What is nonfiction?
Non-fiction is the genre of literature that deals with writing based on fact. That includes reportage (journalistic articles), memoir (stories from one’s own life), biography (stories about someone else’s life), self-help and, historical pieces. Good non-fiction writing, whatever type, tells a story rooted in truth (a complicated idea itself) but does so in a way that keeps the reader engaged.
Consider this opening to My Dungeon Shook by James Baldwin
I have begun this letter five times and torn it up five times. I keep seeing your face, which is also the face of your father and my brother. Like him, you are tough, dark, vulnerable, moody — with a very definite tendency to sound truculent because you want no one to think you are soft. You may be like your grandfather in this, I don’t know, but certainly both you and your father resemble him very much physically. Well, he is dead, he never saw you, and he had a terrible life: he was defeated long before he died because, at the bottom of his heart, he really believed what white people said about him. This is one of the reasons he became so holy.”
What makes this introduction so compelling isn’t necessarily the content. Baldwin is simply telling his nephew what he sees as the similarities between three generations of men in their family. What makes that captivating to read is how it is told. It’s the very vivid physical description of the nephew and the equally striking depiction of the grandfather’s religiousness. This introduction prepares us for a well-written essay on race, religion, and family in the time Baldwin is writing. To read the rest of My Dungeon Shook, visit the CUNY website.
For more samples of the more personal/memoir type of non-fiction take a look at Fugee by Hawa Jande Golakai which shows that not all narrative needs to flow as one continuous narrative for it to tell a unified story. And for an essay that is daring in tone and style as well, take a look at Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. For a more journalistic approach, please take a look at Panashe Chigumadzi’s piece Murimi Munhu: The pain and patriarchy of Zimbabwe’s land reform.*
This is by no means an exhaustive list of great non-fiction essays. Depending on what type of non-fiction essay you hope to write, look up different writers who have distinguished themselves in that type of writing; as always, the best way to learn how to be a better writer is to be a better reader. So read wide. We look forward to reading your stories.
* Our intention in sharing these examples is not to say you should copy them but look to them for inspiration, and for an idea of what the genre entails. See how they touch on different topics, are structured in different ways and are directed towards different audiences. So don’t be afraid to write a story a history of the women in your family, or a portrait of you great-grandfather, or to even write about yourself. There are no limitations to what you can do, other than the ones you define for yourself.