Storytelling in Creative Nonfiction

I’ve always valued narrative as a way of thinking on the page. Whether writing fiction or nonfiction, I’ve always embraced story as a useful strategy for discovering what I think and feel and for learning what I’ve come to the page to say, as well as a means for practicing the art of empathy.

It can be easy, though, in these days of doubtful facts, deliberate deceit, and dubious truth, to worry about the value of storytelling. Our politicians threaten narrative; our fractured world can do the same. In creative nonfiction, a genre that relies on factual truth, we may be tempted to question the value of a story well-told. The lyric impulse has invited forms that rely on fragmentation, association, contemplation, juxtaposition, wordplay. Practitioners explode narrative. Many find story to be suspect, oft times even tyrannical, because it forces a logic and a causality that our contemporary world often lacks.

The inclination to subvert narrative, or to eliminate it altogether, has led to some marvelous works of nonfiction while inviting us all to think more deeply about the place of story and its accompanying facts and causal connections, not only in our work, but in our contemporary world at large. In this age where so much threatens the efficacy of narrative, we can lose faith in the art of storytelling. I can’t help but wonder, though, how our perception might change if we realize that the threat isn’t merely to the storytelling itself, but also to we, the tellers. We have to be aware of those who would wish to take from us our individual, particular stories, and to put into place a more controlled account that tries to eliminate our right to think and feel for ourselves.“We tell ourselves stories in order to live,” Joan Didion says. Indeed, stories are our way of protecting the fact that individual lives matter.

In the creative nonfiction workshops I teach, I see a moving away in recent years from narrative essays toward more lyric forms. It’s a move that excites me as much as it saddens me. As much as I applaud the beauty and grace and the alternative pathway to truth the lyric form gives us, I hope the art of storytelling isn’t reaching its end because I believe in the necessity of narrative to a life well-lived and a world well-considered. I believe that story invites us to interrogate, to think, to feel, to shape, to acknowledge our common imperfections and our mutual desires and fears. Story reminds us of our shared humanity. “Stories have to be told,” novelist Sue Monk Kidd, says, “or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”

I dare say there are those today who would want us to forget the self and an individual’s right to assert a place in the world. We desperately need storytellers these days because, as film director, Jean-Luc Godard, says, “Sometimes reality is too complex. Stories give it form.” Our reality these days is more complex than perhaps ever before in our history, and the future of independent thought ultimately depends upon our retaining our right to shape the chaos of that reality. We have to keep telling our stories. That telling may be the only thing that can save us.  I choose to hold to the claim of Margaret Atwood: “You’re never going to kill storytelling because it’s built into the human plan. We come with it.”



  1. Billy Kilgore on March 10, 2020 at 1:42 pm

    Lee, thanks for this post. I often wonder about the different impulses that cause people to write. I don’t identify with the lyric impulse. When I sense a writer is inspired by the lyrical I’m very curious to know how their process works. It seems mysterious for a writer like myself that is drawn to narrative. While I don’t think it is helpful to place writers in rigid categories, I do find it interesting to consider to what degree writers are programmed to start with a particular impulse. Are we wired to behave in these two distinct ways? I hope I’m making sense because I find the divide between narrative and lyrical writers to be confusing. If only I could spend a day in the head of a writer who strongly identifies with the lyrical impulse. As for me, I want to put words on the page to express what I’m thinking/feeling and then shape them into creative nonfiction.

    • Lee Martin on March 11, 2020 at 11:03 am

      Thanks for these thoughts, Billy! I find that the narrative impulse moves someone because they want to tell a story. The lyric impulse, though, comes from a desire to work with image and metaphor and association.

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