Examples of Creative Nonfiction for the Slightly Confused

Abi Wurdeman
March 31, 2024

If the term “creative nonfiction” gives you pause, I get it. Creativity doesn’t always feel appropriate in every context.

For example, the day before writing this, I was in a dental chair having my gums treated. As the hygienist blasted the only mouth I have with actual lasers, she mused that she considered her profession a “creative” one. I was very interested to learn how creative she was planning to get in the present context.

Turns out, she just meant she actively looked for ways to do her job more effectively—to innovate and problem-solve rather than committing fully to old routines.

You could look at creative nonfiction the same way. It’s the same job as regular nonfiction; the whole point is to tell the truth. But with creative nonfiction, you give yourself more license to play with the delivery of truth… to discover more effective ways to communicate your personal experiences or our shared reality.

If you could use an example of creative nonfiction to clarify the concept, don’t worry. You’ve got a bunch coming your way. You’ll also get a complete breakdown of how this literary art form blends truth-telling with creative writing, why it’s so impactful, and how to master it yourself.

As we so often do here in DabbleU, we’ll start with a definition.  

What is Creative Nonfiction?

A person sits on a patio chair reading a book against a yellow wall.

All nonfiction is inherently creative. I want to clarify that first and foremost. I mean, think of a technical writer who has to turn a complex concept into a clear and accessible explanation. It takes a ton of creativity to pull that off.

So creative nonfiction isn’t different from standard nonfiction because it takes creativity. It’s different because it incorporates elements of creative writing while still remaining in the world of nonfiction.

More specifically, creative nonfiction turns to literary devices, elements of poetry, and storytelling techniques to communicate the truth in an insightful and emotionally resonant way.

This subgenre of nonfiction is also unique in that the author’s point of view is a defining feature of the work. If you read a news article or textbook, you’ll (hopefully) see that the author has left their perspective out of it. With creative nonfiction, it’s the opposite.

So What Counts as Creative Nonfiction?

There’s an extremely high chance you’ve already read some creative nonfiction. You’ve definitely read at least a few pieces if you completed your high school literature assignments.

Here are a few subgenres where creative nonfiction reins:

Memoir - A memoir is a long work of literary nonfiction in which the author shares their personal experience with a specific event, theme, or topic. 

Personal essay - This is like a memoir, but essay length, if you can believe it. Throw in enough figurative language and literary devices, and you can take it one step further to the realm of lyric essay.

Travel writing - When we talk about creative nonfiction in the area of travel writing, we’re often talking about works that overlap with memoirs, like Eat Pray Love, or personal essays, like just about anything by Pico Iyer.

Nature writing - Here the author shares their real experiences or thoughts on the natural world, whether it’s a travel adventure or deep thoughts about delicate ecosystems.

Speeches - The vast majority of speeches exist to inspire, persuade, or connect. It’s hard to pull that off with cold, hard facts alone. So, naturally, any celebrated speechwriter is going to be well-versed in creative writing. They’ll likely use a lot of storytelling strategies, metaphors, and literary devices that create a sense of rhythm.

Literary journalism - Literary journalism is exactly what it sounds like. It reports on real-world events or sociological issues but incorporates literary elements and leaves room for the author’s point of view. Getting the facts exactly right is still crucial in literary journalism.

Autobiography/biography - This is where the lines begin to blur for me personally. In an autobiography, the author tells the story of their own life. Because the book focuses on their own experiences, there’s no getting away from the personal storytelling that is the defining feature of creative nonfiction.

Biographies, though? They’re a written record of someone else’s life. The author might choose to go the creative nonfiction route, but they can also opt to report on the facts without inserting their own reflections or using a lot of descriptive and figurative language.

No matter what subgenre they fit into, all works of creative nonfiction must center on real stories. But unlike traditional journalism or academic writing, they can be brazenly biased. The fact that they’re personal is what makes them so engaging. 

The Artistry of Creative Nonfiction

A person stands outdoors in a city, writing in a leatherbound journal.

It might feel a bit mystifying—this idea that you can put a creative spin on something and still call it the truth.

If you’re struggling to make sense of how this works, it might help to explore some of the literary techniques creative nonfiction writers use to bring their true stories to life for their readers. Techniques like:

A Clear Narrative Voice

Your narrative voice is essentially your personality on the page. It’s made up of several style choices, including diction, pacing, sentence structure, and tone (the author’s attitude about the subject).

