SWLF writing competition 2023 (creative non-fiction category)
001 CNF A Blue Wall Runs Beneath the Ocean
002 CNF Pandora was framed
016 CNF Snapshot
023 CNF Contagious Day Ever copy
024 CNF Deer In The Forest
039 CNF The Headbanber
052 CNF Blasting Downthe IDontWantToBeHere
058 CNF The Sweet Taste Of Home And Of Defeat
060 CNF Playing House
071 CNF Under_Pye_Sand
I was happy to agree to judge a creative non-fiction competition, but when I came to read the entries, I realised I should, perhaps, have specified what I think that category encompasses. The entries were very varied and it's obvious that different people have quite different understandings of the genre.
So I've spent some time thinking about what matters to me and also about what touched me most among the pieces submitted. I hope the following helps to explain my final selections.
I think we must all agree that creative non-fiction must be a subset of non-fiction. So it needs to be grounded in fact. But it needs to be something more than just plain, factually accurate, non-fiction. Non-fiction can be starkly informative, objective and impersonal, but creative non-fiction needs something extra if it is to be something more than technical reference. (Which has its place, but isn't known for creativity.)
So creative non-fiction has to have an added spin on it, an added depth, some creativity in the interpretation of the facts, or in the presentation and ordering of information.
This creative element could be as simple as the juxtaposition of different topics to bring out a new perspective. It could be personal insight or opinion, or a pertinent anecdote that illuminates and adds perspective to the subject matter. It could be the imaginative and inventive filling in of the gaps between known facts (although there will always be some doubt as to the borderlands of the genre, and there is much debate about just how much can be created, invented or modified before the work crosses the limits and becomes a work of fiction.)
This all ties in with American writer Lee Gutkind’s description of creative non-fiction as: ”true stories [...] enriched by relevant thoughtful ideas, personal insight, and intimacies about life and the world we live in.”
Back to the SWLF competition entries: the strongest of these were written in the first person. While I don’t think this is a sine qua non for creative non-fiction, it certainly helps when there is something of the author in the writing - a subjectivity, a spark of personal investment or interest, an element of involvement. It’s definitely possible to imbue third-person writing with such a spark, but for most of us it’s probably easier to do when we’re writing about something that directly concerns us.
This spark is what makes the writing come alive and what makes it engaging. It’s what makes the reader respond emotionally. And this is what makes a competition entry be selected for the initial “possibles” pile and move towards becoming a potential winner.
This personal element means that anecdote, nature writing, travel stories and memoir are ideal candidates for creative non-fiction.
In the same way that Wordsworth believed that poetry ”takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity”, I feel these types of writing often work better when there has been an opportunity for the writer to separate themselves from the facts and when they have had space and time to gain perspective. This separation also provides a space in which to gather comparable or contrasting experiences that can be put alongside to illuminate and reveal hidden truths or patterns.
As for style, personally, I prefer writing that isn’t ornate: I like description, but, while it’s important to use the correct lexis for the subject matter, the piece doesn’t need to be written in "five-dollar words". In the same way, the incident or the setting described doesn’t need to be unexpected, unique or exceptional. Our personal authorial perspective and our interpretation of an everyday occurrence can be the creative key that adds the spark of life to the writing.
Yes, we can write about murder, about tragedy, about unique one-of-a-kind experiences, but these things already have a value that sets them apart and they are less in need of an author's creative brush. If you single-handedly stopped a rogue elephant from trampling a NICU ward of premature babies, the facts probably make for a good story however it's told. There may not be a whole lot more that you can add to make it better and, in the worst case, frills of creativity and imagination may actually devalue the facts.
I think, then, that there can be a lot more power in shining a light on everyday situations and images, things that could happen to anybody. By seeing them from a distance and in the light of our own personal experience, we can add depth and value and can reveal bigger truths.
I write in many genres, but at heart, I am a poet. Seeing the macrocosm in the microcosm, the big picture in the everyday detail, is a constant theme in my own writing. And I come back time and again to the subject matter of nature, place and landscape, and how these reflect or shape our personal values and philosophy.
When what is being judged is creative, I think that personal preference will always play a part in a judge's selection. That means that a different judge would almost certainly have made a different selection.
The two runners-up are very different pieces:
A blue wall runs beneath the ocean is the kind of BIG experience that I said wasn’t necessary for creative non-fiction. But it balances the grand theme with being very personal. The piece is well crafted, well paced and thought-provoking. And it definitely demands an emotional reaction from the reader.
Snapshot. Although I’ve talked about the importance of provoking an emotional reaction in the reader, I love the sheer deadpan banality of this piece. The narrative present helps create a snapshot of a non-event that could happen to anyone, anywhere and on any day. There’s no pretension to it. Just a bit of bewilderment about the modern world. And I can definitely relate to that :-)
And finally, the winner:
Under Pye Sand. Although no sailor myself, I have always found that the language of water and of boats has the power to conjure emotion. So, too, the language of landscape and weather. In this piece of writing, these powerful word sets are accompanied by the careful use of place names to create an immersive, almost hypnotic atmosphere while anchoring the piece firmly in reality. The poet in me can taste the words as I read: the language is rich and yet there is still a certain leanness to the piece: like the laconic narrator and their father, it says enough and no more. (Note that while the two commended pieces used almost every word of the 800 limit, this comes in at only 500.) The final insight connects childhood memories to adult experience and on to a present day personal philosophy that suggests we are all a sum of our experiences and can never escape the past. For me, it does what creative non-fiction should do, and it does it well.
I'd like to thank everyone who submitted a piece for the competition. It's been a pleasure to read them.
Gwyneth Box August 2023