5 creative non-fiction books worth every minute you spend with them

5 creative non-fiction books worth every minute you spend with them

at a workshop I attended last week, the presenter asked if anyone in the audience knew how to remain excited by their work throughout their career.  the room was silent. he looked at each of us and then said, stay curious.

when I read a book–essay, article, news flash–I want to learn something. I’m insatiably curious. I love historical fiction for what I learn about a land, an era. I love mysteries set in an unfamiliar field or locale for what they teach about what to me is unlived, and thus unknown. I read nonfiction to increase my knowledge of a specific subject, and essays to open my mind to new thoughts and paths. creative nonfiction is thus one of my favorite genres, because it often combines a bit of everything I just mentioned.

creative nonfiction magazine defines creative nonfiction as “true stories well told.” its founder and editor, lee gutkind, goes on compare the genre to jazz— “it’s a rich mix of flavors, ideas, and techniques . . .”

below is a sampling of creative nonfiction journeys I have taken, sitting on my couch, savoring every chapter.

the language of the night, ursula k leguin. a collection of essays that challenge thought so beautifully, guide gracefully, and delight completely. this woman is extraordinary in her creativity, and in her humanity.

rising from the plains, john mcphee.  I could list just about every mcphee book here, but this is my absolute favorite, the one that taught me how to love difficult terrain, and the people who love it. mcphee is a master teacher with a poet’s heart.

refuge, terry tempest williams. terry is a force. though all her books are powerful and challenge our relationship with other, this book touches me more deeply for its theme of personal loss.

where rivers change direction, mark spragg.  this book showed me how men encounter a different world than I do, and gave me not only a glimpse into that experience, but a deeper understanding of what it might be like to be male.

a little more about me, pam houston. I’m cheating a bit to add pam here: in her own words, her books are about 82% true. but they feel true, one hundred percent true, and they grab you, keep you solidly in your seat, pull your heart, and get you in the gut. this book is my favorite of hers.


I’d love to know which creative nonfiction books keep you riveted!

human nature

I have read very few books written in the year 1900.  having just finished reading sister carrie, by theodore dreiser, though, I am astounded by how very little we’ve changed in these past 112 years.  we have more tools and toys and engines, but remain plagued by many of the same insecurities, social challenges, and inequities.  emotionally and philosophically I don’t think we, as a society, are much better off.

I came to select this book after reading a ny times book review by rachel shteir, from which I quote:

Her [rachel’s]  favorite novel about Chicago is “Sister Carrie,” by Theodore Dreiser, in which a small-town girl moves to the big city in search of her fortune. “Dreiser captures everything that is important in modern life,” Shteir explained: “struggles between classes, between men and women; the struggle to exceed what you’ve come from and to become something else, and the price you pay for that, especially if you’re a woman.”

mr. dreiser took well over 400 pages to tell the story of about 6 years of carrie’s life, and from the beginning I was intrigued and never disappointed.  he does wax philosophical more than a time or two, but as much in that arena remains today as it did when he put pen to paper, I found it interesting and often thought-provoking.  amazing–disheartening, shocking–what little difference 110 years can make.

now I’ve moved on to another turn-of-that-century book, the awakening by kate chopin.  writing styles have changed, but internal and interpersonal experiences are little different from those of the late 1900s.  perhaps they are similar to those of the late 1800s.  and further back, and further beyond that.

perhaps human nature is truly human nature.

speaking of what’s on my bookshelf . . .

most books I read never make it to my bookshelf.

only books I love make it to my bookshelf.

it’s partially a financial decision (I read so many books a month I’d have to sacrifice eating or something equally painful to pay for them all), partially a space decision (I’d have to begin building furniture out of books), and most importantly, a decision made because I wish to be surrounded only by things I love.  I mostly buy books only after I’ve read them (borrowing from the library or from friends), making the decision to purchase because I want to treasure them, own them, have them around me, let them speak to me from the shelves, remind me of them as I pass by and glance at the bookcase.

not many of the books I read fall into this category.  many I appreciate, many I learn from.  many I find interesting or gripping, but the ones that capture my heart and soul are few and far between.  which is not a terrible thing.  I don’t need to fall in love with every book I read:  some I need for pure escapism; some I need for advice, validation, education.  the most glorious of all are those from which I expect little, that grow wings and blossom with each turn of a page, and become more than I dared hope for.  surprises. gifts.  unexpected pleasures found.

a while back I was trying to find books on my shelf that might interest my 15-year-old stepson who has not yet learned to love books.  (I fear I gave him nothing at all that piqued his interest, but I tried.)  what I loved, though, during this process, was to run my eyes along the titles, letting images and memories, scenes, stories, characters flit through my mind, oh yes, I loved christopher, oh, and that time he told the story of the bears, and oh, the congo, how terrifying the fighting was . . . tales and pieces and names came flowing in and out as I moved from shelf to shelf.

woe is he who doesn’t read.  whose imagination and memories aren’t filled with richly remembered stories and moments.  television and movies can’t give the same gift as words on pages to which we must add our own imaginative wanderings.

