“So what?” asked a young friend of ours after he preached his first sermon.
My head swivelled back to the front of the church. I thought our friend had finished his presentation. Now I was curious. Was he saying that his first tender thoughts spoken aloud were in some way trivial and meaningless? Was he about to make a mockery of his first foray into his holy calling?
No, he proceeded to reflect on the possible meaning of the narrative from which he had spoken. While this may seem the purpose of every sermon, it is a vulnerable moment as the speaker shares his own mind and heart; criticism may occur, but our young friend had been wisely counselled that, without the listener connecting his narrative to their present-day life, there would be no reason to speak. The audience could shrug their shoulders and walk away, forgetting the apparent random words.
While a sermon is only one possible type of creative nonfiction, the “so what” intersection should occur in every type. It’s been said that the two key elements of creative non-fiction are, first, the accurate retelling of true events, and second, the author’s reflection. He or she steps outside of the narrative and offers what they might have learned or the why and how the story should be applied in the reader’s life.
The word creative in the nonfiction genre does not give the writer the right to take license with the facts. The writer should research and write with care and honesty. However, creative means the genre borrows from others.
For example, the creative nonfiction writer may borrow elements of fiction as they retell a true event. An inciting incident, the rising action, tension, climax, and denouement may enliven their narrative. Additionally, the writer may borrow from poetry and capture a unique voice with imaginative and sensory word choices along with a rhythmic and lyrical retelling.
Imagine Phil Callaway retelling any of his true stories without his humorous voice and without any moral message woven throughout. His novels, essays, blog posts, and speeches would merely be nonfiction without the creativity, just a collection of facts with nothing to captivate us, nothing to draw us into his timely challenge. They would certainly be devoid of the trademark laughter and tears that accompany his words.
Hannah More—poet, playwright, essayist, teacher, and contemporary of Jane Austen—determined that her pieces should challenge the Londoners of the late 18th century to be fashionable in doing good rather than the wearing of large, stylish hats. Increasingly, as she came to know John Wilberforce, her writing took on more and more reflection and challenge. It is also noteworthy that throughout her life she emphasized that real societal change does not come about through legislation and political rule but rather, through the reflection of poets and painters.
Eric Metaxas, known for his creative nonfiction accounts in 7 Women and 7 Men, called Hannah More the most influential woman of her day. Her exhortation in tracts (blog posts on paper), poetry, and drama were considered the main reason the evils of the French Revolution did not spread to England, and her words were also the singular most compelling influence alongside Wilberforce in abolishing slavery.
So, the turning point has come for this piece too. So what? Why bother to define and discuss the creative nonfiction genre? One reason captures my attention, and that is the reason for which Hannah More and so many others have written: not to merely entertain but also to challenge the world around me.
My first job as a journalist was to record the marks of the Senior’s Bridge and Whist Games. “So what?” I wondered. Would anybody care? While there will always be a place for just plain facts, such as scores or weather reports, and while some readers of my tiny weekly clip in the paper might have been enthused, I doubt that transformation occurred in their lives by reading the first and second place winners of a card game.
I was thankful when I was allowed to write human interest pieces. Adding creative style and taking time to reflect on what I had learned from each interview opened a purpose for me.
So what? If you have an opportunity to write creative nonfiction, research diligently for the facts, borrow elements from fiction and poetry, and be sure to step out of the story for a moment to reflect on what you learned. So what? You could change your world like Hannah More did. That’s what!
Pam Mytroen still rolls out and decorates sugar cookies with her grandkids these days, often over Zoom which is surprisingly just as sticky. Her kids and English students still bring her much joy and a reason to get up every morning. She continues to write for her paper, hoping to give a voice to those who have no voice. Her husband still brings her chocolate too. Good thing … because she can never decide between Godiva, Jersey Milk, or Lindt.