Imagism was a movement in early 20th-century Anglo-American poetry that favored precision of imagery and clear, sharp language.
Imagism has been described as the most influential movement in English poetry since the activity of the Pre-Raphaelites. As a poetic style it gave Modernism its start in the early 20th century, and is considered to be the first organized Modernist literary movement in the English language. Imagism is sometimes viewed as 'a succession of creative moments' rather than any continuous or sustained period of development.René Taupin remarked that 'It is more accurate to consider Imagism not as a doctrine, nor even as a poetic school, but as the association of a few poets who were for a certain time in agreement on a small number of important principles'.
The Imagists rejected the sentiment and discursiveness typical of much Romantic and Victorian poetry, in contrast to their contemporaries, the Georgian poets, who were generally content to work within that tradition. Imagism called for a return to what were seen as more Classical values, such as directness of presentation and economy of language, as well as a willingness to experiment with non-traditional verse forms. Imagists use free verse.
Imagist publications appearing between 1914 and 1917 featured works by many of the most prominent modernist figures in poetry and other fields. The Imagist group was centered in London, with members from Great Britain, Ireland and the United States. Somewhat unusually for the time, a number of women writers were major Imagist figures.
A characteristic feature of Imagism is its attempt to isolate a single image to reveal its essence. This feature mirrors contemporary developments in avant-garde art, especially Cubism. Although Imagism isolates objects through the use of what Ezra Pound called "luminous details", Pound's Ideogrammic Method of juxtaposing concrete instances to express an abstraction is similar to Cubism's manner of synthesizing multiple perspectives into a single image.
Well-known poets of the Edwardian era of the 1890s, such as Alfred Austin, Stephen Phillips, and William Watson, had been working very much in the shadow of Tennyson, producing weak imitations of the poetry of the Victorian era. They continued to work in this vein into the early years of the 20th century. As the new century opened, Austin was still the serving British Poet Laureate, a post he held up to 1913. In the century's first decade, poetry still had a large audience; volumes of verse published in that time included Thomas Hardy's The Dynasts, Christina Rossetti's posthumous Poetical Works, Ernest Dowson's Poems, George Meredith's Last Poems, Robert Service'sBallads of a Cheechako and John Masefield's Ballads and Poems. Future Nobel Prize winner William Butler Yeats was devoting much of his energy to the Abbey Theatre and writing for the stage, producing relatively little lyric poetry during this period. In 1907, the Nobel Prize for Literature was awarded to Rudyard Kipling.
The origins of Imagism are to be found in two poems, Autumn and A City Sunset by T. E. Hulme. These were published in January 1909 by the Poets' Club in London in a booklet called For Christmas MDCCCCVIII. Hulme was a student of mathematics and philosophy; he had been involved in setting up the club in 1908 and was its first secretary. Around the end of 1908, he presented his paper A Lecture on Modern Poetry at one of the club's meetings. Writing in A. R. Orage's magazine The New Age, the poet and critic F. S. Flint (a champion of free verse and modern French poetry) was highly critical of the club and its publications. From the ensuing debate, Hulme and Flint became close friends. In 1909, Hulme left the Poets' Club and started meeting with Flint and other poets in a new group which Hulme referred to as the "Secession Club"; they met at the Eiffel Tower restaurant in London's Soho to discuss plans to reform contemporary poetry through free verse and the tanka and haiku and the removal of all unnecessary verbiage from poems. The interest in Japanese verse forms can be placed in a context of the late Victorian and Edwardian revival of interest in Chinoiserie and Japonism as witnessed in the 1890s vogue for William Anderson's Japanese prints donated to the British Museum, performances of Noh plays in London, and the success of Gilbert and Sullivan's operetta The Mikado (1885). Direct literary models were available from a number of sources, including F. V. Dickins's 1866 Hyak nin is'shiu, or, Stanzas by a Century of Poets, Being Japanese Lyrical Odes, the first English-language version of the Hyakunin isshu, a 13th-century anthology of 100 waka, the early 20th-century critical writings and poems of Sadakichi Hartmann, and contemporary French-language translations.
The American poet Ezra Pound was introduced to the group in April 1909 and found that their ideas were close to his own. In particular, Pound's studies of Romantic literature had led him to an admiration of the condensed, direct expression that he detected in the writings of Arnaut Daniel, Dante, and Guido Cavalcanti, amongst others. For example, in his 1911–12 series of essays I gather the limbs of Osiris, Pound writes of Daniel's line "pensar de lieis m'es repaus" ("it rests me to think of her") (from the canzoneEn breu brizara'l temps braus): "You cannot get statement simpler than that, or clearer, or less rhetorical". These criteria of directness, clarity and lack of rhetoric were to be amongst the defining qualities of Imagist poetry. Through his friendship with Laurence Binyon, Pound had already developed an interest in Japanese art by examining Nishiki-e prints at the British Museum, and he quickly became absorbed in the study of related Japanese verse forms.
