Lee Gutkind: ABCs of Creative Nonfiction

Lee Gutkind
Book Review: Keep it Real: Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction
Edited by Lee Gutkind
W.W. Norton & Company, 2008
Hardcover, 167 pages

This book is on my reading guide at Amazon.com.

Although Lee Gutkind began using the term “creative nonfiction” in the 1970s, he doesn’t know precisely when it became an official part of the language of writing. His best estimate is 1983, when the National Endowment for the Arts was searching for a name for a new category of its creative writing fellowships.

Basically, the term means using “literary craft in presenting nonfiction—that is, factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid manner.” Gutkind cites some examples of creative nonfiction, though not initially called that, which have been around for many years: Down and Out in Paris and London (George Orwell), Notes of a Native Son (James Baldwin), Death in the Afternoon (Ernest Hemingway), and The Right Stuff (Tom Wolfe). These writers cover their topics as journalism, memoir, and information sharing, all perfectly acceptable forms of creative nonfiction.

Creative nonfiction defined
While the meaning of the term is generally acknowledged and accepted by writers, editors, and publishers—within whom are individual interpretations—controversy flares up from time to time over the misuse of creative nonfiction.  Fictionalization sometimes takes a back seat to truth and accuracy, Gutkind says, as in the scandalous  A Million Little Pieces, by James Frey. In the end, Gutkind says, creative nonfiction’s greatest asset is its “flexibility and freedom while adhering to the basic tenets of reportage.”

Gutkind says there are two major parts to the genre: Writing, which is the creative and fun part, and crafting, which includes “scene, dialogue, intimate detail, and other essentials.” Whether a simple beginning taken chronologically to a satisfying ending, or starting in the middle of events to draw readers in with suspense, focused themes and good storytelling work every time.

A compilation of entries
The book is a compilation from twenty writers and presented as forty-one brief entries, “the combined voices and wisdom of the writers and editors,” Gutkind says. Most of the entries are less than three pages in length, none is credited to a specific writer, and some are the work of several writers. A brief profile of each contributor is at the end of the book. Topics are not organized by a step-one, step-two, step-three approach, but rather in alphabetical order by their titles. Thus, the first topic is “Acknowledgement of Sources,” in the middle are “Narrative Impulse” and “Quotation Marks,” and the last topic is “Writers’ Responsibility to Subjects.”

Two entries are on memoirs, “The Memoir Craze,” and “The Roots of Memoir.” From the contributors: “When you look at our tendency these days to interface with technology rather than one another, perhaps the surprise is not that memoirs are flourishing but that anyone questions the trends.” And, while memoir and autobiography have similarities, there are differences. “The memoir tends to reflect a life organized by theme—drug addiction, for example, or illness—while autobiography is typically a linear catchall, a succession of facts plodding from birth onward.”

Lee Gutkind is a novelist, teacher of creative nonfiction, and workshop presenter. He is founder and editor of Creative Nonfiction, the first literary magazine dedicated exclusively to nonfiction. The magazine actively seeks submissions year-round. Submission guidelines.

Photo courtesy Lee Gutkind.

What has been your biggest challenge in writing creative nonfiction? Have you used creative nonfiction in writing your memoir? If so, how? What examples of creative nonfiction have you enjoyed most? 


  1. Interesting article. I am starting a book about my mother up to the time she married. There are many family stories, but I will need to fill in details and did not know what genre it will fit. This answers my question. It will be basically nonfiction, but I will need to get creative to connect the stories into a flowing story. Thanks.

  2. This comment has been removed by the author.

  3. I second your review of this book, and add that I found Lee's introductory chapter the weakest in the book, and I say that to extoll the exemplary writing of contributors, not to denigrate Lee's work. Lee's chapter was a bit more expansive, welcoming readers to the party he hosts within the covers of the book.

    Perhaps this later tight integration reflects on Lee's genius as an editor. He's able to exude warmth to welcome us and stay focused when he rolls up his sleeves.