What is creative nonfiction?

To answer the question of what is creative nonfiction, I’ve pulled out the big guns. Or maybe just Boy with Loaded Gun by Lewis Nordan. Lewis Nordan died this year, and no one in the northern lands where I live had ever heard of him. When I told my husband the news he cried. Nordan, in part, taught my husband how to write. Here is the “Author’s Note” of his memoir:

I couldn’t decide whether to call this book a Memoir or not, so I put the problem to my wife: I said If you were working at the Library of Congress, how would you list this one?”

She said, “Nordan, Lewis.” . . . .

“Fiction or Nonfiction,” I said. “It seems to fall somewhwere between the two.”

She said, “You made up your memoir?”

“Names mostly, you know.”

She said, “You didn’t mention my name, did you?”

“I changed your name, I changed all the names, that’s what I’m saying.”

“If all you changed was names—”

“And conversations. I made up some conversations.”

“Still—I’d say Memoir.”

“And maybe I exaggerated some stuff too. Some of the painful stuff, death, and like that.”

“Grief Therapy! Excellent! Self-Help, Popular Psychology—” . . . .

“Really, I’m just trying to decide between Fiction and Nonfiction.”

“Okay, okay, give me some chapter titles. That might help.”

I said, “There’s a chapter called ‘The Man I Killed.'”

“Murder mystery!” . . . .

“One on Emmett Till.”

“Historical!” . . . .

“The Amazing Technicolor Effing Macihne.'”

This stopped her.

“Say what?”

“There’s a chapter called ‘The Amazing Technicolor Effing Machine.'”

“Musical comedy?”

“Probably not.”

“What’s an effing machine?”

“Effing. It’s a euphenism, you know. I’m embarrassed. The f-word. Jeez.”

“That’s the title of one of your chapters? You wrote a book about you being an effing machine?”


“Nonfiction is pretty much off the table at this point.”

“Honey, listen—”

“We might be looking at Fantasy here.”

“It’s not me. I’m not the effing machine. It’s a machine. An actual machine.” . . . .

“You’re telling me you’ve written a Science Fiction memoir? A Science Fiction memoir is impossible to catalog, I hate to tell you.”

“No, this part is not fiction, it’s real, the effing machine is true.”

For a long time she only looked at me.

“All right, all right,” she said at last. “Let’s move on. More chapter titles, let’s go.”

“‘The Land of the Dreamy Dreams.'”


“‘Violence in America.'”


It was pretty clear we were getting nowhere. . . .

“She said, “So about this machine.”

“The effing machine?”

“Right, right.”

I said, “Yeah?”

She said, “Where do you keep it?”

(From Lewis Nordan, Boy with a Loaded Gun, Algonquian Books of Chapel Hill, Chapel Hill, NC, 2000, pp. vii–ix)


10 responses to “What is creative nonfiction?

  1. I’m going with Jeanette Winterson’s recent comment: There is no such thing as nonfiction.

    The woman has a point.

    And now I’m off to look up this writer. Also to look up “Frye boots” and “Wes Anderson.” Ever had one of those days where you realize you know nothing?

  2. Indy, if you haven’t already, please consider reading John McPhee’s (my writing “hero”) article, “The Writing Life”, in the April 29, 2013, edition of The New Yorker. You might find it interesting and helpful.

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