In an article in La France, 1915, the French critic, Remy de Gourmont described the Imagists as descendants of the French Symbolists and in a 1928 letter to the French critic and translator René Taupin, Pound was keen to emphasise another ancestry for Imagism, pointing out that Hulme was indebted to a Symbolist tradition, linking back via William Butler Yeats, Arthur Symons and the Rhymers' Club generation of British poets to Mallarmé. and the Symbolist source was amplified further in Taupin's study published in 1929, in which he concluded however great the divergence of technique and language 'between the image of the Imagist and the 'symbol' of the Symbolists there is a difference only of precision'. In 1915, Pound edited the poetry of another 1890s poet, Lionel Johnson for the publisher Elkin Mathews. In his introduction, he wrote
|“||No one has written purer imagism than [Johnson] has, in the line|
Clear lie the fields, and fade into blue air,
It has a beauty like the Chinese.
Early publications and statements of intent
In 1911, Pound introduced two other poets to the Eiffel Tower group: his former fiancée Hilda Doolittle (who had started signing her work H.D.) and her future husband Richard Aldington. These two were interested in exploring Greek poetic models, especially Sappho, an interest that Pound shared. The compression of expression that they achieved by following the Greek example complemented the proto-Imagist interest in Japanese poetry, and, in 1912, during a meeting with them in the British Museum tea room, Pound told H.D. and Aldington that they were Imagistes and even appended the signature H.D. Imagiste to some poems they were discussing.
When Harriet Monroe started her Poetry magazine in 1911, she had asked Pound to act as foreign editor. In October 1912, he submitted thereto three poems each by H.D. and Aldington under the Imagiste rubric,( published in the November 1912 second issue thereof ) with a note which described Aldington as ' one of the 'Imagistes'. This note, along with the appendix note('The Complete Works of T. S. Hulme') in Pound's book (also published in Autumn 1912) entitled Ripostes are considered to be first appearances of the word Imagiste(later anglicised to 'Imagists') in print.
Aldington's poems, Choricos, To a Greek Marble, and Au Vieux Jardin, were in the November issue of Poetry, and H.D.'s, Hermes of the Ways, Priapus, and Epigram, appeared in the January 1913 issue; Imagism as a movement was launched.Poetry's April issue published what came to be seen as "Imagism's enabling text", the haiku-like poem of Ezra Pound entitled "In a Station of the Metro":
- The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
- Petals on a wet, black bough.
The March 1913 issue of Poetry contained A Few Don'ts by an Imagiste and the essay entitled Imagisme both written by Pound, with the latter being attributed to Flint. The latter contained this succinct statement of the group's position:
- Direct treatment of the "thing", whether subjective or objective.
- To use absolutely no word that does not contribute to the presentation.
- As regarding rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of the metronome.
Pound's note opened with a definition of an image as "that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time". Pound goes on to state,"It is better to present one Image in a lifetime than to produce voluminous works". His list of "don'ts" reinforced his three statements in "Imagism", while warning that they should not be considered as dogma but as the "result of long contemplation". Taken together, these two texts comprised the Imagist programme for a return to what they saw as the best poetic practice of the past. F.S. Flint commented "we have never claimed to have invented the moon. We do not pretend that our ideas are original."
The 1916 preface to Some Imagist Poets comments "Imagism does not merely mean the presentation of pictures. Imagism refers to the manner of presentation, not to the subject."
Determined to promote the work of the Imagists, and particularly of Aldington and H.D., Pound decided to publish an anthology under the title Des Imagistes. It was first published in Alfred Kreymborg's little magazine The Glebe and was later published in 1914 by Alfred and Charles Boni in New York and by Harold Monro at the Poetry Bookshop in London. It became one of the most important and influential English-language collections of modernist verse. Included in the thirty-seven poems were ten poems by Aldington, seven by H.D., and six by Pound. The book also included work by F.S. Flint, Skipwith Cannell, Amy Lowell, William Carlos Williams, James Joyce, Ford Madox Ford, Allen Upward and John Cournos. Max Michelson was also another included in the important 1963 anthology by William Pratt The Imagist Poem Modern Poetry in miniature.
Pound's editorial choices were based on what he saw as the degree of sympathy that these writers displayed with Imagist precepts, rather than active participation in a group as such. Williams, who was based in the United States, had not participated in any of the discussions of the Eiffel Tower group. However, he and Pound had long been corresponding on the question of the renewal of poetry along similar lines. Ford was included at least partly because of his strong influence on Pound, as the younger poet made the transition from his earlier, Pre-Raphaelite-influenced style towards a harder, more modern way of writing. The inclusion of a poem by Joyce, I Hear an Army, which was sent to Pound by W.B. Yeats, took on a wider importance in the history of literary modernism, as the subsequent correspondence between the two led to the serial publication, at Pound's behest, of A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man in The Egoist. Joyce's poem is not written in free verse, but in rhyming quatrains. However, it strongly reflects Pound's interest in poems written to be sung to music, such as those by the troubadours and Guido Cavalcanti. The book met with little popular or critical success, at least partly because it had no introduction or commentary to explain what the poets were attempting to do, and a number of copies were returned to the publisher.
Some Imagist poets
The following year, Pound and Flint fell out over their different interpretations of the history and goals of the group arising from an article on the history of Imagism written by Flint and published in The Egoist in May 1915. Flint was at pains to emphasise the contribution of the Eiffel Tower poets, especially Edward Storer. Pound, who believed that the "Hellenic hardness" that he saw as the distinguishing quality of the poems of H.D. and Aldington was likely to be diluted by the "custard" of Storer, was to play no further direct role in the history of the Imagists. He went on to co-found the Vorticists with his friend, the painter and writer Wyndham Lewis.
