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Tell It in Fact: The Allure of Creative Nonfiction

by Roy Hoffman, fiction and creative nonfiction faculty

An earlier version of this essay was delivered as a lecture at the Chautauqua Institution.


How can we speak in such a way, write in such a way, as to engage the world and touch the heart? Whether literature is about what’s deep inside or the push-pull at the crossroads of humanity, it has an urgency, an immediacy, that can motivate and deepen us as writers and readers.


Creative nonfiction, or CNF, is poised, in its own distinctive way, to get at the complexity of our modern world. Think of it as journalism’s colorful sibling. It’s rooted in fact but utilizes the techniques of fiction: scene-setting, dialogue, character development. Because it’s “creative” doesn’t mean it’s fake, but after a deeper human truth. Its goal is the actuality of what happened, with a richness of language and often a specific point of view.


It’s a relatively new term, one that came about in the 1960s for the big tent of writing about the world in that actual but creatively charged way. It encompasses several forms, including the personal essay with its idiosyncratic voice, memoir so bound up in memory and the passage of time, and narrative nonfiction—or nonfiction storytelling—where there’s been an explosion of material. Of the late twentieth century, think of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood, Tom Wolfe’s The Right Stuff, Joan Didion’s The White Album, Gay Talese’s “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” and other essays, and in recent years, Laura Hillenbrand’s Seabiscuit, Natasha Trethewey’s Memorial Drive, Jesmyn Ward’s Men We Reaped, David Grann’s Killers of the Flower Moon.           


There’s often a journalistic sensibility at work, with the storyteller researching facts, doing interviews, burning up shoe leather. It may sometimes read like fiction—but it’s not—and has rivaled the novel for primacy in our culture.


As Philip Roth observed on the 1960s: “The American writer in the middle of the 20th century has his hands full in trying to understand, and then describe, and then make credible much of the American reality. It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates, and finally it is even a kind of embarrassment to one’s own meager imagination. The actuality is continually outdoing our talents, and the culture tosses up figures almost daily that are the envy of any novelist. . . .”


Isn’t that true, to some extent, today?


In his manifesto “The New Journalism,” published in 1972, Tom Wolfe argued that nonfiction would be what he called “the main event” of that era.


I had a front-row seat on that main event.


Fresh out of college in the 1970s, I moved to New York City and got an entry-level job at New York magazine, then the epicenter of new journalism. One day I looked up and Tom Wolfe was there in his white suit and rakish hat. He was famous to those of us who were children of the ’60s from his Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test, about Ken Kesey’s Merry Pranksters, and was starting a new project on astronauts. In person, to young folks on the staff like me, he was gracious and approachable.


I learned that he’d gotten his start as one of the innovators of new journalism in an unexpected way. An accomplished feature writer in the traditional mold, he had an assignment for Esquire magazine, to write about customized cars, and had traveled to California to meet the kings of hot rod design. With a trove of research and reporting, though, he felt stuck. He could not weave it all together.


His editor told him to type out his notes and send them to the office and somebody else could write up the story. Wolfe sat down at 8 p.m. and started a memorandum of what he’d reported, “typing like a madman,” as he put it. By 2 a.m. he was still at it, “like a maniac.” By 6 a.m. it was 49 pages long, a text so brilliant that the editor decided to run it as the piece itself, the ground-breaking “The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flaked Streamline Baby,” and Wolfe’s career was in full throttle.


But creative nonfiction could sweep into its purview world-shaking events as well. It had been doing so since decades earlier.


How could any writer dramatize the cataclysm of August 6, 1945, the dropping of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima? John Hersey interviewed survivors and published the remarkable “Hiroshima,” in 1946, that filled an entire issue of The New Yorker. He chose a simple technique: following the travails of six survivors. From the opening he sets the stage, emphasizes character, scene, setting. Hiroshima is a global event deep in our consciousness still. How could Hersey make it particular? Personal?


