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Creative Non-Fiction Essay Examples

What's the Story #7

When I was a teen-ager, my mother always assured me that I wasn’t fat; rather, I was big-boned. And I had a very slow metabolism. Both observations were probably true, but not the main reason I weighed 220 pounds (my suit size was 44 husky when I graduated high school)—too fat for the Marines or the Air Force. I assumed that by enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard, the only service that would accept me at my weight, I would have an easy time of it, physically. After all, they were the shallow-water sailors. Little did I know that because we were operating mostly on the coast (guarding our shores from enemy aggression), we were always running like hell.

A favorite drill in basic training (boot camp) was triggered by a certain signal on the bell tower—three staccato chimes. At that moment, we recruits, wherever we were standing, whatever we were doing, were obliged to grab our pieces (M-1 rifles) and bayonets and dash to the water to meet an invading enemy and do combat. Traditional Coast Guard boot camp was 12 weeks, versus the Army’s nine-week stint. But even after 12 weeks of basic, I was the only member of my company not allowed to graduate and join a unit. I had lost a good deal of weight at this point—and was certainly as fit as I ever had been—having been forced to march endlessly and run and dive maniacally through the Marine-style obstacle course. But I could not seem to pass the rope test. This was a rope, 50 feet high, with knots spaced evenly for handholds; you needed to climb to the top, and then control your descent. There were other ways of boarding an invading ship, but if a rope is the only answer, a Coast Guardsman must be physically able to do it. Every night after supper I was tested, and every night I failed.

During the day, I worked with a maintenance crew inside an abandoned boiler, chiseling away at the burnt-in soot and debris for hours on end without seeing natural light between breakfast and lunch or lunch and supper. At that time, masks were unheard of. You breathed in the coal dust in the morning and coughed it out at night. By day’s end, I lacked the energy and determination to climb the rope or even to work out with free-weights to strengthen my upper body. Not wanting to remain in boot-camp limbo for the rest of my hitch, I started to get up early in the morning and do hundreds of push-ups and sit0ups before reveille. At lunch, instead of eating or smoking, I would take long walks around the compound. Or I went into the men’s room and practiced pull-ups on the toilet stall doors. The guys with whom I shared boiler-cleaning duty were in detention because of some criminal act they had committed, not because they were too fat or couldn’t pass the rope test. They would not have taken kindly to my “public” display of extra physical training. Their attitude was that we had plenty enough P.T. in our own routine.

Under my secret regimen, however, no more than 10 days went by before I surprised myself and my instructors by literally bounding up the rope from floor to ceiling, which I touched with one sure hand, then skittering down again without using my feet. When I got the bottom the first time, I showboated by going up again and back. It was triumphant moment, not just because I succeeded, but more so because of the ease with which I pulled it off.

A few years later, I realized that my struggle to climb the rope as a Coast Guard recruit—and my eventual success—was also my first significant step toward the writing life. I had always been a voracious reader, and the library, wherever I was stationed on active duty, became a haven of privacy and comfort. The library is where I first began writing long letters and journal entries that eventually turned into essays and short stories. But my triumph climbing the rope led to my understanding and appreciation of a writer’s real secret of success: discipline—an attempt to be creative and productive on a regular basis. Virtually every writer I have ever known or read about, regardless of genre, lifestyle or location,, write or “works out” on a regular schedule. From William Styron to Joyce Carol Oates to John McPhee, writing regimentation is a key to success.

Each day, seven days a week (for the past 20 years), I climb out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and am at work at my desk within 30 minutes. I can get a lot done when the phone doesn’t ring and the horns don’t honk. When I get jammed up with work, I have learned to push the time back—I get up earlier. When you are on my kind of schedule, it doesn’t matter if you awaken at 4:30 a.m. or 3:45 a.m. Obviously, you might have to go to sleep earlier, but five hours a night is more than enough for my needs. As I said, all successful writers will write on a regular schedule and in a disciplined way. But creative nonfiction requires an even more focused discipline because we are not only writers but also reporters and researchers who utilize literary techniques to capture and portray real life and to investigate significant moral and cultural issues.

This issue of Creative Nonfiction contains excellent examples of the potential of the genre and of how much can be accomplished with focused commitment and unwavering dedication. It is also a perfect model of the varied points of view achievable in writing creative nonfiction—from the distance of immersion/reportage to the personal closeness and intimacy of poetry. In Issue 7, Sherry Simpson, a journalist, not only concentrates on the heart of the debate in Alaska concerning harvesting (killing) wolves but also takes us deep into the backcountry so we can understand the depths of belief on all sides of the issue.  Mark Bowden (“Finders Keepers”), also a journalist, captures in intimate detail the seamy side of life in Philadelphia and the frustration and despair of people who live on the fringes of society, while Brenda Marie Osbey portrays the tragic story of the talented but unappreciated musician from New Orleans, Buddy Bolden. David Hamilton, editor of The Iowa Review, ponders Robert Frost and the impact of poetry, while Maxine Kumin discusses the discipline required by gardening and the joy of growing things. David Gessner’s “June Journal” of the final days of his father’s life provides an interesting and evocative contrast to the warmth and joy displayed in Charles Simic’s “Dinner at Uncle Boris’s.” Both Maxine Kumin and Charles Simic, incidentally, are recipients of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.

