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In This Country We Call Creative Nonfiction

Pat MacEnultyPat MacEnulty is the author of four novels, a short-story collection, and a memoir. Her most recent book, Wait Until Tomorrow: A Daughter’s Memoir, was nominated for the 2012 SIBA Nonfiction Book Award. She will lead the Creative Nonfiction workshop at the 2012 Squire Summer Writing Residency at Queens University of Charlotte, July 19-22. She was kind enough to the time to share some of her thoughts on why we write, and the courage it takes to write Creative Nonfiction.

Life is fascinating: our lives, other people’s lives. Every day a new story unfolds.

Tonight I took my daughter out for dinner to celebrate her 22nd birthday. Her birthday was actually a few days ago, but she wasn’t home then. She was in Chapel Hill with her friends. Her boyfriend took her to a marvelous dinner that night. They ate strawberry vinaigrette tiramisu. But tonight she was home with me. Her two childhood friends from next door and their mother joined us. We went to a Mexican restaurant and stuffed ourselves on fresh guacamole so we had no appetite when our dinners arrived. Nothing spectacular happened, and yet the night was full of potential stories: three college girls who had been childhood friends trying to figure out what to do with their lives now that they are grown, two middle-aged moms trying to figure what to do with their lives.

It’s probably this ability to see the potential stories in so many different situations that drives us to write about real life. The texture seduces us—the smells, the tastes, the tiramisu on the tongue. We gaze upon the richness of life, revel in the onslaught of sensory data, and lose ourselves in those stories of passion, grief, love, and insanity that are all around us.

We draw little boundaries in the world of literature: fiction, poetry, creative nonfiction, drama, journalism. Yet they all serve the same need, the need to connect with other people, to understand how we are the same, how we are different. So often the same guidelines apply—show, don’t tell; find your voice; select the perfect image. Creative nonfiction, of course, must play by certain rules that the other genres are not bound by: we must strive to be truthful, even if that truth is subjective. This creates special challenges. Why choose to write about this day and not that day? Should I include this anecdote? Who will be hurt if I publish this?

It takes guts to write creative nonfiction, whether memoir, personal essay, biography, or the imbedded report. It’s inherently personal, even if it’s about the lives of a group of fighter pilots who have the right stuff. When I wrote my memoir about taking care of my elderly mother, I knew I would be writing about things that were not pretty or pleasant. I would be writing about things one didn’t discuss—sickness, grief, and lots of bodily functions. I was fortunate that my mother, a very private person, gave me her blessing to tell the truth as we had lived it. I worried that friends of hers who read the book would disapprove. And yet I had to risk it. That’s what gives memoir and all forms of creative nonfiction their power. You tell the truth, and you tell it as artfully as possible.

Creative writing is like alchemy. It has the ability to transform. It transforms the material itself, it transforms the writer, and it transforms the reader. Ultimately, it may even transform the world in some way. In order to achieve this transformation, we must be willing to take risks. We must work with the material that life hands us. We must hammer away at it like a goldsmith creating a delicate filigree out of what was once a yellow rock. The reward is that we will understand the human condition to a greater degree than we ever thought possible. The reward is that we will come to know ourselves.

The author of six books, Pat MacEnulty has also published a children’s play, poetry, essays, reviews, and interviews. The recipient of an Individual Artist Grant from the State of Florida, and a Regional Artist Grant from the State of North Carolina, Pat facilitates workshops at conferences around the country. She is an Associate Professor of English at Johnson & Wales University in Charlotte, where she teaches creative writing, journalism, and film.

For more information on the 2012 Squire Summer Writing Residency, or to register, visit