Around this time, the American Imagist Amy Lowell moved to London, determined to promote her own work and that of the other Imagist poets. Lowell was a wealthy heiress from Boston whose brother Abbott Lawrence Lowell was President of Harvard University from 1909-1933. She loved Keats and cigars. She was also an enthusiastic champion of literary experiment who was willing to use her money to publish the group. Lowell was determined to change the method of selection from Pound's autocratic editorial attitude to a more democratic manner. This new editorial policy was stated in the Preface to the first anthology to appear under her leadership: "In this new book we have followed a slightly different arrangement to that of our former Anthology. Instead of an arbitrary selection by an editor, each poet has been permitted to represent himself by the work he considers his best, the only stipulation being that it should not yet have appeared in book form." The outcome was a series of Imagist anthologies under the title Some Imagist Poets. The first of these appeared in 1915, planned and assembled mainly by H.D. and Aldington. Two further issues, both edited by Lowell, were published in 1916 and 1917. These three volumes featured most of the original poets, (also including imagist poetry by the American poet John Gould Fletcher), with the exception of Pound, who had tried to persuade her to drop the Imagist name from her publications and who sardonically dubbed this phase of Imagism "Amy-gism".
Lowell persuaded D. H. Lawrence to contribute poems to the 1915 and 1916 volumes, making him the only writer to publish as both a Georgian poet and an Imagist. Marianne Moore also became associated with the group during this period. However, with World War I as a backdrop, the times were not easy for avant-garde literary movements (Aldington, for example, spent much of the war at the front), and the 1917 anthology effectively marked the end of the Imagists as a movement.
Imagists after Imagism
In 1929, Walter Lowenfels jokingly suggested that Aldington should produce a new Imagist anthology. Aldington, by now a successful novelist, took up the suggestion and enlisted the help of Ford and H.D. The result was the Imagist Anthology 1930, edited by Aldington and including all the contributors to the four earlier anthologies with the exception of Lowell, who had died, Cannell, who had disappeared, and Pound, who declined. The appearance of this anthology initiated a critical discussion of the place of the Imagists in the history of 20th-century poetry.
Of the poets who were published in the various Imagist anthologies, Joyce, Lawrence and Aldington are now primarily remembered and read as novelists. Marianne Moore, who was at most a fringe member of the group, carved out a unique poetic style of her own that retained an Imagist concern with compression of language. William Carlos Williams developed his poetic along distinctly American lines with his variable foot and a diction he claimed was taken "from the mouths of Polish mothers". Both Pound and H.D. turned to writing long poems, but retained much of the hard edge to their language as an Imagist legacy. Most of the other members of the group are largely forgotten outside the context of the history of Imagism.
Despite the movement's short life, Imagism would deeply influence the course of modernist poetry in English. Richard Aldington, in his 1941 memoir, writes: "I think the poems of Ezra Pound, D.H., Lawrence, and Ford Madox Ford will continue to be read. And to a considerable extent T. S. Eliot and his followers have carried on their operations from positions won by the Imagists."
On the other hand, Wallace Stevens found shortcomings in the Imagist approach: "Not all objects are equal. The vice of imagism was that it did not recognize this." With its demand for hardness, clarity and precision and its insistence on fidelity to appearances coupled with its rejection of irrelevant subjective emotions Imagism had later effects that are demonstratable in T. S. Eliot's 'Preludes' and 'Morning at the Window' and in D. H. Lawrence's animal and flower pieces. The rejection of conventional verse forms in the nineteen-twenties owed much to the Imagists repudiation of the Georgian Poetry style.
The influence of Imagism can be seen clearly in the work of the Objectivist poets, who came to prominence in the 1930s under the auspices of Pound and Williams. The Objectivists worked mainly in free verse. Clearly linking Objectivism's principles with Imagism's, Louis Zukofsky insisted, in his introduction to the 1931 Objectivist issue of Poetry, on writing "which is the detail, not mirage, of seeing, of thinking with the things as they exist, and of directing them along a line of melody." Zukofsky was a major influence on the Language poets, who carried the Imagist focus on formal concerns to a high level of development. Basil Bunting, another Objectivist poet, was a key figure in the early development of the British Poetry Revival, a loose movement that also absorbed the influence of the San Francisco Renaissance poets.
Imagism influenced a number of poetry circles and movements.With the Imagists Free verse became a discipline and acquired status as a legitimate poetic form. In the 1950s, especially,with the Beat generation, the Black Mountain poets, and others associated with the San Francisco Renaissance. In his seminal 1950 essay Projective Verse, Charles Olson, the theorist of the Black Mountain group, wrote "ONE PERCEPTION MUST IMMEDIATELY AND DIRECTLY LEAD TO A FURTHER PERCEPTION"; his credo derived from and supplemented the Imagists.
Among the Beats, Gary Snyder and Allen Ginsberg in particular were influenced by the Imagist emphasis on Chinese and Japanese poetry. William Carlos Williams was another who had a strong effect on the Beat poets, encouraging poets like Lew Welch and writing an introduction for the book publication of Ginsberg's Howl (1955).