I love my books on my bookshelves.  they tell the story of me, from years of education and introspection and growth to those of joy, escapism, curiosity.  I am my bookshelf, wide and varied and deep and filled with a thousand stories and dreams and realities.

in stating all of this, I do not mean to slight the rest of the books I read and return, for they, too, have had a hand in my becoming who I am.  but unless a book–or a beloved author’s book–resonates deeply with some part of me, it’s unlikely that I will bring it home to rest with all the others who have slowly and certainly become a part of who I am.

the sunday new york times

john receives the big, fat new york times, delivered to our doorstep bright and early each sunday.  six or seven weeks ago he handed the book review section to me, suggesting I might want to read a review written by an author whose work I like.  I perused it quickly, then filed the section away to be looked at when I had more time.  and interest.

I am not much of a newspaper reader, nor am I one who enjoys reading reviews.  I’m impatient with (and critical of) most journalists, and often find reviewers to be looking for and concerned about things I don’t usually find myself looking for or concerned about.  so the book review section, folded in half, rested on my desk between folders filled with project information and my weekly calendar, waiting for me, patiently, for weeks.

another sunday rolled around and john handed me the book review section again, here, there might be something in here you find interesting.  I dug into it, and read a review.  then another.  and then I decided to re-read the older section that’d been waiting for me.  I read them both.  and then the next week’s.

one of my first thoughts–this while reading a review of Vampires in the Lemon Grove–was this:  I am not a new york times kind-of writer.  I am not quirky enough, I don’t possess a mfa.  I am not outre, I am not a wunderkind, I don’t live in soho and I haven’t attended the iowa writer’s workshop.  I am just dedicated, committed, determined, and–since I’ve been gathering work for the past 15 years–in possession of a lot of as-yet-to-be-discovered work.  I may never be an author who has a book reviewed in the new york times.

or I might.

I’ve been reading more reviews.  I’ve been gaining a sense of the literary world according to the times.  I’ve been paying attention to more author’s names, and I’ve requested a few books to read (I’ve just begun reading raised from the ground by jose saramago).  I’m working to see where I–my beliefs and sensibilities–fit into the world I seem to want to join and has as of yet not answered my knocks and pleas for admittance.  I don’t know that I fit there, but what I also believe–after reading these review sections–is that no one truly fits there.

last sunday the times was delivered and I asked john for the book review section.  I read this review and skimmed that, and skipped over everything that didn’t call to me.  I find myself in places; I am unequivocally absent in others.  and this I know:  I am my own unique being.  I will never write short stories about female werewolves.  I will not become an essayist, nor a poet.  I can’t ever imagine writing a review of someone else’s written work.  it’s unlikely I’ll ever write a political novel, nor an expose of someone’s life.  or something so controversial or original or heartbreakingly staggering that the entire world stands up and takes notice.  I will write what I have to write, and keep plugging away at it.  the new york times book review may one day notice me, or it may not.  either way, it will be what it decides to be, and I will continue to find within it gems and clay.

this isn’t a review of the review.  it’s simply my reaction to it.  I’m warming to it; I’m hoping it will become a better acquaintance, perhaps even someday a friend.  I respect it; I acknowledge that I don’t have to love it.  it’s a way to learn about the world of writers and written works.  and maybe, along the way, a few more things about myself.


I love research, whether it be the origin of a phrase, the date of a birth, or the history of a person or event.   I’m a dedicated fact-checker, a punctilious speller, meticulous in my efforts to state things correctly.  I love learning causes and explanations and silly little facts, and I find digging into the why’s and where’s to be an intriguing challenge.  while my greatest joy in writing is to be in that place of “flow” where the words come flying through my fingers with very little conscious participation, I find the researching aspect of writing to be a challenge that when answered brings me incredible satisfaction.

another form of writing research is possibly even better, though . . . and that would be the times I research the writing styles of other authors.

stephen king has been credited with the following words of wisdom:   If you want to be a writeryou must do two things above all others:read a lot and write a lot.

darn, I have to read.  a lot.  what drudgery.

I pretend it’s work, while I’m singing inside.

these past few days I’ve been rereading a book I read nine years ago, a book I love, the time traveler’s wife (if you haven’t already, please read this book.  skip the movie: read this fabulous book).  it’s research, you see, as my latest project has a vague connection to issues written about by ms. niffenegger.  I snuggle into my corner of the couch, a chenille throw draped around my knees and toes, and dig into my research.  serious countenance aside, I am inwardly grinning and happy as a clam.

to be honest, though, I often end up reading works I don’t care quite so much for in attempts to be “aware” and on top of the literary scene.  (no, haven’t tried fifty shades of anything, yet.)  I have forced myself through pulitzer prize winning books, and books on top of “everyone’s” must-read lists, classics, and even those suggested by friends, all in efforts to broaden my experiences and taste.  to increase my exposure, to stay current.  I am too kind to make a list of Books I Couldn’t Finish, or even Books I Wanted To Stop Reading But Didn’t Because They Won Prizes.  but I will share those titles in close company, and shake my head in amazement that I am so uneducated?  dense?  narrow?  as to think little of them.

but fortunately, most of my reading-research involves books I actually enjoy reading.  from each book, story, or essay I read I pick up ideas.  phrasing, methods, new words, craft . . . there is always something for a writer to learn from another written work.

so please excuse the brevity, but I must return to ms. niffenegger’s book because it seems that I still have work to do.