Margo Dill: Author offers lessons on creative nonfiction

Margo Dill: Author offers lessons on creative nonfiction

Lee Gutkind is the founder and editor of the magazine Creative Nonfiction. In his latest book, "You Can't Make This Stuff Up," Gutkind introduces readers to the genre, provides real-life examples and explains the difference between fiction, straight nonfiction and creative nonfiction.

He also instructs people on how to write creative nonfiction if they are interested in pursuing it.

Gutkind's work is a comprehensive guide on the genre, including discussions on the ethics surrounding it and exercises to guide the reader to become a published writer.

The book is divided into two parts: "What is Creative Nonfiction?" and "The Writing and Revising and Writing and Revising Part: How to Do it."

Creative nonfiction is a nonfiction story that is told with fictional elements: dialogue, setting details, scenes, characterization (of real people), and so on.

Part 1 of this book would be interesting to anyone who loves to read and discuss what they read. The author writes about some of the most infamous cases of writers who claimed to write a true, nonfiction account of their lives when in all actuality, it was false — sometimes the entire story made up.

The account most people know about is James Frey and his book, "A Million Little Pieces," as Oprah Winfrey chose it as one of her book club selections. Because of her recommendation, 2 million copies of his book sold, and Frey became a household name. Then it was discovered that most of his story was completely untrue.

This is one of the extreme examples that Gutkind discusses in his book during the ethics section. But actually more writers (more than I realized) fudge the truth just a bit. Still, they claim that they write creative nonfiction.

It's a crucial decision for writers to make if they are going to tackle the genre: Are they going to tell the truth without embellishments? How do you handle dialogue if you aren't present to record it? What about creating transitions to make the story flow more smoothly? How do you reveal inner emotions of the people involved in the story? Gutkind touches on these points and more.

In Part 2, he dissects several essays and books, including entire excerpts, to exemplify how to write creative nonfiction, which should mostly consist of scenes.

Excerpts of Rebeccah Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks" and Gay Talese's "Frank Sinatra Has a Cold" are two fascinating examples of work that Gutkind chose as models of expertise.

Part 2 reads a little more like a textbook than Part 1; anyone interested in tackling this type of essay, article or book will have an excellent foundation after reading this section.

Besides the narrative, discussion and instruction, the author includes 18 writing exercises from selecting events to write about in your own life to rewriting essays included in the book. Gutkind states in the introduction that readers who choose to do all the exercises to the best of their ability and perhaps read the book more than once: "By the time you finish this book ... you will have written an immersion and a memoir."

This makes the book invaluable as a learning tool.

Gutkind has written nearly 30 books: some of them instruction on writing, many of them creative nonfiction. An expert who is passionate about the genre obviously wrote the pages of this book, his love for teaching and the written word shine in every chapter.

He currently works as a distinguished writer-in-residence at Arizona State University and as a professor in the Hugh Downs School of Human Communication. To find out more about him, readers can visit his website at:

As a final word, Gutkind states, "I want you to remember what we creative nonfiction writers are all about: our mission, our life, our literature, and our passion." All four of these are thoroughly explored in "You Can't Make This Stuff Up," and it's an excellent choice for anyone wanting to start this mission.

Margo L. Dill is the author of "Finding My Place: One Girl's Strength at Vicksburg," a middle-grade historical fiction novel. She often reviews books as a columnist for "WOW! Women On Writing" e-zine and her blog, "Margo Dill's Read These Books and Use Them" ( She lives in St. Louis with her family.