- ^Preface: Hughes, Glenn, Imagism and the Imagist, Stanford University Press, New York 1931
- ^Pratt, William. The Imagist Poem, Modern Poetry in Miniature (Story Line Press, 1963, expanded 2001). ISBN 1-58654-009-2.
- ^T.S. Eliot: "The point de repère, usually and conveniently taken as the starting-point of modern poetry, is the group denominated 'imagists' in London about 1910." Lecture, Washington University, St. Louis, June 6, 1953
- ^Pratt, William. The Imagist Poem, Modern Poetry in Miniature (Story Line Press, 1963, expanded 2001). ISBN 1-58654-009-2.
- ^Taupin, René, L'Influence du symbolism francais sur la poesie Americaine (de 1910 a 1920), Champion, Paris 1929 trans William Pratt and Anne Rich AMS, New York, 1985
- ^Davidson, Michael (1997). Ghostlier demarcations: modern poetry and the material word. University of California Press, pp. 11–13. ISBN 0-520-20739-4
- ^Grant, Joy (1967). Harold Monro and the Poetry Bookshop, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, p. 28.
- ^Brooker, p. 48.
- ^McGuinness, xii.
- ^Blakeney Williams, Louise (2002). Modernism and the Ideology of History: Literature, Politics, and the Past. Cambridge University Press, p. 16. ISBN 0-521-81499-5
- ^Reprinted in: Pound, Ezra (1975). William Cookson, ed. Selected Prose, 1909–1965. New Directions Publishing. p. 43. ISBN 0-8112-0574-6.
- ^Arrowsmith, Rupert Richard. Modernism and the Museum: Asian, African and Pacific Art and the London Avant Garde. Oxford University Press, 2011, pp.103–164. ISBN 978-0-19-959369-9
- ^Video of a Lecture discussing the importance of Japanese culture to the Imagists, London University School of Advanced Study, March 2012.
- ^Preface to Some Imagist Poets , Constable, 1916
- ^Woon-Ping Chin Holaday. "From Ezra Pound to Maxine Hong Kingston: Expressions of Chinese Thought in American Literature". MELUS, Vol. 5, No. 2, Interfaces, Summer, 1978, pp. 15–24.
- ^Taupin, René, L'Influence du symbolism francais sur la poesie Americaine(de 1910 a 1920), Champion, Paris 1929
- ^Taupin, René, L'Influence du symbolism francais sur la poesie Americaine(de 1910 a 1920), Champion, Paris 1929 trans William Pratt and Anne Rich AMS , New York 1985
- ^Ming Xie, Ming Hsieh (1998). Ezra Pound and the Appropriation of Chinese Poetry: Cathay, Translation, and Imagism. Routledge. p. 80. ISBN 0-8153-2623-8.
- ^Ayers, David (2004). Chapter 1, "H.D., Ezra Pound and Imagism", in Modernism: a Short Introduction. Blackwell Publishers. Retrieved on 29 August 2010. ISBN 978-1-4051-0854-6
- ^Monroe, Harriet, 'A Poet's Life' Macmillan, New York 1938
- ^Swift & Co , London ,1912
- ^Monroe, Harriet, A Poet's Life ', Macmillan, New York, 1938
- ^Barbarese, J.T. "Ezra Pound's Imagist Aesthetics: Lustra to Mauberly" in The Columbia History of American Poetry (1993). Columbia University Press, New York. ISBN 1-56731-276-4
- ^"On 'In a Station of the Metro'". Extract from "Genders, Races, and Religious Cultures in Modern American Poetry, 1908–1934". Cambridge University Press, 2001. Retrieved on 29 August 2010.
- ^Elder, Bruce (1998). The Films of Stan Brakhage in the American Tradition of Ezra Pound, Gertrude Stein and Charles Olson. Wilfrid Laurier University Press, pp. 72, 94. ISBN 0-88920-275-3
- ^Pound, "A Retrospect" (1918). Reprinted in Kolocotroni et al., p. 374.
- ^F.S. Flint letter to J.C. Squire 29 Jan 1917
- ^Some Imagist Poets, Constable, 1916
- ^Edgerly Firchow, Peter, Evelyn Scherabon Firchow, and Bernfried Nugel (2002). Reluctant Modernists: Aldous Huxley and Some Contemporaries. Transaction Books, p. 32.
- ^Pratt, William. The Imagist Poem, Modern Poetry in Miniature (Story Line Press, 1963, expanded 2001). ISBN 1-58654-009-2.
- ^Ellmann, Richard (1959). James Joyce. (New York): Oxford University Press, p. 350.
- ^Pondrom, Cyrena; H.D., "Selected Letters from H. D. to F. S. Flint: A Commentary on the Imagist Period". Contemporary Literature, Vol. 10, No. 4, Special Number on H. D.: A Reconsideration, Autumn, 1969. pp. 557-586.
- ^Cowley et al. "Years Work English Studies", 1993. pp. 452-521.
- ^"History of the Presidency".
- ^Preface to Some Imagist Poets (1915). Reprinted in Kolocotroni et al. p. 268.
- ^Hughes, Glenn, Imagism & The Imagists: A Study in Modern Poetry, Stanford University Press, New York, 1931
- ^Lawrence, D. H. "The Letters of D. H. Lawrence". Cambridge University Press, (Republished) 1979. p. 394.
