Is Non-fiction Vital to You as a Creative Writer?

Textbooks = *yawn

I know for myself that reading hasn’t always been a picnic in school or college. There were always books that didn’t appeal to me but I had to read and study if I wanted the grades that I aimed for… I’m thinking here of titles like ‘Understanding Statistics’ or ‘Advanced Physics’ (I had a science track). Don’t misunderstand me though, I loved learning and acquiring new knowledge, and I still do. But such books were boring, the explanations difficult and dry, the layout and format horrendous, and don’t even get me started on the price tags!

In school, I had to depend ultimately on lectures and reading books that I thought were worthy enough to impart the necessary knowledge. I recall in high school tossing aside the curriculum textbooks for Advanced Physics and Economics and consulting instead the relevant chapters from ‘The Feynman Lectures on Physics’ and ‘Positive Economics’, since these books “explained” their text in a way that I could digest the information.

But studying aside, I loved reading all kinds of books in my high school and college years – Psychology, Philosophy, Cosmology, History and so on. My brain was constantly stimulated and hungry for new information, or so I’d like to think rather than admit the fact that I had no freaking idea what track I wanted to follow (I ended up doing mathematics).

Non-fiction = *scratching

Anyway, let’s fast forward to the present before this becomes a biographical post. I currently find reading non-fiction titles harder to do than reading fiction. And I ask myself why this is. I stand in front of my bookshelves lately and I find so many of my non-fiction titles with bookmarks in them, some early into the book and others as far as three-quarters into the book. When did I develop this habit of abandoning a book while in the midst of it?

The kind of non-fiction titles I like to read are hard going. At least I find them as such because I need to follow the writer’s arguments to understand what it is I’m being told or shown, and doing this over the span of an entire book is exhausting and energy draining. It requires focus and patience. Also, many books of specific disciplines assume prior knowledge in the discipline itself, and even when the book claims this isn’t so, it requires at best a basic familiarity with the terminology and general principles of the discipline (or the explanations are included in the book), all of which feels like a self-study. In other words, ‘pick up a book and unwind’ never works for me if it’s non-fiction.

I think it’s obvious by this point that I read mostly fiction. I always loved reading stories and 27 years after first grade, the love continues to grow exponentially. But I’m worried that fiction has crept into every niche of my reading time. I don’t even read the newspapers anymore (although I’d argue that’s because they depress me or make me very angry at the stupidity and cruelty of man). Instead, every moment I have where I’m not involved with text such as critiquing, editing, blogging or writing my own stories, I read fiction.

I keep telling myself it’s a phase, it’ll pass and soon I’ll enjoy completing my non-fiction books. This has been going on for over five years. The last three non-fiction books I picked up, one on philosophy, one on linguistics and one on history have ended up with bookmarks in them again, and they’re neatly back on the shelves where they belong. In the meantime, I zap through novels, short story collections or literary journals like the world is about to end before I shut my eyes to sleep. Perhaps I’m a story junkie who needs his buzz to stay high.

? = ???

Then there’s the question, of course, of why I feel the need to read non-fiction in the first place? I’ve always felt it necessary to exercise ones mind and the non-fiction titles that I’m usually interested in certainly do this. Also, the books contain more substantial and valid information than just looking up facts on the internet, but I suppose these aren’t really ‘needs’… Perhaps it ultimately boils down to my conditioning: ‘valid and useful information comes from reading the appropriate books’.

Yeah… I’m not too sure about that last statement myself. I think I’m chasing my own tail here. What do you think a creative writer should do when interested in so many things? Should one invest time reading as much non-fiction as fiction (even when it’s not immediately usable as researched material)?



26 thoughts on “Is Non-fiction Vital to You as a Creative Writer?

  1. Aah, no wonder you liked the Lost in Translation post–you remember those dreaded days of having to endure “the classics” as well as other required reading. Your post is a good reminder that one should enjoy and not endure reading. I wonder if I will someday catch my students complaining about that English teacher who continually stuffed literature at them like broccoli and beans because it was good for them in a WordPress blog.
    Happy pages,

    1. Oh… I love reading the classics. Admittedly though, the Victorian literature at the time drove me nuts (except for Dickens) and I avoided that whenever possible but it has since then become more likable (I only read Pride and Prejudice last year… and I think a lot of people will tut-tut me when they read this) 😀

      No, it’s more about finding my groove with non-fiction and why I think I need to read it etc… but everyone’s been so helpful with their comments that I now have a lot of food for thought. I’m going to reflect on all of this further and perhaps write another follow up post on what I discover.

  2. Hi there, Samir,
    I guess that you following so many threads of reading is not that exceptional. I happen to be quite the same way – there are around 11 books right now that I have started but not yet finished reading. Incidentally they belong to all sorts of categories – fiction, psychology, philosophy, history, etc.