In works of nonfiction where it’s important to stick to the facts and present an impartial report, the author’s voice is direct and unemotional. It’s not supposed to stand out, because the information is what matters.

Creative nonfiction writers put much more emphasis on voice, as it makes the work feel more personal.

Real People as Characters

Okay, this is something you have to be careful about if you plan to write creative nonfiction. You don’t want to fabricate personality traits or actions just to make a real person more interesting. In fact, you want to be super careful and deliberate in your portrayal of others. I cover this subject more extensively in this article on memoir.

Having said that, creative nonfiction thrives on the same storytelling elements you’d use in fiction. That means fully developing the human beings who populate your work the same way you would a character.

You’re not just reporting on what they do and say. You’re noting mannerisms, the way they move, the way they evolve, if they evolve, and above all, how you perceive them.

Real Places as Setting

A person looks on as another person drives a motorbike down a street in Bali.

If you write fiction, you know the world of the story is key for transporting the reader, creating an atmosphere, and even working in a little symbolism. The same is true in creative nonfiction.

Say you’re writing a newspaper article about a marathon and it starts raining halfway through. As a reporter, you’d probably inform the public of the time that the rain started and interview a runner about how it affected their performance.

As a creative nonfiction writer, you might linger on the rain a bit more—the dark skies and sharp, earthy smell. You might mention the cold droplets that slip under your collar and slide down your spine. You might think about the personal crisis you’re currently going through and feel a kinship with the runners who keep pressing forward even as their feet slip and the sky threatens them.

Setting isn’t just a fact in creative nonfiction. It’s an experience.

Creative Structure

There’s no official structure in creative nonfiction. If you read a personal essay, you’re unlikely to get a thesis statement followed by three supporting paragraphs.

You might get a true story told in a traditional fiction structure like the three-act structure or the Hero’s Journey.

Or you might get something more experimental. Anything can be anything. The author just has to have a reason for the choices they make.

Figurative Language

You’ve likely picked up on this by now, but you see a lot more figurative language in creative fiction than you do in the standard stuff.

Figurative language includes things like metaphors, personification, hyperbole… basically anything that manages to paint a deeper or more vivid picture by using a phrase that’s not literally true.

You don’t see a lot of that in textbooks, because in that context, it’s extremely important that the reader can identify what the concrete facts are without having to interpret the author’s hidden meaning.

For creative nonfiction, however, figurative language is a powerful tool for creating a psychological and emotional impact. 

Incorporating Research

A person stars at a large corkboard full of notes and images.

Not all works of creative nonfiction include facts and figures. But some do, weaving broader research with the author’s personal narrative.

This promotes empathy and understanding by exploring wider societal issues in the context of a single human life. It also grounds the author’s personal story in proven facts. Wins all around.

Balancing What’s Interesting With What’s Real

This is one of the toughest aspects of creative nonfiction writing. How do authors make a creative nonfiction piece read like a story or poetry without compromising the truth?

First, all the techniques we just discussed help a lot. You don’t have to lie to paint a vivid word picture, dabble in metaphors, or experiment with storytelling structure.

It also helps to remember that creative nonfiction is a true account of the author’s observations and experiences. They’re not just reporting on what happened, they’re clarifying how they perceived what happened. 

That doesn’t mean you can lie and call it a point of view. But it does mean you’re not limited to only discussing quantifiable facts.

Examples of Creative Nonfiction

A person sits in a chair reading as rain falls just beyond them.

As I mentioned before, you’ve most likely read creative nonfiction before, even if you didn’t realize it at the time. But if the stuff we’ve already covered didn’t bring any immediate examples to mind, here are a few famous ones to help drive these ideas home.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou

“If growing up is painful for the Southern Black girl, being aware of her displacement is the rust on the razor that threatens the throat. It is an unnecessary insult.”

In one of the most famous American autobiographies, poet Maya Angelou tells the story of her youth. I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings offers deeply personal reflections on racial trauma and sexual abuse, and Angelou’s willingness be forthright on these topics has inspired countless authors to find their own voices. 

The Book of Delights by Ross Gay

“Turns out this mantis has been my companion for the last twenty minutes, this whole break in my afternoon, edging closer to me, dancing, then scooting closer still. And when I sit back in my chair, the mantis pulls its head over the glass to see me (am I being egocentric?), swaying as it does so.”

