Dear Lit Chick - Can you explain what writers and publishers mean when they talk about "creative nonfiction”? I was always told nonfiction is for history, biography or memoir. Is that what it means, or is there something else?

Creative nonfiction leans on fictional devices to effectively communicate a true story, says writer and editor Kate Meadows, author of Tough Love: A Wyoming Childhood (Pronghorn Press 2012).

"Creative nonfiction is based on fact," Meadows says. "However, it does not lean solely on fact to communicate a truth. Fact and truth are not interchangeable terms. Fact is objective. Truth is not."

The lure of creative nonfiction, Meadows adds, is that it tells a true story in a creative way, using elements of fiction, such as plot (narrative), setting, character development, voice, dialogue and figurative language (irony, metaphor, imagery, exaggeration, etc.).  Just as a fictional story has characters, so do nonfiction stories. The same is true of action, conflict, scenes. The difference is that in fiction, these things are invented (or sizable portions are), whereas in creative nonfiction, they are real.

The writer and professor Lee Gutkind is credited with establishing the genre by its name, creative nonfiction, in 1970. In 1993, he launched a literary journal, Creative Nonfiction, giving it the simple tag line, “True stories, well told.” Gutkind calls creative nonfiction “the ability to capture the personal and the private and to make it mean something significant to a larger audience.”

Meadows says that a key difference between traditional nonfiction and creative nonfiction is that creative nonfiction allows (and, indeed, invites) the personal point of view. Gutkind maintains that the genre allows for expressing the personal point of view and voice “rather than maintaining the sham of objectivity.” CBS Reporter John Sack referred to the genre as “undiluted reality.”

But not everyone buys into the worth or intrigue of this relatively new genre, Meadows says. In a 1997 Vanity Fair article, writer James Wolcott sardonically labeled Gutkind as “the godfather of creative nonfiction,” referring to creative nonfiction as the genre made up of “navel gazers.”

Moreover, the word “creative” has been scrutinized against the idea of nonfiction, because, Gutkind says, “in this context some people have maintained that being creative means that you pretend or exaggerate or make up facts and embellish details.”

This is completely incorrect, Gutkind maintains. “It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.”

"But getting at the truth of a story – that’s a tricky thing," Meadows says, referencing creative nonfiction writer Laura Wexler, who writes: “It’s an illusion to believe there exists a single true version of a story. … We should recognize that the genre of creative nonfiction – with its emphasis on stories – is perfectly suited to deal with contested terrain, both in the past and present. We’ll get all tangled up, that’s certain. But it can’t be any other way."

Meadows says creative nonfiction can be a powerful form of storytelling.

"Indeed, the truth is oftentimes stranger -- or richer, or more compelling -- than fiction," she says. "The job of the creative nonfiction writer is to help others see the real stories beneath the facts. The adage holds on multiple levels for creative nonfiction: You can’t make this stuff up."