Creative Nonfiction

An Exploration of Contemporary American Literature

"We tell ourselves stories in order to live." -- Joan Didion

Writers write, but what do they write these days? Books? Stories? Poems? or Blogs? Fiction? Nonfiction? Both? Contemporary writers sometimes blur the line between fiction and reality and combine traditional forms for a fresh way of reflecting on life.

Writers of creative nonfiction use standard elements of fiction to write about real life events. The subgenres in creative nonfiction include personal essay, memoir, travel/place essays, literary journalism (expanding on topics in news), and more.

Since ninth grade, you have probably read more creative nonfiction than you realize. Remember reading In Cold Blood  by Truman Capote in 10th grade? In Unit Six, you read excerpts from Hersey's A Noiseless Flash, Michael Herr's Dispatches, and O'Brien's The Things They Carried. Each reads as if it is fiction, with vivid setting, character details, imagery and figurative language. The authors arrange details to keep their readers' attention, like a gripping plot would do. But the source of all of these works is real life.

In addition to those works listed above, we will read others as models of essays that you can write. Your fourth quarter essay will be creative nonfiction. Because you are not expected to conduct extensive research for your essay, your choices for type of essay are limited to memoir (which may include interviewing family or friends), personal essay (which may require a bit of fact checking), and travel/place essay (which also might require a bit of minor research). See more on each type below.


  1. Web quest with a partner. Use the starred sites Please open, save in your H:/ drive, complete the assignment, then save in G:/ rive folder as indicated.
  2. Complete an analysis form for any two essays of your choosing. See the list below.
  3. Write a creative nonfiction essay and publish it in a class anthology. Your essay should be no shorter than 500 words. It should employ typical elements of fiction: setting, character, imagery, figurative language, theme,  etc. to tell a true story or relate a true event.

Read more about creative nonfiction:

Writing your own essay


What is memoir?

Models (*we will read):
  • *Russell Baker's "Make Something of Yourself," an excerpt from Growing Up
  • Frank McCourt, Angela's Ashes
  • Tobias Wolff, This Boy's Life

Personal essay

What is a personal essay?

  • From The Guide to Grammar and Writing
  • A superb guide from Dr. Richard Nordquist at Armstrong Atlantic State University

Models (*we will read):

  • *"You Are Now Entering the Human Heart" by Janet Frame
Travel/Place essay

What is a travel/place essay?

Models (*we will read):

  • *"Wild Plums," from Ted Kooser's Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps
  • from Blue HIghways, by William Least Heat Moon (in your red lit book)
  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker's Creek and An American Childhood

How to & Requirements

Choose a topic that you know something about, a lot about, in fact. The topic should be relevant to everyone, and not simply to you. Topics are wide ranging, but remember, your audience is your class. Choose a topic that is appropriate for school and your audience.

Think about your topic. Why are you really writing about it? What do you want your readers to know about life, about people, about relationships, about love, death, joy, sorrow, humor, or anything else? These themes are only a few. Your revelation about life can be small and simple or big and profound. Either way, what you reveal should be universally true. That is, what you reveal about life is probably true for all people.

Begin your essay in a way that gets your readers wanting more. Write a good lead. Leads that feature description, an event/conflict,  imagery, or even an engaging dialog are interesting.

No matter what type of essay you write, you will be telling some kind of story. While you are not writing a five paragraph essay, you should be writing in paragraphs. Some may be long; some may be short. Avoid digression.  You may have characters in action (something is happening). Always keep your purpose in mind.

You won't be writing a standard summary conclusion. The purpose of your conclusion or ending is to make your essay feel finished. But even more than that, it should create a lasting impression on the reader. Look at the models of the essays we read in class. How did those authors conclude their stories?


  • Voice is an important aspect of creative nonfiction. The ethos of the writer is important.
  • You may use a mixture of first and third person, or either. The combination is a common narrative technique. Look for it in the works we read.
  • What style and tone are you using? Personal essays have an informal style. It could be so informal as to use slang here and there, especially in dialog. Will the narrative voice be casual and easy-going, humorous, or more serious.


  • Organize the details in a logical order to keep your readers' attention and to best tell the story.
  • Use paragraphs!
  • Use transitions, but not formal transitions that sound stuffy, like "therefore," "whereas," or "on the other hand."

Other literary elements

  • Dialog should be natural and should advance the story. Don't use it if you don't need it.
  • Use inventive metaphors to get readers to see ideas in a new way.
  • Use concrete details and descriptions of people, places and things

Your essay should be no shorter than 500 words, typed, use 12 point Times New Roman, and double space. Use block style for paragraphing. (Standardized for the anthology) Your essay needs a title. Your name and the date should go at the end. See the format sample.

List of essays in Unit Six for the analysis form:

  • A Noiseless Flash, Hersey
  • Speaking of Courage, O'Brien
  • from Dispatches, Herr
  • Make Something of Yourself, an excerpt from Growing Up by Russell Baker
  • You Are Now Entering the Human Heart  by Janet Frame
  • Wild Plums, from Ted Kooser's Local Wonders: Seasons in the Bohemian Alps

Print analysis form.

Want to read more creative nonfiction?



© 2013, Dawn Hogue