- ^Aldington, Richard; Gates Norman. "Richard Aldington: An Autobiography in Letters". (Katowice): Oficyna Akademii sztuk pięknych w Katowicach, 1984. p. 103.
- ^Bercovitch, Sacvan; Cyrus R. K. Patell (1994). The Cambridge History of American Literature. Cambridge University Press. p. 19. ISBN 0-521-49733-7.
- ^Strand B. G. Imagist-The Genre – An appraisal, 2013, ASIN: B00AYE482S
- ^Enck, John J. (1964). Wallace Stevens: Images and Judgments. Carbondale, IL: Southern Illinois University Press. p. 11.
- ^Introductory Note by Kenneth Allott (ed) The Penguin Book of Contemporary Verse , Penguin Books, Harmondsworth, England 1950
- ^Sloan, De Villo (1987). "The Decline of American Postmodernism". SubStance. University of Wisconsin Press. 16 (3): 29. doi:10.2307/3685195. JSTOR 3685195.
- ^Stanley , Sandra. "Louis Zukofsky and the Transformation of a Modern American Poetics". South Atlantic Review 60.1 (1995): 186-189.
- ^"The Possibility of Poetry: from Migrant magazine to artists' books". The British Library, January 2007. Retrieved on 20 October 2007.
- ^Olson, Charles (1966). Selected Writings. New Directions Publishing. p. 17. ISBN 0-8112-0335-2.
- ^Riddel, Joseph N. (Autumn 1979). "Decentering the Image: The 'Project' of 'American' Poetics?". Boundary 2. Duke University Press. 8 (1): 159–188. doi:10.2307/303146. JSTOR 303146.
- Aldington, Richard. Life For Life's Sake (The Viking Press, 1941). See Chapter IX.
- Blau Duplessis, Rachel. H.D. The Career of that Struggle (The Harvester Press, 1986). ISBN 0-7108-0548-9.
- Brooker, Jewel Spears (1996). Mastery and Escape: T. S. Eliot and the Dialectic of Modernism (University of Massachusetts Press). ISBN 1-55849-040-X.
- Guest, Barbara. Herself Defined: The Poet H.D. and Her World (Collins, 1985). ISBN 0-385-13129-1.
- Jones, Peter (ed.). Imagist Poetry (Penguin, 1972).
- Kenner, Hugh. The Pound Era (Faber and Faber, 1975 edition). ISBN 0-571-10668-4.
- Kolocotroni, Vassiliki; Jane Goldman; Olga Taxidou (1998). Modernism: An Anthology of Sources and Documents. University of Chicago Press. ISBN 0-226-45074-0.
- McGuinness, Patrick (editor), T. E. Hulme: Selected Writings (Fyfield Books, Carcanet Press, 1998). ISBN 1-85754-362-9 (pages xii-xiii).
- Sullivan, J. P. (ed). Ezra Pound (Penguin critical anthologies series, 1970). ISBN 0-14-080033-6.
- Pratt, William. The Imagist Poem, Modern Poetry in Miniature (Story Line Press, 1963, expanded 2001). ISBN 1-58654-009-2.
- Symons, Julian. Makers of the New: The Revolution in Literature, 1912–1939 (Andre Deutsch, 1987). ISBN 0-233-98007-5.
- Pound, Ezra. ABC of Reading (New Directions Publishing Corporation, 1934). ISBN 0-8112-0151-1.
This audio file was created from a revision of the article "Imagism" dated 2010-04-01, and does not reflect subsequent edits to the article. (Audio help)
More spoken articles
- Some Imagist Anthologies at The Modernist Journals Project: Des Imagistes (The Glebe: Feb. 1914), Des Imagistes (New York, 1914), Des Imagistes (London, 1914), Some Imagist Poets (1915), Some Imagist Poets, 1916, Some Imagist Poets, 1917
- The 1915 issue of Some Imagist Poets
- Bibliography of Japan in English-Language Verse
- Video of a Lecture about Imagist poetry and East Asian culture, London University School of Advanced Study
- J.T. Barbarese et al.: "In a Station of the Metro" at Modern American Poetry
If representing and exploring the real by writing in the genre of creative non-fiction is your goal, we hope these tips about what creative non-fiction is, as well as some pointers on a few genres that are considered creative non-fiction (memoir and the personal essay) can help you. We have also included some tips about Writing Negatively About People in Your Life as well as links to some well-known examples of creative non-fiction to give you a sense of what is out there.
An Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction
What is creative non-fiction?
- Creative nonfiction merges the boundaries between literary art (fiction, poetry) and research nonfiction (statistical, fact-filled, run of the mill journalism). It is writing composed of the real, or of facts, that employs the same literary devices as fiction such as setting, voice/tone, character development, etc. This makes if different (more creative) than standard nonfiction writing.
- Sometimes called literary journalism or the literature of fact, creative nonfiction merges the boundaries between literary art (fiction, poetry) and research nonfiction (statistical, fact-filled, run of the mill journalism). It is writing composed of the real, or of facts, that employs the same literary devices as fiction, such as setting, voice/tone, character development, etc.
- Creative nonfiction should (1) include accurate and well-researched information, (2) hold the interest of the reader, and (3) potentially blur the realms of fact and fiction in a pleasing, literary style (while remaining grounded in fact).
- In the end, creative nonfiction can be as experimental as fictionit just needs to be based in the real.
