Creative Nonfiction: Sensory Self-Revelation 

August 18, 2022 § 22 Comments

By Mary Ann McSweeny

Recently I came across this description for creative nonfiction: “sensual journalism.” It was one of those double-take moments. I was good with the “sensual” part of the phrase—as in the use of sensory details to create evocative scenes. The heady, cinnamon scent of a robust bed of petunias. The first sip of strong Ceylon tea just poured from the gently steaming round brown teapot. The blood on your iPhone after a dog lunges, breaks its chain, and hurtles fifty yards to sink its fangs into your upper arm. 

But… journalism?

Literary journalism has been considered a form of creative nonfiction. Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief is an example. For a general, complete description for creative nonfiction, though, I think one that includes “journalism” comes up short.

Journalism is the who, what, where, when, why, and how of an event. It deals with facts. Creative nonfiction is also truth, but it’s not a recital of facts or events. Creative nonfiction comes from the heart of compassionate awareness of the writer’s own truth. For example, you can verify by the police report that a dog—a black boxer mix—bit me back in August 2013 when I was preparing for my mother’s funeral. However, there is no evidence that the dog bite was a farewell message from my mother, although that was my assumption based on my relationship with her. With creative nonfiction, you have to trust the writer is using the written word to reveal truth personal to that writer at that time.

A creative nonfiction piece may be jump-started by the who, what, where, when, why, and how of an event, but the purpose of the written work that subsequently emerges is to go beyond the facts to find the human essence within the experience. With the final draft, the writer may even abandon the stimulus that first provoked the essay’s journey. 

A workshop teacher offered this writing prompt: “Describe your childhood bedroom.” As I listed details of the room, I remembered the heating register in the floor. It was about a foot square, black metal, positioned directly over the kitchen to draw the heat of the stove before the central heating had been installed. As a four-year-old, I liked to squat next to the register and push its rectangular knob back and forth to open and shut the louvers. When the register’s louvers were open, I enjoyed peeking through at the scrap of the kitchen they revealed. But I hated the register when my parents fought in the kitchen. They saved their most acrimonious battles for after we kids were tucked in for the night. The sound of their anger—shrill and hysterical, cold and cutting—carried through the register whether it was open or closed. Their bitter arguments broke open my sleep and dreams, and turned me into someone with a lifelong dread of falling asleep. The memories of the metal register, the feelings it evoked, and the family dynamic would become the substance of my essay, not the report of the contents of my childhood bedroom.

In my personal contemplative way, I consider creative nonfiction to be my effort to reveal a bit of who I am through the written word. My outer life is rather ordinary and easily reportable. Feed the cat, clean the cat box, pet the cat, deadhead the petunias, bake cookies for teatime. Anyone could witness one of my typical days, write a piece about what the writer noticed, and throw in a few scenes to tickle the senses. The cat’s whiskers quivering in time with her purr. The stickiness of shriveled petunia blossoms. Hot tea melting chocolate chips sweetly against the tongue.

My inner self, on the other hand, can’t be observed or verified or revealed except by me. This interior existence often descends into a spiritually suffocating slot canyon whose sheer walls offer only elusive memories as handholds. The climb back to hope is an inelegant process where I sweat out poisons absorbed from the family disease of alcoholism and its attendant aggressions, inconsistencies, depression, and isolation. How these poisons affected, and still affect, me is a part of my inner truth as I understand and decide to reveal it today. My sense of truth will no doubt change as I grow in compassionate awareness of myself, those I grew up with, the nature of suffering, and the courage it takes anyone to be human.

“Infinite becoming” is how Richard Rohr describes the human journey. Facts may frame this odyssey, but they are not the truth that beckons me to find my way from what I have been to what I am becoming. To write this “becoming” with audible, touchable, sniffable, tastable, viewable details and scenes that allow others to be right there on the pilgrimage with me is the power of sensory self-revelation that, for me, describes creative nonfiction. 

__

Mary Ann McSweeny’s work has appeared in a variety of online and print journals, including DoveTales, The MacGuffin, Months to Years, So It Goes, The Baltimore Review, and Highlights for Children. She is the co-author of a series of meditation books published by Liguori Publications.

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§ 22 Responses to Creative Nonfiction: Sensory Self-Revelation 

  • […] Creative Nonfiction: Sensory Self-Revelation  […]

  • I respectfully disagree with one aspect of this essay. I am flummoxed by the recent move toward making “journalism” a dirty word in creative nonfiction. Perhaps that is not this author’s goal at all, but since I used to teach creative nonfiction, I know that this label can cover writing that is deeply personal and located entirely within the writer’s perspective as well as writing where the “I” is barely present.

    Straight forward journalism is reporting the news without (generally) hampering it with personal perspective or observation. Creative nonfiction is another animal, but I would say “sensory journalism” is a better definition than many I have read.

    What is happening to our sense of reality that we seem unable to distinguish fact from fantasy, from our experience of reality to what we wish or fear we knew? [pause. consider our recent political climate]

    Further, what has happened when nonfiction of any kind is allowed to include information the author knows is not true? [Again, I doubt this author is proposing “truthiness” as a strategy.] We can be mistaken, we can concede that we do not remember exactly what happened and then recount our best guess as guess, and we can reconstruct based on evidence. That’s fair enough. But I was recently asked if saying something similar to, but not fact was okay because a punch is similar to a slap? If we know it was a slap, call it what it was.

    When we have facts, we shouldn’t muddy them. If we’re unsure, we should admit that even if pretending otherwise “makes a better story.” When we tell a story or details that we know are inaccurate as fact, that’s not “creative” but a lie.

