—Anne Lamott, “Blessings: After Catastrophe, A Community Unites” Your hook and opening paragraph should establish the topic of your essay (or at least allude to it) and set the scene and tone. Your challenge is to evoke those senses and feelings without flatly stating them.All it takes to understand the importance of an outline is listening to someone who struggled to tell a personal story. The switchbacks where the teller says “But wait, I have to tell you about this part, first! An outline will help you organize your thoughts before committing them to text. Don’t say “I felt cold.” Say “I exhaled and my breath turned to vapor that hung in the air.
To follow on from last month’s post in which I sang the praises of creative non-fiction, I’d like to share with you some things I have learned about working in this often misunderstood genre (after much trial and error).
Here are my top tips: The most obvious, and least sexy, tip is that to engage deeply with creative non-fiction you have to read as many books in this genre as you can.
Starting somewhere in the late 2000s, a certain type of personal essay experienced a popularity boom.
These essays were ultra-personal and confessional in nature, often in a TMI sort of way.
Circling back to your lead in your conclusion is one way to give readers that full-circle sense.
Try to restate your thesis in a way that reflects the journey the essay has taken.Of course every writer knows, or at least so I hope, that reading for writers is as important as the writing itself.Yet, in creative non-fiction, reading may play even a more significant role, because – as mentioned last month – works published in this genre are so diverse, playful, surprising and elusive to definition, that the best way to understand creative non-fiction is by experiencing it.I even portrayed myself with constantly dishevelled hair even though in reality I sometimes do brush it.I wasn’t faking, but rather working along the lines of advice from Robin Hemley who in his book about creative non-fiction, ‘Immersion’, wrote: “It’s possible to be completely honest about yourself and at the same time selective and manipulative in the details you choose, for the sake of keeping the prose focused.” To reveal the emotional truth of our stories without boring our readers silly we are ‘allowed’ to reveal about ourselves just the stuff that is relevant to the particular story we are telling.I suggest starting with creative non-fiction classics – the likes of Truman Capote’s ‘In Cold Blood’, Ernest Hemingway’s ‘A Moveable Feast’ and Joan Didion’s ‘Slouching Towards Bethlehem’.It is also not a bad idea to read some popular creative non-fiction – Gretchen Rubin’s ‘The Happiness Project’, for example.Aside from Peter, who supposedly guards the gates of heaven and is a pivotal figure in any number of jokes, the only saint who’s ever remotely interested me is Francis of Assisi, who was friends with the animals.When I was young, my family didn’t go on outings to the circus or trips to Disneyland. Instead, we stayed in our small rural West Texas town, and my parents took us to cemeteries.Raise the stakes with each paragraph until you reach a climax or turning point. It’s not enough to say “And that’s what happened.” You have to describe how whatever happened shaped you.Plan to add a conclusion that will evoke an emotional response in your reader. Your essay may well be about sexism, but you need to illustrate it through the lens of a defining incident that’s deeply personal to you. Just as a good lead hooks readers and draws them along for the ride, a good conclusion releases them from your essay’s thrall with a frisson of pleasure, agreement, passion or some other sense of completion.