Content of creative nonfiction:
- It's important to clarify that the content of creative nonfiction does not necessarily have to come from the life or the experience of the writer. Say, for instance, the writer is using techniques from literary journalism to create a portrait of a person interviewed. The writer may choose to write a portrait of the interviewee through an omniscient perspective, meaning the writer wouldn't be in the piece at all.
- On the other hand, nonfiction writers often choose to write about topics or people close to them (including themselves). As long as the piece deals with something real, or something based on the real, the writer is allowed to take the piece in any direction he or she wishes.
- In creative nonfiction, writers attempt to observe, record, and thus shape a moment(s) from real life. Writers thus extract meaning through factual details—they combine the fact of detail with the literary extrapolation necessary in rendering meaning from an observed scene.
- At the same time, successful creative nonfiction attempts to overlay fact with traditional conceptions of dramatic structure. While rendering meaning from an observed scene, a piece should suggest a beginning, middle and end that clearly conveys the conflict and the characters, and pushes the action toward some sort of closure.
- In effect, creative nonfiction attempts to project a dramatic, literary framework upon everyday existence, rendering it enjoyable, enlightening and potentially meaningful.
- While writing creative nonfiction, writers should dwell on sensory details and "show show show."
- A piece should never just tell the reader something or summarize—this is what research non-fiction does.
Different types of creative non-fiction writing:
- Due to the fact that creative nonfiction is an ever-evolving genre of writing, it is difficult to define set types:
- The Personal Essay:
A piece of writing, usually in the first person, that focuses on a topic through the lens of the personal experience of the narrator. It can be narrative or non-narrative-it can tell a story in a traditional way or improvise a new way for doing so. Ultimately, it should always be based on true, personal experience.
- The Memoir:
A memoir is a longer piece of creative nonfiction that delves deep into a writer's personal experience. It typically uses multiple scenes/stories as a way of examining a writer's life (or an important moment in a writer's life). It is usually, but not necessarily, narrative.
- The Short Short: A short/short is a (typically) narrative work that is concise and to the point. It uses imagery and details to relay the meaning, or the main idea of the piece. Typically it's only one or two scenes, and is like a flash of a moment that tells a whole story.
- Literary Journalism:
Literary journalism uses the techniques of journalism (such as interviews and reviews) in order to look outside of the straight forward, objective world that journalism creates. It uses literary practices to capture the scene/setting of the assignment or the persona of the person being interviewed. It can often be narrative or heavily imagistic. Another important aspect of literary journalism is that it often stretches the idea of "objective facts" in order to better reflect real life and real people. In other words, while journalism is about being completely objective, literary journalism says that people can't be objective because they already have their own subjective views about the world. Therefore, by taking the "objectiveness" out of the journalistic process, the writer is being more truthful.
- The Lyric Essay:
The lyric essay is similar to the personal essay in that it also deals with a topic that affects the reader. However, the lyric essay relies heavily on descriptions and imagery. Lyrical suggests something poetic, musical, or flowing (in a sense). This type of piece uses a heavily descriptive, flowing tone in order to tell a story.
- The Personal Essay:
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Memoir: Tips for Writing about Your Life
Memoirs are an often overlooked subdivision of creative writing, and more specifically, creative non-fiction. They have the potential to be incredibly interesting, richly developed, beautifully moving pieces that can sometimes be confused with autobiography. Generally, autobiographies are the life story or history of a person's life written by that person. Though memoirs share some similarities with autobiographies, such as first person narration, they are more than a recounting of one's life events in chronological order. Instead, they can be descriptions of one single event or moment in one's life, rather than that life in its entirety, and tend to be written in a less structured or formal manner. Memoirs have the capacity to be funny, profound, moving, cynical, etc., and may even have resemblances to fiction in their creativity. Memoirs can focus on one specific event, place, person, etc. or they can be expanded to encompass a broader range of events, snapshots, or memories in the author's experience. Here are some basic things you should know about writing a memoir:
Here are some basic things you should know about writing a memoir:
- A memoir can be about nearly anything in your personal experience/life that is significant enough for you to want to retell it, or it can simply be a snapshot of a moment or a description of a person, place, or thing in your life.
- Choose a topic that you care about, for this will make your piece more descriptive, emotional, and creative. Even though it is about YOUR life, if you care about your topic then so will the reader.
- Seek a deeper or underlying theme within the simple description of an event etc. that the reader can connect to. Use a lot of description and imagery, if you can, to make the reader feel like they know the topic intimately.
- There is no specific form or style that it is necessary for a memoir to have USE YOUR OWN UNIQUE VOICE!
- Do not confuse memoirs with autobiography, they are NOT the same thing (as noted above). You may want to find some memoirs in the library or online in order to get a feel for the variety out there and some of the ways you might want to go about writing yours. A few examples we are familiar with are:
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater
- Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
- The Dog Who Wouldnt Be by Farley Mowat
- A memoir, though based on and rooted in truth and fact, does not have to be 100% straight laced non-fiction. Take a new perspective, get creative, find a way to make your piece more interesting, fresh, thought-provoking etc. In other words, just because this is non-fiction, that DOES NOT have to make it boring, dry, straight-forward, and humorless.
