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Summer Reading: My 10 Essential Books of Creative Nonfiction

In Book Reviews, Recently Reviewed on July 20, 2021 at 1:11 pm

Take a look around these days and you’ll see just about everyone has a list of must-read books. There’s no shortage of material – the selection of topics encompasses every possible genre and category. With this vast range of subjects competing for our time and attention, where does one start?

Reading in the field – scanned 1881 engraving

This personal list of essential creative nonfiction books is specifically for writers. It incorporates key examples on how to craft creative nonfiction (CNF) plus stellar illustrations where writers used form and structure in unique ways throughout their memorable works. If writing CNF is an art, these manuals demonstrate the tricks of the trade or simply inspire because of their artistry.

  1. Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Miller and Paola are both English professors and present the nitty-gritty of writing and research basics. Different CNF forms are detailed and explained, from personal, lyrical, braided and hermit-crab essays to sketch portraits, collage and graphic memoirs, to mixed media and digital works. It’s no surprise this resource has become a standard reference in many CNF courses and programs.
  2. Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart. If you’re looking for succinct advice on how to craft narrative nonfiction, Hart clearly dissects and defines each element, from story, structure and point of view, to action and dialogue. He explains these principles in a no-nonsense, easy-to-follow style you would expect from an award-winning journalist and teacher. Hart’s helpful tips can immediately be applied to writing both shorter magazine pieces and longer book-length narratives.
  3. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick. After attending a funeral and hearing many tributes, one struck Gornick as particularly memorable. The difference, she realized later, is that it had been composed, organized and structured. It raised the question: How do we tell our stories? Utilizing her years of teaching MFA programs, Gornick decided to tackle this question by showing readers how to recognize truth in writing, which she believes is the essence of what makes good writing.
  4. The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks by Susan Shapiro. Writers who yearn to be published take note – Shapiro promises fast results and cites five weeks or less. With more than 20 years of experience as a writing professor, she has tutored thousands of students using her popular “instant gratification takes too long” technique. For both emerging and experienced writers aiming to get past the slush pile, Shapiro’s results-driven approach is the how-to guide.
  5. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Another highly touted and often quoted tome by an award-winning author, Dillard uses this memoir as a vehicle to impart sage advice and motivation. She encourages writers to establish positive working routines, and to include activities such as regular reading and ongoing writing. She also cautions students not to save or hoard what they deem “good” passages for later use but to continue pushing ahead with the writing.
  6. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott. Elliott excels at using highly personal braided essays to explore complex issues within the Indigenous community. Within this construct, the Tuscarora writer examines how the trauma of colonialism has resulted in generational cycles of poverty, obesity and disease. In easy-to-understand prose, she outlines how this cause-and-effect sequence continues to shape her community’s experiences and environment today. Any writer unfamiliar (as I was) or contemplating utilizing a braided essay format, this instructive work provides tremendous insight on the design and assembly.
  7. Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear. In describing a difficult year, Maclear takes the reader on a month-by-month bird-watching adventure. Sparely written, she masterfully combines minimalist prose, expressive metaphors and philosophical musings to express her grief and anxiety over her father’s illness and resulting artistic slump. The writer and children’s book author contrasts this presentation with unusual stylistic conventions such as including lists and drawings. Filled with an ample array of writing methods and strokes of innovation, Maclear is sure to provide any CNF writer with imaginative ideas to consider.
  8. Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto. This memoir recounts the hardships of the Second World War from the different perspectives of Sakamoto’s interned Japanese Canadian grandmother and his Scottish grandfather who became a prisoner of war. These traumatic events provide the backdrop to the biracial writer’s own upbringing while skillfully interweaving Canadian history with themes of culture, ethnicity and identity.
  9. How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery. The idea for this beautifully illustrated memoir sprang to life after a TV interview. Montgomery, who has travelled the world and spent decades researching, writing about and living with animals, realized she had many life lessons to share. In introducing the reader to different species, she interweaves themes of loss, grief and depression. Through these creature portraits, she provides a window into her own troubled upbringing.
  10. Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Scan any number of essential book lists and you’re likely to stumble upon this title. Thoreau’s account of his time spent in the solitude of nature, living in semi-isolation and near self-sufficiency, is viewed both directly and indirectly as a vast contribution to CNF. With his skill for prose, Thoreau is regarded as one of the greatest American writers, and is credited for his enormous influence on scores of seasoned writers in the areas of social reform, philosophy and the environment.

When it comes to not-to-be-missed recommendations, this list of essential craft and inspirational CNF works is only the tip of the iceberg. All writers can reap their benefits. Whether it’s a specific process to glean or an inventive example to emulate, there’s much we can all learn from these fellow writers and the wisdom they impart. Happy reading! – S.H.

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