What Is Creative Nonfiction? What Is Memoir? What Is an Essay?

Tea, Cup, Rest, Calm, Afternoon, Beverage, Hot, Mug

I teach a Memoir Writing Class, and I often toss out the exhausted word “essay.” Well, today, one of my adult students taught me a good lesson: “Don’t toss out exhausted words, especially if you are too lazy to say what you mean.”

During the class today, I had repeatedly said something about this essay or that. Finally, a student looked me straight between the eyes and said, “What is an essay?”

I nearly choked, and it wasn’t because I didn’t know what an essay is. I do know that, but I don’t want mere essays from my memoir writers. I want creative nonfiction. From today onward, I plan to mean what I say and say what I mean–especially as it pertains to creative nonfiction and essays.

What Is An Essay?


While there have been some excellent essay writers in the past, the word “essay” can also be used to tell an uninspired fourth grader to write a report on what he did last summer. The word “essay” is used to refer to a wide range of writing types. See the list above. Creative nonfiction also includes a wide range of writing types, but creative nonfiction is much more than a mere report.

What Is Creative Nonfiction?

“The words “creative” and “nonfiction” describe the form. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonfiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.” – Lee Gutkind – Read the full article Here

When my students began my memoir class, I gave them an article or essay that differentiates between memoir writing and writing an autobiography. An autobiography is a list of facts. Autobiographies are essay-like. A memoir is a creative telling of those facts. A memoir is a type of creative nonfiction. [There are several other types of creative nonfiction.] All good memoirs are creative nonfiction, but not all creative nonfiction is a memoir.

I told my memoir students the following:

Memoirs are not Tell-Alls. They are not autobiographical records of a person’s life–told in chronological order.A list of facts is not complete unless all of the facts are included. A memoir is  filled with many snippets of a person’s life, and as each snippet is fully expanded upon, each snippet is a complete and finished piece. A collection of memoir pieces might be included in a book that one might call his memoir, but each of the memoir pieces would stand alone. They might be separate chapters or they may not.

What A Memoir Is

  • In reality, the best memoirs are not chronological at all. They are simply groups of stories that are told in a searching and reflective way.
  • Quite often, memoirs skip all around the writer’s history.
  • In one chapter, stories from several times during a person’s life may be pulled together around one theme.  An entire memoir may examine several themes.
  • Memoirs may ask more questions than they provide lists of facts.
  • Through a person’s memoir, we are allowed to listen to the writer as he thinks–as he processes and tries to make sense of some of the events of his life.
  • Memoirs are also invitations into the writer’s heart. While an autobiography might be a cold and precise treatise–much like a textbook or a history book–good memoirs tend to be written more creatively–using figures of speech, poetic devices, etc. The facts are not made up, and liberties are not taken when repeating them. They are simply laced together with fine and textured thread.

Skills Needed for Writing Memoir

  • The memoir writer needs to be able to recall actual things that have happened to him during the course of his lifetime.
  • The memoir writer needs to learn to write sensitively and reflectively.

The Churches of My Life is actually at least two separate memoir pieces and some poems. Several of these sections can and do stand alone in other places. See that piece Here

As I said above, memoir writing is one type of creative nonfiction. A person could also write creative nonfiction about gardening. On the other hand, a person could merely list a group of rules or facts that are necessary for creating a raised bed garden or for growing tomatoes or for growing roses, or for controlling weeds, etc.

I recently wrote an article that tells how I control weeds and amend soil, but my article also tells how I have adjusted to living in the North. If I had merely written an article about weed control, it might have only been an essay, but in the piece, I reflect upon more that the weeds in my garden. The reader is allowed to enter a place in my heart. That writing piece is Here


I have an entire gardening blog. Cottage Garden Living, separate from this one, and I write about gardening quite often Here. Sometimes, the articles at Cottage Garden Living are nothing more than garden tips. Sometimes, they are creative nonfiction. I transfer some of the creative nonfiction from that blog to this one, which is a Juxtaposition of many aspects of myself. Not long ago, I wrote an article about distinguishing weeds from flowers. If I had done nothing more than show you how to identify and classify the weeds, that would have been an essay. But I go on and reflect upon a more global thought:

“A Weed Is but an Unloved Flower” – Ella Wheeler Wilcox

The following sentence is part of that piece, “When appraising nature, I am perplexed by the question, ‘Who decided that some plants were weeds and that some should be classified as flowers?’ See that piece Here


My Nature Book is another of my blogs Here, and it is nothing more than tutorials. There is NO creative nonfiction on that site. In fact, I only posted on that site for a short while. It was something that I put together to help my students create a nature journal. Here is an interesting point: As of this morning, that abandoned blog site had been visited 33,439 times, but I have very few followers on that site. People use that site like a gas station. They pull in and fill up their tanks with one bit of info or another, and they drive away again. Again, although I only posted on that site a few times, it has been visited 33,439 times.

For almost three years, I have posted quite frequently to my main blog site, and as of today, that site has been visited 45,572 times. That is not too terribly much more than the amount of visits that My Nature Book has had, and I have definitely posted much, much more on my main blog. But here is the difference: On my main blog, where I post most of my creative nonfiction, I currently have 387 followers. Generally speaking, people do not dart into and out of my blog site, as though it is little more than a gas station. People do not come to my main blog site to fill their tanks. They come here for something else entirely, and they respect my efforts to provide that something more, and they keep coming back.

The same type of distinction can be made between Travel Writing [i.e. writing about places to visit– a manual] and upon travel writing as more of an internal journey. I have two pieces to share to illustrate the latter. On my trip to Guatemala, the very poor people of a region shared with me the wealth of their existences Here

I took a trip to Bushkill Falls in the Mountains of Pennsylvania. Bushkill Falls was my destination, but my journey became the more important part of the trip Here.

In cooking, you might simply write a recipe or you might share something more about eating or the food of your very soul Here.

I could continue indefinitely with these examples, but bottom line, creative nonfiction is a reflective piece told in a creative way, and an essay is just a bunch of organized words or a group of ingredients, or travel directions, or places to eat, or tips for weeding a garden, or events in history, etc., and not much more.

©July 8, 2016




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