- Though there is some controversy over what can and cannot be called memoir, Lauren Slater's book Lying is a good example of how creative you can get with this genre. Hers is specifically labeled a metaphorical memoir in order to avoid this controversy (though it has followed her anyway), and so perhaps saying something to that effect is a way of avoiding complaints of false advertising and fraud. Though you should not claim something to be true that is not, you can choose what you want to leave out of or include in your memoir. You can make it read like fiction, and you can make conscious decisions to surround your work with ambiguity that questions the nature of truth vs. fact (as Slater does). It may sound complicated, but really is quite basic: don't make claims your piece is something it's not, don't outright lie and then say it's fact, but choose your material carefully and you can do many more things with memoirs than you might at first think (see the limits of the real in creative non-fiction).
- Finally, have fun with it! Enjoy it! Memoirs can be very emotionality releasing, fun to play around with, and can reward not only the reader but also you, the writer. Test your limits and try different ways of writingits all about self-exploration and discovery.
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The Personal Essay: A Few Pointers
The personal essay is one of the most popular forms of creative non-fiction writing found in English classes, especially in high school but also, to a certain degree and in a more complex way, college. This kind of writing allows you to explore a topic through the lens of your own, personal experiences, reflections, ideas, and reactions. It can be one of the most powerful kinds of writing you get to do, both in its direct connection to you, the writer, allowing you to engage with material in class at a very personal, complex, and meaningful level, and also in the amount of latitude that you as a writer are afforded in terms of style, technique, and form. The following are some tips and strategies to help you think as you write and revise a personal essay, or prepare to write this kind of assignment for the first time (the topic of the essay will always varywe are focused on the genre as a whole here).
- Focus. In some ways, the personal essay is similar to memoir and many of the same techniques can be used effectively. It differs in that an essay is focused on one specific topic (and here, it will be explored through your own experiences) whereas the memoir has the capability to trace or illuminate several themes, topics, and ideas via the authors life (or part(s) of that life) that he/she describes (and how he/she describes it).
- Organization. Not to be confused with form (see below). Your essay, like other essays, should have some kind of coherent organization to it. This is not to say that you must use thesis style (in fact, we are confident that powerful personal essays follow that organization scheme less than 5% of the time). No matter how you choose to organize (and what form you use), be sure that your paragraphs and ideas flow from one to the next, connected by a common theme (trying to tackle the topic on which you are writing). It can be scattered or fragmented (if that is a stylistic/form choice you make), but the entire paper should have a relationship, even if it only becomes clear at the end. This allows the reader to follow your experience.
- Form. One of the best parts of this kind of writing is the power given to you as the writer. There is no form, no formula, no tried and true method that you must use to be effective. In fact, to copy something that somebody else has done is not only rather boring, but also defeats the purpose of this being a personal essay. Choose a form and style that suits you and is fitting for the experience that you are describing. Try to think of the form as a part of the writing itself, not just a framework for it: the form should actually enhance and make more poignant what it is you are taking about. Push the boundaries, but dont go too faryou are still writing an essay (and be sure that you follow any specific requirements outlined by your professor).
- Diction/Language. Like form, in the personal essay (and creative writing generally, perhaps even, to some extent, writing in general) the way in which you say something can mean just as much as the form into which you place what it is you are saying. Use language to enhance what you are writing about and not just as a means to say it. Here is where you can get really creative and appropriately use linguistic play to explore your topic and your own relation to it in new and complex ways.
Choosing at Topic and Approach
When beginning a personal essay, you should choose a significant event in your life. This can be almost anything, but something about it should matter to you. Many personal essays hinge around a sad experience, but joy is just as strong an emotion, if not more so. As always in creative writing, you should consider why you are writing this piece: what can writing about this experience teach others? What can you learn from revisiting the memory? In a personal essay, the importance of the word “personal” is not to be undervalued. Whatever you choose to write about must be important to you, hinge around your experience, and have some impact on you.
When writing a personal essay, it is important to remember that the main character is you. This is challenging for a lot of people who are used to expressing themselves through a character or through poetry. Personal essays demand more vulnerability than either of these forms. In a personal essay, the writer should never be afraid of the word “I” in fact, it should be used as often as possible. In most situations where you find yourself straying into the first person plural (“we”) or even the third person, using such vague language as "one could" or “one would,” you will almost always find the writing becomes stronger if you replace the subject with “I.” Most of the time, drifting into vague language is a sign that you are trying to convey a message you find “too” personal and are afraid of expressing. However, it is this vulnerability that fuels the personal essay. You cannot learn from the experience unless you are honest with yourself, and readers will not be able to understand why this experience is significant if you hide yourself from view. Your character in the story can only develop if you claim the story as your own.
While one of the most common kinds of creative non-fiction writing (at least in an academic setting), the personal essay is probably one of the harder assignments to revise. After all, how do you fix a paper that is composed of very personal ideas? A personal essay is not like a formal analytical essay-- it doesn't need an explicit thesis-driven format. Therefore, revising a personal essay can be complicated, especially when you feel as though you don't want to tamper with personal thoughts. However, a personal essay often needs someone to tamper with it in order to make it a complete piece. Below we have listed several steps that may be useful when revising or giving feedback on a personal essay (either your own or someone elses).
