Sunday, August 16, 2009


Please welcome my guest blogger, Gary Presley, author of SEVEN WHEELCHAIRS: A LIFE BEYOND POLIO. You can learn more about Gary at his website, The Washington Post, and The New York Times Review

Creative Nonfiction
I began to publish about fifteen years ago writing nonfiction articles --mostly history, but a little humor. And then I discovered creative nonfiction, both in the essay form (Richard Selzer is the master as far as I'm concerned) and in longer works (Into Thin Air, The Perfect Storm), and I found my true passion. Since then, I have published numerous creative nonfiction essays, and one memoir, woven through with elements of the genre.
I've often thought about why creative nonfiction appeals to me. I think I have moved away from craving information – I get that from newspapers and biographies and history books -- to stimulate my mind by turning over facts to examine them and thereby reveal the story that tells a greater truth. And so it may be for you.
In fact, I believe we all crave Story, seeking to fill the same emotional hole in our spirits that might have been expressed around campfires thousands of years ago, a time when we had nothing but a flint-pointed stick to protect ourselves from the bloody beasts of the forest intent on blood and slaughter.
Of course, creative nonfiction is more than story, especially when it is expressed by a powerful and observant intellect. That's where "writer visibility" is revealed--when the author becomes part of the story, either as observer or participant.
Other elements making up the genre?
· Scene
· Drama
· Back story
· Character
· Dialog
· Sensory revelations and amplification
· Introspection and references
· Lyrical language
I believe that memoir can provide some of the best creative nonfiction. Others disagree, noting that memoir should be regarded as a separate genre. I do suggest, however, that the writing encompassed in Richard Selzer's work, for example, illustrates how the two become one. I recommend his work highly. Start with Letters to a Young Doctor or Confessions of a Knife.
Where else to begin? Perhaps with some of the seminal works of "narrative journalism" or "new journalism," which provided the best description of the genre before the label "creative nonfiction" was applied around three decades ago. You can find two of them, both by Gay Talese, readily on the web: "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" and "Silent Season of a Hero."
Then there are the book-length works that are the foundation of the genre. In Cold Blood is one, but I suggest seeking out some of the criticism of Capote's true crime story after you read it. Tom Wolfe's The Right Stuff is an excellent choice among earlier works, as are Edward Abbey and Barry Lopez among others.
It's an exciting and stimulating genre, both for reading and writing. Don't be fooled, though. It is not an unwelcome blend of fiction and nonfiction. Creative nonfiction pieces, essays or book-length works, are factually accurate narratives told using the tools of fiction to better reveal truth. And Story.
Photo Credit: By Kathleen Purcell Photo
Gary Presley is the author of Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio, a 2008 publication of The University of Iowa Press. His essays have appeared in, the Washington Post, and Notre Dame Magazine.


  1. Thank you for guest blogging, Gary. Congratulations on your achievements. I'm going to read In Cold Blood again, my first read was 20+ years ago, then I'll check out the crits as you suggested.

    In order to truly appreciate creative nonfiction, it would seem to me that one must embrace creative license? They seem to go hand in hand.

    You've got me thinking, Gary. Thanks. My next stop is the library.

  2. Thanks for the info, Gary. A few years ago, I swore I'd never write nonfiction. Guess what I'm considering these days? Your blog was a good start.


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