    Seems to me that our brain is slightly akin to the stomach – in order to remain healthy, we must eat a diversity of food. Likewise, our brain needs a wider range of stimuli… I reckon there are folks like that around, maybe in larger numbers than we could expect… 🙂

    1. I know the feeling… I’ve given up on including my bookmarked nonfiction because that status hasn’t changed in a long time. As for fiction, well I also like reading several books simultaneously including anthologies, genre fiction, journals etc So at any given time, I have at least 6 or 7 bookmarked fiction books lying around. Only in this case it goes quick.

      By yes, I suppose there are more people than I’d expect who enjoy a good meal of books 😉

      1. “A good meal of books” – now I really love your wording. Well, what can I say – “Bon appettite!” And good hunting! (For those bookmarks…) 🙂

  3. I think non-fiction is useful to read for research or learning. Books on writing and self-editing have improved my craft. I occasionally pick up an autobiography or non-fiction on an era or a place, but by and large I read what I’m passionate about which is usually fiction.

    My grandma is the opposite. She won’t read fiction. If it didn’t happen to real people she has zero interest in it. 🙂

    1. Yeah, I have a good friend who doesn’t read anything except nonfiction. It amazes me but then, she loves practical information that she can use or that can further her knowledge in her fields of interest or profession.

      But I agree that nonfiction is essential for research (where necessary) and I do love reading essays by authors I like or the occasional useful book on writing. As for the rest, I suppose it’ll come back when it comes back.

  4. Read what you want to read, but read it with a passion.

    I read both fiction and non-fiction. When I was ill the other week I curled up in bed and read a non-fiction book about Ancient Egypt from cover to cover. It was well written and engaging. There are some non-fiction books which take me years to finish – but there’s no point me feeling guilty about it.

    Why textbooks are so often written in the most complicated way possible I have no idea. A good textbook saves you hours and hours of time studying. A bad textbook will only make you confused and destroy your confidence.

    1. I think that first sentence say it all: right now my passion is reading fiction so that’s all I can read passionately.

      It’s so frustrating with textbooks…

  5. There is a lot of wonderful ‘creative non-fiction’ out there, which I had never come across (living in NZ and England) but through a friend who did her Masters in Creative nonfiction suddenly I was introduced to a long list of wonderful nonfiction that reads as compelling as any good fiction.

    • Vladimir Nabokov, Speak Memory
    • James Baldwin, Notes of a Native Son
    • Adam Gopnik, Paris to the Moon
    • Phillip Lopate (ed.), The Art of the Personal Essay
    • The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, Kate Summerscale
    • Three by Anne Dilliard

    It’s true that there are some serious subjects that seem not to have crossed over to being dealt with in a more creative manner in terms of the writing, could it be they don’t think they will be taken seriously by their target markets? Like academic writing?

    1. It’s great to get so much useful information and recommendations, thanks Claire. I’ve heard of Lopate’s book and it comes highly recommended. I’ll look into it and the other titles you’ve suggested.

      That’s the point, right? Why can’t the academic books intended for the general public be more accessible or, to be precise, literary. They write these books for an audience not familiar with the technical aspects of their field yet rarely do they succeed in creating a book that reads smoothly, at least for me personally.

  6. And poet Carl Sandburg’s wonderful Abraham Lincoln biographies, “The Prairie Years” and “The War Years”. Here’s something from the University of Oregon to consider:

    What is Literary Nonfiction?

    Literary nonfiction. Creative nonfiction. Factual fiction. Documentary narrative. The literature of actuality. This powerful, ever-controversial genre is called by many names.

    Whatever you call it, it is a form of storytelling as old as the telling of stories. The genre recognizes both the inherent power of the real and the deep resonance of the literary. It is a form that allows a writer both to narrate facts and to search for truth, blending the empirical eye of the reporter with the moral vision — the I — of the novelist.

    In a culture saturated by data without context, facts without insight and information without enlightenment, literary nonfiction holds a special and vital place.

    “Facts… they lie unquestioned, uncombined,” wrote the poet Edna St. Vincent Millay.

    Wisdom enough to leech us of our ill
    Is daily spun, but there exists no loom
    To weave it into fabric.

    But the loom does exist. Literary nonfiction is the loom.

    Throughout the centuries, inventive hybrid writers, from (novelist) Daniel DeFoe to (journalist) John Hersey to (essayist) Joan Didion have helped construct it. The stories they have woven on this loom are about real people, real places and real emotions.

    They are timely stories that tap into the moment. But they are also timeless tales that transcend it. This is because literary nonfiction is able to tell both the small story — the damming of a river, the building of a house, a murder — and the bigger one, the human narrative with its enduring themes.

    The “literary” in literary nonfiction pertains to the exploration of these themes. It also defines how the story itself is told. Literary nonfiction writers commonly use the techniques of fiction, including creation of a narrative arc, character development, scene-setting, action sequences, dialog and interior monolog. The true stories they write using these techniques have the drama of fiction and force of fact.

    Literary nonfiction takes shape in many forms, from reportage to memoir, from personal essay to biography. Nature writing, travel writing and science writing all have their literary practitioners. The true crime “novel” is an artifact of literary nonfiction. Writers in the genre tackle everything from prison riots to orchid collecting, from fifth grade classrooms to nuclear disasters, from wilderness hiking to frozen orange juice.