- Voice/Tone: The voice and tone are important in the personal essay because they reflect the attitude the writer is trying to get across. Is the mood happy? Sad? Is it serious? Are we placed inside the writer's head? These are all important questions to ask in order to realize the effect/the emotion the writer wants the piece to convey. Ask yourself (or the writer): Is the writer's voice consistent throughout the piece? Does it reflect the tone of the piece? Does the piece incorporate some experimental ideas? It is not necessary to have a personal essay be experimental, but it does need to be unique to the writer (hence the name). Some experimental ideas include: playing with the sentence structure by juxtaposing short sentences with longer, complicated sentences ... playing with word usage by including repetition or alliteration ... or playing with form by including other voices, dialogue, and points of views.
- Showing v. Telling: Details and imagery can only help a personal essay; they help to develop a story by making it more real to the reader. A personal essay doesn't necessarily need scenes, but it does need a well formed focus or point and imagery can help to establish that.
- Character Development: If the personal essay has characters, make sure they're developed clearly and that the relationships between the characters are developed. Dialogue between characters not only helps the reader to understand the relationships, it helps the reader to understand the individual characters and their actions. Imagery also helps with this and ties back into showing v. telling; by describing a character through details (of their actions or their appearance), we better understand a character.
- Original Language: Everything in a piece of creative writing is subject to scrutiny, including word choice. Therefore it's helpful to look closely at language. Is the writing fresh? Are there any obvious clichés that detract from the piece?
- Form: How a piece of creative non-fiction writing is put together is extremely important. The form not only needs to be organized well, it also speaks to the piece as a whole. Good questions to ask: Why is it organized in this way? How does this reflect your (or the writers) experience? It's also helpful to discuss different form techniques such as flashbacks, stream of consciousness, or different scenes that piece together a writer's main idea.
- Fiction/Poetry Techniques: Since creative non-fiction writing is such a hybrid and multi-faceted genre, it's often helpful to use/borrow techniques from fiction or poetry. Scenes, dialogue, narrative structure, setting, and an emphasis on language are all important aspects of creative nonfiction as well.
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Writing Negatively About People in your Life
When it comes to writing creative nonfiction, the vast majority of the material is going to be from experience. Writers will write about things they have gone through, monumental events in their lives, and the people they have encountered. While the closest people in your life often leave a positive impact, what happens when you want to write negatively about them? It can be hard to feel like it is your place to expose personal parts of others without their permission for the sake of your piece. However, it is ultimately your decision what you would like to write about and what you feel is necessary to include. It is also important not to embellish or include elements of fiction in your creative non-fiction. So if that means describing an explosive fight between you and your parents or outing your sibling for a crime they committed, you as the author have the authority to do so. But if this is something that causes you anxiety or makes you feel like youre abusing your power, here are a few things to consider.
- One, who is your audience? If your piece is not likely to make it very far out of your classroom environment, it may not be necessary to warn the people in your life that they have become characters in your piece. However, if your piece is going to be published in some sort of way or might have the opportunity of circulating, odds are high that you will want to inform the people in your life before they find out on their own.
- Two, what is absolutely necessary? Trashing loved ones in your life could be a necessity to the point you are trying to make in your creative non-fiction piece. However, you could also become carried away and swept up by emotion and decide to include things out of spite rather than out of need. Always reread your pieces for intention and make sure that sensitive, personal aspects of your piece are crucial to the understanding for the audience and not just fluff. When youre playing with emotions, it is even more important to write with intention.
- Three, do they need to know? If you still feel like you want to make your piece transparent with the people you have turned into characters, do so in a professional way and be prepared for backlash. It is important to warn them that you do delve into personal matters but that you do not wish for the audience to hold that against them and that you would not include it if you did not find it absolutely necessary.
- Lastly, be aware that they are free to react in any way that they want to, and if that is negatively, remember to keep your integrity. Just because they have disliked their portrayal in your piece does not mean you need to filter or sensor it in any way. Be respectful of their feelings but stick to your guns as a writer.
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- Excerpt from Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris A collection of memoir-essays by David Sedaris, this particular except is from the essay entitled SantaLand Diaries, where Sedaris recounts his experience working as a holiday elf for Macys. It is a great example of memoir. As you read, think about the debate going on about the memoir (see handout on memoirs)where do you see embellishment or possible stretching of the truth for artistic purposes? How is this different from a straight autobiography? What kinds of stylistic devices is Sedaris using that would make this a piece of creative non-fiction?
- Excerpt from Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
This piece is a classic example of Literary Journalism (also called New Journalism). In it, Wolfe is reporting on both the sixties in general as well as Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, from the period spanning the late fifties to 1965. Considered to be an essential period piece of that decade, this novel is also one of the first examples of Literary Journalism. What about this piece separates it from more traditional journalism? How is it closer to what we would otherwise consider (mistake for??) a novel? From this excerpt, can you see how this kind of journalism is considered a kind of creative non-fiction? What does this type of journalism have to offer us as readers that more traditional journalism doesnt/cant? This piece also demonstrates nicely the concept of the limits of the real in creative non-fictionhow so? (see our note on this concept under Creative Non-Fiction)?
Note: To access excerpt, follow the link, click where it says “click to look inside” and then use the arrows to flip the pages.
- Excerpt from Lars Eighner's Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets
A great example of memoir. What do you see as the point or message of this piece to be? How does the author accomplish this? What features make this an example of creative non-fiction? Of memoir?