You will see that these writers are very different in voice and approach—points of view. But if you ask them, they will all tell you about the regimentation under which they usually work: a disciplined, regular schedule, morning, noon or night, day after day, through most of the year. This is how writers become writers. They may write an impeccable essay, seemingly with ease, just as I passed the U.S. Coast Guard rope test as if I were an accomplished athlete. But I trained hard to be able to scramble up 50 feet, just as writers labor in the privacy of their solitary spaces with disciplined regularity in order to produce a memorable literary effort. We often don’t think about writing as a deliberate act of discipline, but that is exactly how the artful essay begins. 

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Creative Nonfiction in Writing Courses


These resources discuss some terms and techniques that are useful to the beginning and intermediate creative nonfiction writer, and to instructors who are teaching creative nonfiction at these levels. The distinction between beginning and intermediate writing is provided for both students and instructors, and numerous sources are listed for more information about creative nonfiction tools and how to use them. A sample assignment sheet is also provided for instructors.

Contributors:Kenny Tanemura
Last Edited: 2018-03-09 02:18:22


Creative nonfiction is a broad term and encompasses many different forms of writing. This resource focuses on the three basic forms of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, the memoir essay, and the literary journalism essay. A short section on the lyric essay is also discussed.

The Personal Essay

The personal essay is commonly taught in first-year composition courses because students find it relatively easy to pick a topic that interests them, and to follow their associative train of thoughts, with the freedom to digress and circle back.

The point to having students write personal essays is to help them become better writers, since part of becoming a better writer is the ability to express personal experiences, thoughts and opinions. Since academic writing may not allow for personal experiences and opinions, writing the personal essay is a good way to allow students further practice in writing.

The goal of the personal essay is to convey personal experiences in a convincing way to the reader, and in this way is related to rhetoric and composition, which is also persuasive. A good way to explain a personal essay assignment to a more goal-oriented student is simply to ask them to try to persuade the reader about the significance of a particular event.

Most high-school and first-year college students have plenty of experiences to draw from, and they are convinced about the importance of certain events over others in their lives. Often, students find their strongest conviction in the process of writing, and the personal essay is a good way to get students to start exploring these possibilities in writing.

A personal essay assignment can work well as a prelude to a research paper, because personal essays will help students understand their own convictions better, and will help prepare them to choose research topics that interest them.

An Example and Discussion of a Personal Essay

The following excerpt from Wole Soyinka's (Nigerian Nobel Laureate) Why Do I Fast? is an example of a personal essay. What follows is a short discussion of Soyinka's essay.

Why do I fast? I do not mean, why do I fast now? I have settled that in terms of continuing conflict. But why do I fast at all? Why have I, at any given time, suddenly decided---I must now do without food for some time? Perhaps I ought to settle that in my mind before I am trapped in a fatal demand of my own self-indulgence.

Yes, self-indulgence. A sensual self-indulgence. It is important to separate the area of will-power from the drugged immersion in rainbow-tinted ether. For I suspect that it is the truly sensual that take easily to fasting.

Soyinka begins with a question that fascinates him. He doesn’t feel required to immediately answer the question in the second paragraph. Rather, he takes time to consider his own inclination to believe that there is a connection between fasting and sensuality.

Soyinka follows the flowing associative arc of his thoughts, and he goes on to write about sunsets, and quotes from a poem that he wrote in his cell. The essay ends, not on a restatement of his thesis, but on yet another question that arises:

Were these new kingdoms which that sage hermit sought, the kingdoms of nothing? Or did he speak, as being replete in his own being, spurning all exterior augmentation.

This question remains unanswered. Soyinka is not interested in even attempting to answer it. The personal essay doesn’t necessarily seek to make sense out of life experiences; rather, personal essays tend to let go of that sense-making impulse to do something else, like nose around a bit in the wondering, uncertain space that lies between experience and the need to organize it in a logical manner.

However informal the personal essay may seem, it’s important to keep in mind that, as Dinty W. Moore says in The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, “the essay should always be motivated by the author’s genuine interest in wrestling with complex questions.”

Generating Ideas for Personal Essays

In The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, Moore goes on to explain an effective way to help students generate ideas for personal essays:

“Think about ten things you care about deeply: the environment, children in poverty, Alzheimer’s research (because your grandfather is a victim), hip-hop music, Saturday afternoon football games. Make your own list of ten important subjects, and then narrow the larger subject down to specific subjects you might write about. The environment? How about that bird sanctuary out on Township Line Road that might be torn down to make room for a megastore?..."

"...What is it like to be the food service worker who puts mustard on two thousand hot dogs every Saturday afternoon? Don’t just wonder about it - talk to the mustard spreader, spend an afternoon hanging out behind the counter, spread some mustard yourself. Transform your list of ten things into a longer list of possible story ideas. Don’t worry for now about whether these ideas would take a great amount of research, or might require special permission or access. Just write down a master list of possible stories related to your ideas and passions. Keep the list. You may use it later.”

It is this flexibility of form in the personal essay that makes it easy for students who are majoring in engineering, nutrition, graphic design, finance, management, etc. to adapt, learn and practice. The essay can be a more worldly form of writing than poetry or fiction, so students from various backgrounds, majors, jobs and cultures can express interesting and powerful thoughts and feelings in them.

The essay is more worldly than poetry and fiction in another sense: it allows for more of the world and its languages, its arts and food, its sport and business, its travel and politics, its sciences and entertainment, to be present, valid and important.

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