions. The difference is simply invention versus truth. Or, to return to our formula above, Truth + Prose = Creative Nonfiction. In other words, creative nonfiction is a true narrative told in any genre (poetry, drama, and/or prose) that uses creative or literary elements. Rather than concerning itself with shape (genre), creative nonfiction engages veracity. Veracity comes from the Latin word vērāx, which means “to speak truthfully.” Creative nonfiction is also, therefore, writing that lives on the “truth” side of the veracity scale while fiction lives on the “invention” side. And yet, as we’ll discuss at length later on, veracity is not black or white, but a spectrum with plenty of gray.
While we acknowledge the problematic definitions of “truth” and the ways in which memory and experience fail to live up to the verifiability of facts, we fundamentally believe that truth in creative nonfiction relies on the writer’s instincts to be as honest as possible. We will address this further in “Phenomenal Truths”. Creative nonfiction is also, therefore, writing that lives on the “truth” side of the veracity scale, while fiction lives on the “invention” side. By nature, many creative nonfiction pieces straddle the line between truth and invention and live the in the gray area.
B: But Why Go to All This Work?
Rather than labeling their work as either poetry, drama, fiction, or creative nonfiction, writers would instead make two labels, one for the work’s veracity [true/invented/hybrid] and one for the genre [poetry/drama/prose/hybrid].
The most important reason for this change is that it gives writers permission to play with form and opens them up to a broader range of craft strategies without their work being deemed “experimental” or “subversive.” All writing is intrinsically experimental, and experimentation should not marginalize or exclude work from the realm of creative nonfiction. Historically, creative nonfiction that plays with genre or veracity is automatically deemed ‘poetry’ or ‘fiction,’ which alters the way the work is experienced by the reader. It commonly constrains creative nonfiction to prose, and mistakenly insists that the work stick wholly to facts, rather than emotional truths.
As a result, poetry and drama classes often ignore veracity. Veracity, the current system insists, is only the purview of prose. That’s confusing for the writer and the reader.
This new system argues that shape (genre: poetry, drama, and prose) is less defining than veracity, and that shape is more useful as a meaning-making tool within a range of veracities. This system gives creative nonfiction writers permission to write in other genres than just prose because we’ve separated veracity from genre. Now a writer need only choose a genre, a veracity, and then create art.
Finally, this new system clearly instructs the reader as to the nature of the work. In “Phenomenal Truths,” we look at the contract between the creative nonfiction writer and reader in more detail. But this view of creative nonfiction as writing from true, lived experience—the writer’s and/or their subjects’—makes the contract between writer and reader clearer. When we label our narratives as creative nonfiction, rather than fiction or hybrid, we signal to our reader our intentions. Regardless of the shape of the narrative, the writer is striving to tell the truth.
READING AS A WRITER
A: Veracity in Poetry
In poetry, the writer doesn’t often tell the reader if a collection of poems or an individual poem is true or invented. Look at some of your favorite collections of poems. Can you tell what veracity they are? Do some poems in the collection “feel” as if they are true? If so, why? Do you want to know if the poem or collection of poems is true? Why or why not?
B: Veracity in Drama
Often in drama, just like in poetry, the screenwriter or playwright doesn’t tell the reader if a screenplay or play is true or invented. Watch or read a few of your favorite pieces of drama. Can you tell what veracity they are? Do some plays, television shows, and movies feel more true, while others feel more invented? If so, why? Do you want to know if a play, television show, or a movie is true? Why or why not?
A: Playing with Genre
Write a piece of flash creative nonfiction heavy in dialogue. Now, re-write this piece as a poem. Next, re-write this piece as a drama. Then re-write the piece using two or more genres at the same time. Explore how this one piece of writing transforms merely by re-conceiving its genre.
B: Playing with Veracity
Take the same piece of flash creative nonfiction that you wrote for Exercise A. Now play with veracity. Add some elements of invention. What happens as we create a hybrid veracity? Then add another element of invention. And another. How does the piece change as it moves from creative nonfiction to hybrid to fiction? And when do you feel that the piece has left the realm of creative nonfiction for hybrid veracity, and when has it left hybrid veracity for fiction?
C: Playing with Unfamiliar Genres
Rank the three genres in terms of how comfortable you are with them. Once you’ve determined the genre with which you feel least comfortable, write a flash piece in that genre. Make sure you are focusing on truth. Have fun with this new (to you) genre.
Advanced Creative Nonfiction: A Writers' Guide and Anthology offers expert instruction on writing creative nonfiction in any form-including memoir, lyric essay, travel writing, and more-while taking an expansive approach to fit a rapidly evolving literary art form. From a history of creative nonfiction, related ethical concerns, and new approaches to revision and publishing, it offers innovative strategies and ideas beyond what's traditionally covered and is available now from Bloomsbury.com
Sean Prentiss is Associate Professor of English at Norwich University, USA. He is author of Finding Abbey: The Search for Edward Abbey and His Hidden Desert Grave (2015), which won the National Outdoor Book Award for Biography/History. He is also co-editor of The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre (2014).
Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author of the memoir If Only You People Could Follow Directions (2014) which was selected as a best debut book by the Indies Introduce New Voices program, the Indies Next List by the American Booksellers’ Association, and named a Best Book of the Year by Kirkus Review. She is an Assistant Professor of English at Virginia Commonwealth University, USA and teaches in the MFA Program at the University of Nebraska, USA in Omaha.