Literary nonfiction, also called creative nonfiction, is a type of writing where one uses literary techniques to depict real life events. Basically, you’re writing something that really happened in the same way you would write a story.
If I am asked to state one writing exercise that has helped me the most in developing my writing, specifically narrative writing, ‘literary nonfiction’ would probably be my pick. While I had always had a knack for writing essays or articles as a kid, my teachers and dear mother were always advising me to stay away from anything fiction — an advice I have never listened to.
Stories are dear to me. The worlds and lives of the imaginary have been my companion even before I could read. As a child, I used to stay up late in bed, reading under my blankets past my bedtime. Like most young bookworms, one of my biggest dreams back then was to become a novelist and produce my own work of fiction someday. While my own classmates enjoyed reading my little story snippets, I did not get the recognition of being a writing prodigy from those whose opinions I value. It did frustrate me but I wasn’t about to simply turn back and give up.
With determination bordering on stubbornness, I continued to work on my stories, though never finishing any long form project of my own. When I had some time to spare, you might find me hidden behind doors or locked inside my room, just scribbling a few paragraphs down. Most of them are too short to be even considered a decent short story and reading back now, almost all of them were terrible literary work.
My poor mother tried to teach me how to write descriptive writing. She would tell me again and again the story of how her own English high school teacher, had asked her students to describe an ocean and the only adjective they could think of was ‘blue’. My mother then continued by explaining how vividly her teacher had described the ocean. Somehow, the lessons did not reach me as my idea of description only extended to the most basic of forms and I colour in the rest with pure imagination.
I had an overactive imagination as a child (I probably still do), and before I could dissect my own emotions and experience in depth, I never needed an abundance of words to truly experience something. Whatever the story doesn’t expressly say, I fill in with my own imagination and ideas.
It also did not help that I was a bit of a dreamy child, prone to daydreaming when an idea strikes and detaching myself from the real world around me. And whenever I look back to a memory of an event, I rarely have crystal clear images of what happened. Rather, I remember the ambience and my own feelings and thoughts as the events unfold; things that most books for children do not express in detail.
My first introduction to writing truths with literary techniques was through Awang Goneng’s book ‘Growing Up in Trengganu’. Having been trained by my mother in public speaking and the importance of using emphatic intonation, I was forced to really inspect the words I was repeating again and again to express them as authentically as possible. My favourite chapter was ‘Nasi On The Apor’ with its life-like imagery that did not simply recreate the sentiments of the moment, but awakened all of my senses — something quite new to me. Despite having to spend so much time repeating the same words, it became a joy instead of a chore to revisit Mak Som as her fingers danced among the many ingredients that constitutes a ‘nasi dagang’ with the fragrant steam curling around her.
The book itself was a collection of sights and memories from an age long gone, the era of my parents’ childhood back in their homestate ‘Trengganu’. Most of the passages would fit descriptive writing instead of a narrative one but now I understood the lesson my mother tried to teach. And being a story lover by heart, it did not take me long to take Little Women’s Jo’s advice to heart: “Write about what you know” — and what do I know more than the tales that of my own life?
So I began writing journal entries with a newbie’s idea of a literary flair but something interesting began to happen without me noticing. Being a dreamy, sentimental young teenager means that I had more than enough emotions bubbling within me especially in these situations I thought worthy enough to be forever locked in ink.
Instead of having to create unlikely scenarios and odd afterthoughts to add drama to a story that has no direction, I know deep within why the story matters to me. I know the exact direction towards which I wish to lead my readers and the message I wish to embed within the tale because they are the reason why the event matters so much to me.
I unconsciously began to hone the ability to pick the parts that serve the larger narrative and that had improved my stories tenfold. It may still appear and feel like a story written like a naïve kid, but it’s a kid who writes to make a statement instead of one who doesn’t really know why she’s saying anything.
So if you have a problem with creating appropriate dramatic tension in your writing despite having lots of potential within, try looking back into a recent but particularly poignant moment of your life and see what you could come up with. Don’t try to make it the best work ever written but a photograph in words that captures all of your dizzying highs and lows. Be open, be honest and be authentic.
It’s a long process that requires repetition as all exercises do but you’ll may be surprised at the words you pen down when you embark on your own journey into literary nonfiction.