    Again, I intend no disrespect to this author, who writes beautifully.

    • Mary Ann says:

      “When we have facts, we shouldn’t muddy them. If we’re unsure, we should admit that even if pretending otherwise “makes a better story.”” – absolutely agree. Nicely stated. Truth for me, though, is much more than a report of facts.

    • Anne van Etten says:

      Thank you Jan for your argument for factual truth in creative nonfiction. The reader expects and deserves truth as facts, not embellishments that may make a “better story” but that are lies. A teacher in an advanced juried memoir class once encouraged me to include an episode that would have worked great in a novel, but that was factually and especially emotionally untrue. Leave out the false and hazy stuff.

  • Jnana Hodson says:

    Creative nonfiction has always been a troubling word/concept for this journalist who also blogs and writes novels. “Sensual journalism,” though, opens fresh opportunities.
    Inserting the writer into the story, sometimes seen as a defining aspect of CNF, may be the defining line. Does that make a newspaper columnist a practitioner of creative nonfiction?
    You do have me reconsidering the classification of my newest book, a history of New England’s third-oldest settlement, thanks to the tone I would up pursuing.

    • Mary Ann says:

      Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Jnana. For me, the writer of a creative nonfiction piece is not necessarily the narrator of the piece. The narrator is limited by the knowledge/experience/events of the moment, whereas the writer has a broader vision, more knowledge and experience of a whole, and, I hope, more compassion.
      A journalist, from my understanding, does not attempt to interpret facts, whereas the writer of a creative nonfiction piece, again from my understanding, is looking at facts and events in the hope of interpreting them in light of the writer’s inner truth and by way of the narrator’s journey.
      A newspaper columnist is often writing an opinion piece, which is not necessarily creative nonfiction. And although my essay here is essentially an opinion piece, I’m not sure it would work as a newspaper column.
      “Creative nonfiction” is indeed a challenging term!

  • nagneberg48 says:

    Your writing feels like spiritual practice to me–no matter what it is called. Thanks for this evocative piece.

    • Mary Ann says:

      “Spiritual practice” – what a beautiful description for the writing process, Nancy. A time with the divine. Thank you.

  • suzanne henley says:

    One of the more exciting explorations of “creative nonfiction” I’ve come across. Love that her “definition” is itself a slice—a vivid, packed pizza slice—of revelatory narrative that makes the reader turn inward. Makes the hair on my arm quiver in the air conditioning. Slam dunk.

  • “Creative nonfiction is also truth, but it’s not a recital of facts or events. Creative nonfiction comes from the heart of compassionate awareness of the writer’s own truth.” I understand that readers and writers might be highly sensitive to the place of truth and facts and events in creative nonfiction. But the examples you provide–the dog bite, the heat register–illustrate how your truth goes beyond the simple facts of the dog bite or a straightforward description of your childhood bedroom. You present the reader with the facts and events and then share the truth of what those facts and events mean to you.

    I don’t see in your essay where you advocate for embellishment or lying in creative nonfiction. Maybe I’m being overly sensitive. What is the truth of my own childhood memories? If I was limited solely to facts and events, no matter how detailed, the essence of my childhood, how I experienced it, would be lost.

    • Mary Ann says:

      Marie, your comment has me thinking: “the essence” of our experience is what leads to a continued self-discovery that facts alone are unable to reveal.

    • Marie, I absolutely agree, but you have been reading this blog right along and you must be aware that some people advocate for invention when it “makes the story better.” That’s not what you are talking about, and it’s not what I’m talking about either. I don’t mean leaving unexpressed our responses, impressions, guesses, and reflection, or any of that. That is quite appropriate.

      However, I was literally asked if a writer who slapped could call that a punch? No, if you know it’s a slap, call it what it is. Right? Why is anyone writing nonfiction of any description even asking such a question?

      • Jan, I don’t read this blog as often as I’d like, and so I’ve likely missed those posts advocating for invention.

        As for slap vs punch, there are plenty of “bad” writers out there, but before I go casting judgment, I’d want to know the context of the question. Yes, indeed, why are they asking? Why would they consider changing punch to slap if a slap is what occurred? I’d want to ask the writer a lot of questions to discover if they either honestly don’t understand the difference between the two actions or if they actually want to embellish the story. If they don’t understand the difference, educate them. If they want to embellish, call them out on it.

        What I was responding to in Mary Ann’s essay was my own difficulty in writing creative nonfiction, specifically anything to do with my early life. I have a very poor memory. When reviewing a short story I had written, a writing professor once asked me to add more detail to the building where one of the main characters was often institutionalized. I admitted that I didn’t remember it well. He was perplexed at my response because he was talking about my short story, but I was talking about my father and the place he spent a lot of my childhood. Whenever I try to write creatively and truthfully about my early life, I often resort to fiction, which is what I had done in that short story. I will envy writers like Mary Ann who can recall the heat register from her childhood and tie it to her dread of falling asleep. Such memories and connections, for me, are too flimsy and vague.

      • Marie, I am sorry to have given offense. That was certainly not my intention.

      • Jan, for some reason my reply to your last comment doesn’t show up where I wanted it to, so I don’t know if you saw it. I just wanted to say that I truly wasn’t offended by you. I’m sorry you got that impression. Rather, this has been an interesting and stimulating discussion.

  • I think alcohol and passion (not always good) might run in the veins of the Irish.

  • I wasn’t offended, and I’m sorry I gave you the impression that I was. I don’t do very well when writing on my iPad 😉

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