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Writing Creative Non-Fiction

I attended a workshop on Writing Creative Non-Fiction on Wednesday, March 20th, conducted by Andrea Stuart, and organised by the NCF Literary Arts Desk. I jumped at the opportunity to attend, not only because it was a free workshop by a respected author, but because I am one of the Editors of an upcoming anthology of sensual memoirs by Caribbean women. I hope you know of Senseisha by now. Submissions have been trickling in, and it’s already shaping up to be one controversial read!

Oh so many genres, so little time…


Sample of my True Crime Collection

I have always LOVED True Crime. My good friends used to buy me True Crime and Serial Killer biographies as birthday and Christmas gifts. They knew they couldn’t go wrong with those – True Crime books or earrings. I always joke that if the Criminal Minds team had to inspect my bedroom (Shamar, you are welcome anytime!), they would look at my bookshelf and diagnose me a serial killer. What does your bookshelf say about you?

I even tried my hand at investigating unsolved murders here in Barbados, and had some articles published in local newspapers about the Canefield Murders (a killer who dumped his female victims in canefields), and the Pele case (the controversial murder of a local football star). Why did I stop? I hope in a couple years I’ll be able to tell you…

So…Back to Andrea Stuart – author of the books Showgirls, which was adapted into a two-part documentary for the Discovery Channel, and The Rose of Martinique: A Biography of Napoleon’s Josephine. Her third and current book Sugar in the Blood: One Family’s Story of Slavery and Empire was published in England (2012) by Portobello Books and was published in the US by Knopf in January (2013).

I.e she knows her stuff. Below I’ve noted some key facts and tips that she shared with the workshop attendees about writing creative non-fiction. Those persons who wish to submit to Senseisha should pay special attention.

Creative Non-Fiction is the oldest form of writing.

Yup, there is autobiography, biography, memoir, travel writing and more. It is actually easier to break into the publishing industry with creative non-fiction genre. It dominates the literary market because it satisfies our hunger for the real.

In an interview about Senseisha, we were asked why we decided to focus on non-fiction stories. This was our reply:

“Because true stories inspire and empower. Readers often relate to the truth in fiction. Think about the impact of testimonials in church, documentaries, or even citizen journalism. The most powerful factor is the authenticity of the experience. Besides, we in the Caribbean are way too exciting to need to make anything up.”

We sound good, eh?

Truth is stranger than fiction… 

Everyday my mind is blown by some newspaper article or circumstance. Let’s face it – even Stephen King couldn’t think up of the horror stories we hear daily.

Like fiction, creative non-fiction still has to tell a good story, with interesting and identifiable characters, plot/climax etc. It is not journalism, where a story may only be relevant for a certain time period; there is  timeliness to the tale, and the story has resonance.

People underestimate how hard it is to pull off a good memoir…

According to Stuart, “Just because an experience is interesting to you, doesn’t mean it will be interesting to someone else. The writer has to be able to make that distinction.”

How true is this? Because you are writing about your own experiences, it is easy to get carried away by emotions and mundane details that could be left out. What I’d suggest? Write it all down. Get it out. Rant. Rave. Blame. It will be therapeutic and personal.

Now that you’ve gotten it all out, re-read what you have written and find the story you want to tell. Now you’re calm and focused, the solid writing should come from this rewrite.. You are not just relating an experience, but you are entertaining as well as educating.

Show, don’t tell…

W. Somerset Maugham stated that there are three rules for writing the novel. Unfortunately, no one knows what they are.

Yet, the “show, don’t tell” adage rings true in almost every literary genre.

You want to create a picture with your words, maintain an interesting flow, and keep the reader engaged from beginning to end. Stuart advises against lazy writing – “Modern Medicare terms” – used to describe real emotion. For example, my family was dysfunctional. You need to go into details and describe. 

Memoirs are extraordinary stories told by ordinary women. By the end of the story, we should feel as if we know you.

PLEASE do not lie!

The reader has to trust you.

If people catch you in a lie, all of your authority is gone.

Remember James Frey? Author of the autobiography, A Million Little Pieces, who admitted to Oprah that he had fabricated and exaggerated aspects of his book. Memoirs are the truth as you remember it, but please be honest!

This includes being honest to yourself. Don’t be afraid to show your flaws and don’t edit the story to give yourself a better image. Stuart illustrates with an example of an author writing about a time when racism was rampant, and yet he seemed to be the only person in the entire book who never had any racist thoughts. He just couldn’t help painting that shining picture of himself, and it was the book’s greatest weakness.

I truly enjoyed this workshop, and even though it was just under two hours, I learnt so much. Thank you Andrea!

Now I’m even more excited about reading future Senseisha entries.

Get writing now!

May 31st will be here sooner than you think…


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