Creative nonfiction isn’t just about telling personal stories and sharing your own insights about life. It can also give you the opportunity to tell stories about people and events outside of your experience.
After all, no matter what the subject is, the foundation of creative nonfiction is using literary devices like characterization, setting, imagery, and plot to convey a true story.
The idea is that by looking at real events from a literary perspective, we can enter the story on an emotional level that wouldn’t be possible with a Wikipedia page or a “just the facts, ma’am” news article.
We’ve already talked about why you should write creative nonfiction, how to know when you’re ready to tackle a nonfiction project (you are), and ways to structure your essays. Up until this point, we’ve talked about how to accomplish this with stories of your own experiences.
But what if you want to tell a true story about someone who isn’t you?
We’ll dig into that in this week’s post.
The Ethics of Telling Someone Else’s Story
If you want to write about the life of another person, the first question you need to be asking is whether their story is really yours to tell.
Are you robbing someone else of the opportunity to share about their own struggles, life experiences, and unique story?
That’s assuming that the people involved in the events of your piece are alive. But things don’t necessarily change if the subject is dead. For example, do you have the permission of family members—especially if the story has caused deep emotional wounds—to write the story?
Still another question to consider is your own motives. Are you seeking to “set the record straight” about a real-life event in a way that is selfish? Or, by contrast, do you honestly see your subject’s life as worthy of sharing?
Another ethical question to consider is how different your subject’s cultural background is from your own.
I’m not saying that writers should never choose topics that are outside the realm of their experience—but if that is the case, you need to take care to ensure that your project will capture those involved with respect and accuracy.
If you don’t do this, it could open doors for work that reinforces damaging stereotypes or inaccurate narratives about the topic.
I wrote about this idea several months back, and as I said in that post, I’m not advocating for paranoia or being afraid of getting cancelled. But no matter what we’re creating, we always have a responsibility to our readers to be helpful and respectful, and perpetuating ideas that have hurt others in the past does not accomplish this.
Regardless of your topic, examining why you want to write about this person or event will ensure that you are proceeding with good intentions to write something that will help others, not hurt those involved.
How to Ethically Proceed with Your Real-Life Story
Once you’ve decided to tackle your chosen subject, consider taking the following steps in preparation.
· Inform any living witnesses or people of your project. If you are concerned about how people related to your topic will react to your project, the best thing to do is enlist their support. This is especially true if you are writing the story of a family member, especially if it involves a sensitive topic. It may be possible that the individual will reject the book idea in general. If so, be accepting of the person’s wishes.
· Invite these people into your creative process. You will need to interview them to make sure you not only tell the story accurately, but are able to inject their voices and personalities into your writing. In a past post, I gave some tips for interviewing your family members to tell their stories. This will not only make your story more vivid, but bring it to life even more.
· Let your subjects read the story before you share it. Give them the opportunity to make corrections or edits to anything that may be inaccurate or objectionable.
Creative Nonfiction Tips for Literary Storytelling
Once you’re ready to write, keep in mind the literary devices you have at your disposal. You aren’t just writing a summary of someone’s life or a series of events. Like any great story, your job is to allow readers to enter the plot, participating and empathizing with the characters and their experiences. Here are just a few ideas to consider.
· Describe a photograph or video. There is something about actual footage of a person’s life that makes them real for readers. Whether your subject is a family member, a friend, or an everyday person, you’re likely introducing readers to someone they probably would never have heard of if they weren’t reading your work.
Another thing to keep in mind is what the photo or video does not show. What happened before or after the picture was taken? How does it affect the way you see that footage?
· Introduce readers to the setting. Use vivid detail to describe where the story takes place. A good place to start is sensory details—what would someone immediately notice upon visiting the place? For example, you might describe your grandfather’s house, the town your family is rooted in, or another place that reveals something important about the overall story.
· Mine your subject for details. As you interview your subjects, dig into other sources, and gather your research, look for certain details that strike you as poignant to developing characters and the story as a whole. Maybe one of your interview subjects loves to work in the garden or has five cats that are constantly following her around. Look for objects, living spaces, hobbies, and lifestyles that jump out at you and can bring specificity to your story.
· Don’t try to inject a “deeper meaning” into the story. Resist the urge to find some kind of underlying “theme” or “message.” This is a good rule for all nonfiction writing, not just real stories you’re reporting on. The best approach is to simply tell the story—tell what you see, and then reflect on it. When you revise, you may notice some threads you can tie together to create unity in the work. But trying to work in something about what the story “means” will only make your writing seem inauthentic at best and preachy at worst.
Need help telling a real story about yourself or someone else?
The Ultimate Writing Project Workbook is for you.
It contains dozens of prompts, worksheets, templates, and more to help you develop your project so you can create a piece that impacts and inspires readers.
BONUS: You’ll get both the fiction and nonfiction editions!
Click here, pop in your email address, and I’ll send it right out.