    1. Thanks again for the detailed insight. That makes it clearer what to look for when I want to read nonfiction or fiction based on facts. I’ve not read much literary nonfiction but it does sound more digestible to me than a cold book of facts and information (which I may not necessarily need to know).

      I hadn’t realized that this moderately ‘new genre’ if you will, has had such a rich historical development. I’ll look further into this. Wonderful suggestions Rodger and thank you for taking the time to comment!

      1. No problem, Samir. I’ve enjoyed discovering Cecile’s Writers. You’re a group of very interesting, intellectually curious and engaged readers and writers. I applaud and encourage that attitude whenever I can find it in folks younger than myself (53 years of age) because, frankly, it’s rare, or at least it is in the U.S., and I sincerely hope you don’t take that as condescension. I’m fond of the lot of you and will not go away (or stop commenting) any time soon. Keep up the good work, all of you.

  7. When it comes to non-fiction, a lot of it depends on the author, just as in fiction, and where your interest lies. Sometimes textbooks and other non-fiction books can be dry, however, I feel like continuing your education in any way possible is vital for writing. Every subject can lend its hand in the story, whether it effects the plot or characters directly, or the information is simply a reference or metaphor.

    1. Yes, I agree that every subject can lend its hand in the story. Even if it’s unconsciously, the information we assimilate becomes a part of us and we can use it at the most unexpected of times (that being one of the perks of ‘free writing’). The challenge though as a writer continuing my education is how to invest my reading time. In my reply to Rodger’s comment, I’ve elaborated on my non-fiction reading, but for the rest, I’m much too fond of good literature.

      Do you read as much non-fiction as you do fiction? And do you do this out of interest or is it as research for your writing?

  8. I agree with Naomi; as a practitioner of both fiction and essays and a reader of both fictional narrative and history and biography, it’s all about where your interest lays and how much further you care to explore something else you’ve read in, perhaps, a novel. “Moby-Dick” for instance, led to me to a couple of fascinating historical works on 19th century whaling, and my love of Shakespeare’s “Julius Caesar” has introduced me to some great works on ancient Rome, one of which (“The Ides”) I just recently read. It’s all the subjects and the authors you choose — would you call Hunter S. Thompson boring? — but, generally speaking, there should be little distinguishable difference between a non-fiction and fiction narrative.

    1. I’d have to say that hardly any of the non-fiction books that I’ve read over the years tend to have narrative that is little distinguishable from fiction narrative, but the few that were as such, I did read like a novel. Rodger, I hadn’t realized this until you phrased it this way. It’s becoming clearer, looking at your comment and Naomi’s, of how important it is to identify with the narrative of a non-fiction book.

      At the moment, my non-fiction reading is limited to the realm of Literature and English. Perhaps it’s because my interests do lie here after all and I enjoy working in these fields. I read much essays, letters and autobiographies by writers written in those formats. I also read (and study) Functional grammar and about creative use of the English language. Perhaps I’m someone who needs a micro-focus when involved in a specific field and a macro-vision when not. And since I’ve only been involved in writing for the past five years…

      Thanks for sharing and commenting. It’s helping me better understand where I stand at present.

  9. Hi Samir. You pose an interesting question. I personally believe that if you find non-fiction boring, you are reading the wrong books. In researching my novel, The Keeper of the Crystal Spring, one of the books I read was David Howarth’s 1066: The Year of the Norman Conquest. It made history come alive, and read like fiction. Have you seen the movie Sea Biscuit? It was incredibly moving and so well done–and it was about so much more than a horse. It was about the pulse of a nation, about second chances, about never giving up (among other things). And it was based on a best-selling non-fiction book by Laura Hillenbrand. Honestly, I think non-fiction can be as or more fascinating than fiction, if it is well written, and if you care about the subject matter. I would never pick up a math textbook, but history, memoirs, travel, biography are all wonderful juicy stories waiting to be devoured. Great post!

    1. That makes sense, I suppose I may not have picked up the best title for the subject matter I’m interested in. I’ll elaborate a little more though and say that I don’t necessarily find non-fiction boring but more the textbooks or study books boring. There are many non-fiction books that I’ve read and enjoyed, it just seems that my former interests are dwindling and I can’t really put my finger on it.

      I haven’t read the books or seen the movie you mentioned. I do agree though that well written material plus a care for the subject matter are necessary starting points. (It could still be a phase that I’m going through since I love literature so much). Thanks for the insight, Naomi.

      1. Samir, I have three titles for you just off the top of my head: Truman Capote’s “In Cold Blood”, Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas”, and Ernest Hemingway’s “A Moveable Feast” — if that doesn’t strike you as non-fiction as literature then, well …

          1. Thanks Rodger, other than Hemingway, I’m yet to read the works of the authors you’ve suggested. I admit that London and Capote have been on my to-read list for much too long.

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