In this collection of lyrical personal essays, Ross Gay records daily “delights”—small joys that are made greater by sharing them. Over the course of the collection, he manages to bring tiny moments to life in intricate detail and cut to the heart of greater societal struggles. It’s pretty remarkable stuff.

Up for Debate: In Cold Blood by Truman Capote

“At the time not a soul in sleeping Holcomb heard them—four shotgun blasts that, all told, ended six human lives.”

Most people categorize In Cold Blood as creative nonfiction, though it might be more accurate to call it a nonfiction novel (yes, that’s a real term) or “faction,” which is a fact-plus-fiction portmanteau that I personally find confusing, considering it’s already a word that means something else entirely. 

Anyway, In Cold Blood tells the true story of the Clutter family murders, with a few bonus fabrications Capote tossed in for kicks. Is it nonfiction creatively told? You bet.

Can you invent entire scenes and still call it creative nonfiction? Depends on who you ask.

Can you call it literary journalism? You absolutely cannot and that’s why this book is infamous.

Techniques for Writing Creative Nonfiction

A person sits a desk, chewing a pen as they stare at their laptop screen.

Feeling like you’re ready to write a little creative nonfiction of your own? 

Whether you’ve got your sights set on a memoir, personal essay, travel writing, or any other creative nonfiction format, the techniques we discussed above will serve you well.

But just to make sure you’re fully prepared, here are a few more tips:  

Do Your Research

It’s possible that your creative nonfiction stories will be so personal you don’t have to do any research. But remember: nonfiction is, by definition, true.

If you can’t remember that street name, find out what it is. Revisit old news clippings to make sure you’re right about what time it was when that plane crashed into your uncle’s cornfield. And if you want to tie your own story into greater societal themes, working with statistics and interviews is a powerful move.

Tell a Story

While you’re aiming for factual writing, you’re not reporting. So think less about conveying information and more about telling a story.

As we know from fiction, a story centers on a compelling character who (probably) goes on a journey of growth. In creative nonfiction, that character is often you, the author. 

The execution may not look the same as it does in a novel. In fact, in a lot of personal essays, the author’s journey of growth or discovery seems to play out in the telling of the story, not the story itself.

I recommend reading whatever form of creative nonfiction you want to write. Like, a lot of it. See if you can pinpoint the journey the narrator takes you on and make a note of how they get the job done.

Have a Clear Voice and Point of View

A person shouts into a bullhorn.

Want to know what the secret draw of creative nonfiction is?

Intimacy.

In this genre, the author doesn’t hide behind the facts… or fiction, for that matter. Instead, the reader gets to experience everything from inside the author’s head. They get to know the writer’s opinions, feelings, and even some personal details that might further explain the narrative perspective.

So let your point of view and distinctive voice shine through. 

Observe and Interpret

Creative nonfiction isn’t interested in information for information’s sake. Even in the realm of literary journalism, when authors sit down to write about real world events, their goal isn’t just to say what happened but to explain what it means.

This is true whether you’re writing about gentrification in your city or composing a lyric essay about your first trip to the beach. So as a creative nonfiction writer, practice keeping your eyes and mind open. Observe the details in the world around you and examine the thoughts or feelings they spark. 

The Legacy of Creative Nonfiction

So who’s idea was this anyway—applying literary techniques to nonfiction and pairing facts with deeply personal analysis?

As is the case with pretty much all literary genres, it’s impossible to pinpoint the moment this writing style was officially born. Many people think of creative nonfiction as a movement that came out of the 1960s when authors like Joan Didion and Hunter S. Thompson allowed their own voices to shine through in their journalism.

But really, human beings have been finding creative ways to communicate and examine the truth since… forever, probably. 

The big question now is: what role will you play in the future of creative nonfiction? How will you harness literary techniques to unveil truthier truths than mere facts can reveal?

I hope this article has provided some clarity and set you up to explore this world further. And I’ve got just one last tip before you go.

Plan, write, and revise with Dabble. It’s an all-in-one writing tool that was designed for fiction, which—weirdly enough—makes it incredibly helpful for creative nonfiction. 

Use the Plot Grid to track timelines, symbols, your own journey of growth, and more. Store your research in the fully customizable Story Notes and use character profiles to examine the role real-life people play in your narrative.

The best part is, all these notes are one click away as you write and revise your piece.

You can try it out for free for 14 days by following this link. No credit card is required, which means zero risk of accidental charges.

Now get out there and speak your truth.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.