A short while ago, a writing friend asked for recommendations on how-to books for writing nonfiction. It sent me rummaging through my shelves. As usual, the list below comprises of my top three favorites, not necessarily the most popular ones out there. I have also included a handful of online sources at the end.
Let me clarify that my focus here is on how to write in the essay form, or creative nonfiction (CNF), rather than an entire nonfiction book. Of course, many nonfiction books grow out of individual essays.
I will not get into the history of the essay other than to say that the current modern essay form is said to have developed in Europe in the mid-1500s. The word “essay” comes from the French writer, Michel de Montaigne, who called his writing “essai,” meaning “attempt,” to differentiate it from the treatise form that subject matter experts wrote at the time. However, there is an even earlier precedent of the essay form in Japan with their “zuihitsu” form.
Let’s look at some of the essay classifications out there first. For example:
— Style: Critical, Literary, Personal
— Structure (thesis-based or theme-based): Analytical, Argumentative, Descriptive, Dialectic, Expository, Informative/Explanatory, Lyric, Narrative, Reflective, Review
— Size: Flash, Longform, Short form
Generally, an essay will be of a particular style, structure, and size. That said, for the most part, the personal/memoir style is often descriptive or lyric and not argumentative or analytical. And the argumentative essay is a thesis-based structure with a very large umbrella sheltering many sub-forms under it like cause and effect, compare/contrast, historical, etc.
Last year, Jia Tolentino, a fine essayist herself, wrote controversially about how the personal essay boom is over because of online writing. Many essayists countered that the personal essay, like all forms of writing, is going through yet another evolution. People will always want to write about themselves and their world — not out of narcissism or self-centeredness but out of a need to explore, understand, bear witness, prevent erasure, and more. I agree.
On with the books then. I must warn that my typical selection of three does not cover all the labels above.
This was the first book I ever picked up on how to write creative nonfiction. It had just come out in 2013 and I’d heard Lopate being interviewed on some books-related podcast, which got me interested. And, to be honest, I found a lot of useful advice that has helped me even in my fiction writing. As a lifelong essayist and teacher, Lopate explains how to weave facts and imagination together with ethics and assertiveness, how to make oneself the character/subject of one’s writing without it being navel-gazing, and how to do proper research to ensure integrity. He even gets into essay-writing in the age of Facebook (though I think he would probably do a very large addendum to that chapter now in 2018.) I enjoyed very much his section on studying essays of other masters though I so wish he had included a more diverse set of writers there and at least one woman.
For all their shared boundaries, the experiences of fiction and nonfiction are fundamentally different. In the traditional short story or novel, a fictive space is opened up that allows you the reader to disappear into the action, even to the point of forgetting you are reading. In the best nonfiction, it seems to me, you’re always made aware that you are being engaged with a supple mind at work. The story line or plot in nonfiction consists of the twists and turns of a thought process working itself out. This is certainly true for the essay, but it is also true, I think, for classic nonfiction in general, be it Thucydides or Pascal or Carlyle, which follows an organizing principle that can be summarized as “tracking the consciousness of the author.” What makes me want to keep reading a nonfiction text is the encounter with a surprising, well-stocked mind as it takes on the challenge of the next sentence, paragraph, and thematic problem it has set for itself. The other element that keeps me reading nonfiction happily is an evolved, entertaining, elegant, or at least highly intentional literary style. The pressure of style should be brought to bear on every passage. “Consciousness plus style equals good nonfiction” is one way of stating the formula.
Karr is another lifelong practitioner and teacher of her art. So this 2016 book is a must for anyone who writes or wants to write the personal/memoir style essay or book. Here, she goes into both her own process and, through excerpts and anecdotes, the processes of other memoir writers. She also dives deeper into why one is driven to write the memoir and how to approach the writing emotionally because baring it all and/or reliving the past can be very difficult for some. Again, I found much of the advice here applies to writing fiction as well, especially the parts about how memory and identity work together and the technicalities of editing and revision. Her reading list is also pretty solid.
You think you know the story so well. It’s a mansion inside your head, each room just waiting to be described, but pretty much every memoirist I’ve ever talked to finds the walls of such rooms changing shape around her. There are shattering earthquakes, tectonic-plate-type shifts. Or it’s like memory is a snow globe that invariably gets shaken so as to shroud the events inside. [. . .] I once heard Don DeLillo quip that a fiction writer starts with meaning and then manufactures events to represent it; a memoirist starts with events, then derives meaning from them.
This is an ongoing annual series and I would encourage you to go browse through various editions at the library for your favorites. In recent years, I very much liked the one edited by Ariel Levy in 2015, which I have linked above. The main reason I liked it is that many of the essayists are my favorites: Zadie Smith, Rebecca Solnit, Meghan Daum, Hilton Als, Anthony Doerr, Cheryl Strayed, David Sedaris, and others.
I also always enjoy the foreword and introduction in each edition. And I favor the more recent editions because they are more diverse in every way, not just themes, moods, and voices.
Excerpt from the 2015 Edition Foreword by Robert Atwan, Series Editor:
You can teach someone many things about writing essays, but I wonder if you can teach anyone how to be an essayist. An essayist at heart, I mean. It may be that, just as there are born poets and born storytellers, there are born essayists. This doesn’t mean that they discover their genre early; in fact, I would guess that essayists recognize their special talents much later than do poets, novelists, and playwrights, a recognition that comes perhaps only after attempting the other genres. Then, too, there are the poets and novelists who also excel at essays and whose work frequently winds up in these books.
Excerpt from the 2015 Edition Introduction by Ariel Levy, Guest Editor:
An essay is another matter. Because whatever its narrative shape, an essay must have an idea as its beating heart. And ideas come to you on their own terms. Searching for an idea is like resolving to have a dream. [. . .] Crafting a piece of writing around an idea you think is worthwhile — an idea you suspect is an insight — requires real audacity. It is an act of daring.
Additional Online Sources for Essay-writing:
I have mentioned earlier how I am more in favor of learning to write a particular genre by reading more by the best practitioners.
The contemporary essayists I particularly seek out both in books and online publications, are (in no particular order): Zadie Smith, Salman Rushdie (almost prefer his essays to his fiction), Rebecca Solnit, Roxane Gay, Rebecca Traister, Jessica Valenti, Jia Tolentino, Annie Dillard, George Saunders, Geoff Dyer, Tim Parks, and Parul Sehgal (for her literary reviews).
Others I have admired forever: George Orwell, Virginia Woolf, Mary McCarthy, Elizabeth Hardwick, Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, James Baldwin, Maxine Hong Kingston, and many more.
Unfortunately, there is a LOT of badly-written nonfiction online and it is often hard for us to avoid because of 24/7 social media feeds that push stuff out to us algorithmically. That said, there are some good online selections curated by individuals with care and attention and I have highlighted them below. (I’m sure there are plenty of other good sources out there too, so feel free to share in the comments):
— Memoir Monday Newsletter (essays selected weekly from Narratively, Catapult, Granta, Guernica, Longreads, The Rumpus, and Tin House)
— The Guardian Long Read (a weekly curation from The Guardian but also a handful of other places)
— Brevity’s Craft Essays (for essays clocking in at 750 words or less)
I will leave you with Katherine Boo’s 15 rules for narrative nonfiction. Though aimed for narrative journalism, they apply well to various kinds of essays too.
Until next month. Please do leave your own recommendations in the comments if you like.