The Theatricality of Creative Nonfiction

Converting Actor Advice for Writers

While writing itself may be a solo act, the resulting story is destined for an audience. Creative nonfiction combines the solo act of writing with the intensely personal experience and emotions connected to the events that actually transpired. This makes CNF uniquely susceptible to a few traps that can be examined via the lens of the theatre—a format that must always keep the audience at the forefront of every decision.

Play to the Audience

An actor’s primary goal is to convey the story to the audience from their character’s point of view. The writer’s primary objective must also be the audience, albeit the writer has a more complex angle to consider as the writer is responsible for all characters’ points of view simultaneously. How each of those characters comes across to the audience will greatly affect how they receive the overall work. While creative nonfiction primarily centers on one character, the writer must still ensure that supporting characters are multi-dimensional in order to center the readers—and not the writer—as the primary audience.

Creative nonfiction is inspired by real-world events and emotions. That is one of its greatest attractions. But  such emotional work entails some significant challenges for writers, some of which are the same as those actors face when performing emotional scenes:

Protective Mechanisms Distance the Audience

If you are focused on protecting yourself, you may miss the opportunity to create a visceral experience for your audience. When writing or performing something that is extremely personal and raw, it can be a challenge to force yourself into the headspace you occupied as the events occurred originally. In order to protect your psyche, you may pull back and share a sarcastic, arm’s length, or even toned down version of events.

If you believe you are still too close to the material, and that it still creates powerful emotions within you, it may be helpful to write down events as factually as possible and then give yourself a long enough break from the subject matter until you are psychologically ready to dive back in. Distance will likely open up fresh perspectives for your narrative.

When you do get back into the material, do not forget to give yourself mental breaks and schedule pick-me-ups and detoxes if the material is traumatic or painful. If you burn yourself out, you will naturally start to withdraw and that will serve neither you nor your narrative.

Introspection Breeds Inaccessibility

People naturally fold in on themselves when experiencing intense emotion—directing that feeling inward or at a very specific external target. An actor or a writer must open the window, so to speak, and radiate that emotion outward, making the audience complicit. Not every audience member needs to resonate with every line, but every audience member needs to resonate with some aspect for the story to land successfully. In CNF, as in acting, this can be quite a challenge because if YOU—the writer—are feeling BIG EMOTIONS then they must be there, right? In the theatre, your director and fellow actors will provide perspective on whether they feel impacted by the actor’s performance, essentially serving as editorial eyes. In CNF you may be working largely alone so you absolutely need to reach out to your writing group, mentors, editors, or trusted confidants to get an honest assessment of whether your stakes are landing with your audience, or whether you’ve got an outsized reaction to them because your personal memories and real life emotions are interfering.

Playing the Action, Not the Emotion

It may seem intuitive to write emotions such as anger or sadness by giving signifiers such as tears, raised voices, or thrown pots. However the real-world spectrum of emotion and how it manifests is far more complex, fascinating, and changeable. Actors are taught to focus on the ACTION (the profession is “actor” after all, not “emoter”) rather than the emotion as an entry point to avoid cliched behavior. This can help develop more complex characters in your writing and counteract authorial insertion by giving you an entry strategy to complex emotional scenes.

Playing the Opposite

If a scene reads as though the character should be angry, try playing them sad. If a scene reads as comical, try playing it straight. This rehearsal-room strategy does not always end up successful, but it does inform the final iteration. It can be used similarly in your writing to tease out layered reactions and behaviors in your characters that in many cases will inform your final draft even as the explorations end up on the cutting room floor.

Parting Thoughts

None of this advice is earth-shattering or new—you’ve likely heard it all in one form or another before. However, occasionally tweaking old standards to a new perspective unlocks new ways to use your existing tools. Using Stanislavski’s “Magic If” to pretend you’re an actor telling the story may help you center your audience in a new way and prevent some of the pitfalls common in CNF.

Orca Editor Renee Jackson is an actor and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majored in Dramatic Arts. She was a founding member of Forget Me Not Theatre in Chicago, IL, where she served as the Literary Manager.

1 thought on “The Theatricality of Creative Nonfiction

  1. sarahconover3253

    I found this a refreshing take on CNF, thank you. I especially look forward to taking a somewhat tragic moment (got plenty of those) and writing it with a comic angle. Thank you


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