As he starts:


At exactly fifteen minutes past eight in the morning, on August 6, 1945, Japanese time, at the moment when the atomic bomb flashed above Hiroshima, Miss Toshiko Sasaki, a clerk in the personnel department of the East Asia Tin Works, had just sat down at her place in the plant office. . . . At that same moment, Dr. Masakazu Fujii was sitting down cross-legged to read the Osaka Asahi  on the porch of his private hospital. . . . Mrs. Hatsuyo Nakamura, a tailor’s widow, stood by the window of her kitchen. . . . Father Wilhelm Kleinsorge, a German priest of the Society of Jesus, reclined on a cot on the top floor of his order’s three-story mission house. . . . Dr. Terufumi Sasaki, a young member of the surgical staff of the city’s large, modern Red Cross Hospital, walked along one of the hospital corridors. . . . The Reverend Mr. Kiyoshi Tanimoto, pastor of the Hiroshima Methodist Church, paused at the door of a rich man’s house. . . . A hundred thousand people were killed by the atomic bomb, and these six were among the survivors. They still wonder why they lived when so many others died. Each of them counts many small items of chance or volition—a step taken in time, a decision to go indoors, catching one streetcar instead of the next—that spared him. . . . At the time, none of them knew anything.


Hersey continues on like a novelist and journalist.


Like many prose writers, I create fiction and nonfiction and sometimes decide how I want to approach material by how much I know—what the weight of “reality” is, versus the appeal of moving into the imagination. I’m named for my uncle, a U.S. Marine, Roy Robinton, a prisoner of war in World War II who never came home from the Pacific, lost at sea. He left behind a young bride who kept his memory vivid until her very old age. I’ve written essays about my uncle, but when I wanted to write a book, I turned to that story for inspiration—and invented. I only had bits and pieces of knowledge. So I wrote a novel, Come Landfall.


Several years ago, in Spalding University’s low-residency MFA in Writing program, I worked with a student who had a tale that needed no imagining. But it did require all the techniques of great storytelling. The writer is Tori Murden McClure, the first woman on the planet to row solo across the Atlantic Ocean. (Who’d later earn her MFA and become the president of Spalding University.) “American Pearl” was the name of her boat.


In 2009, Tori published her memoir, A Pearl in the Storm: How I Found My Heart in the Middle of the Ocean. She writes about her family, her quest for love, her heart.


It is not only the astounding journey but also the framework, the determination, the eloquent passion—the tumultuous first attempt in 1998, and the successful one more than a year later—that make this work of creative nonfiction so distinctive.  On her sixty-fourth day at sea, she was rowing while listening to music on her headphones, when suddenly, as she tells us:


. . . a foul odor caught my attention. It was a sour, fishy smell. ‘Phew, I need a bath.’ A minute or two passed, and the smell assaulted my nose again. It was as acrid as a stink bomb. ‘I really need a bath.’ At that instant, out of the corner of my left eye I saw a patch of gray large enough to be a parking lot surface next to my boat. I stopped rowing and stood up. A fifty-or-sixty-foot sperm whale surfaced six inches from my starboard gunwale. The sour fishy smell crossed the deck again. Whale breath.


I pulled off my headphones, and the sound of my own heartbeat pounded out a mixture of fear and surprise. The whale didn’t move. I pulled my starboard oar in across the deck. Just when it appeared that my boat would drift into the whale, the creature let out a sigh, and with the slightest twitch it put a few more inches between itself and my boat. The grace of this motion was breathtaking. The creature was the size of a tractor-trailer truck. I was close enough that I might have stepped onto its back and taken a stroll. . . . The whale hovered for a moment or two, and then with another twitch it began to drift away. I reached toward it. Stay, please stay, just a bit longer.


Well, as they say, you can’t make that stuff up.





Roy Hoffman is author of the nonfiction books Back Home and Alabama Afternoons and the novels The Promise of the Pelican, Come Landfall, Chicken Dreaming Corn, and Almost Family. This essay is excerpted from a lecture he gave in 2017 at the Chautauqua Institution in upstate New York, where he has been a week-long prose writer in residence on several occasions.


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