Life writing is an extensive genre that includes memoir, autobiography, biography, family history, travel writing, local history, nature writing and journaling.


This is creative nonfiction, which comes in many forms. It may be short and easily consumed in one reading, or it may be book length. It may be the writer’s personal story, a story that can only be told by the individual themselves, such as an account of getting arrested while overseas, or their experience of single parenting. Or it may be a public story on a grander scale or universal theme that could be written by anyone with the time and inclination, as in a review of drug laws or family support services. And it may connect the personal story with the big picture issues of public interest, giving it broader appeal.

More than one person has asked how non-fiction can be creative. Wouldn't that be lying or exaggerating, they ask? Well, no. A creative non-fiction work is factually accurate in its account of real events and people. And it uses the creative techniques of novel writers,   playwrights and poets. It is not a text book or an instruction manual.


In my memoir, 'In Life There is Luck,' I wrote in three different but inter-related, or overlapping forms to form a complete narrative. These are the vignette, flash non-fiction and the personal essay. These suit different situations and different levels of complexity, from the short but remarkable, to the interwoven and life changing.

The personal essay is far less formal, and far less reliant on research than a scholarly essay. It  is much more subjective in its writing, being based on the writer’s experiences. It does not follow the traditional scholarly essay structure of an introduction to the main argument (where the reader finds out what the writer is going to say), followed by the evidence in three or four points (where the writer actually says whatever it is), followed by a summary (in which the reader is reminded of what they have just been told).

As the name implies, flash non-fiction is a very short form of non-fiction with a typical word range of 300 to 500, though this may extend up to 1,000. Clearly there may be an overlap with the personal essay, which is of no particular importance. Its focus is the writer’s experience of the world, with an emotional element, leaving the reader something to ponder.

The vignette is a short impressionistic sketch focussed on one or two specific moments, characters or details. Pronounced vin-yet, and taken from the French word ‘vigne’ meaning little vine, it is a little story of probably no more than a few hundred words. It uses sensory detail and imagery to present a graceful account.

Here's an example of a vignette, taken from Beyond Fear and Loathing: Local Politics at Work which I published ion 2012.

"We had prepared a simple one page summary of our work and our concerns. As the meeting headed to a close I slid this across the boardroom table towards him, making eye contact as I did. I held his gaze as I leant forward slightly, arm outstretched for an eternity, wanting him to take the paper, to recognise the effort we had made. He ignored the paper and as he looked away I leaned back, soundly defeated. To take the paper        would have been an acknowledgement, an acceptance that this community had done         something of value, but [Mayor]Watson wasn’t about to make that acknowledgement."

What a gift

A few years back a friend gave me a copy of The Gift, a book by Lewis Hyde first published in 1979. This is a dense book, a slow read, but worth it. I re-read several passages to let it sink in, to get the most out of it.

With a subtitle of Creativity and the Artist in the Modern World it’s a call to anyone in any of the arts. It’s been described as a study of gift-giving and its relationship to the arts. The giving of one gift, Hyde says, draws energy for the creation of a new gift.

Hyde looks at many aspects of art differently, has many offerings from his perspective. One of his offerings is that when you create something, such as a work of art, a piece of music, a poem or a story, you are creating something new. It didn’t exist before you created it. Think of this as a gift: firstly to yourself and then as a gift to anyone you choose to share it with.

I started reading this to participants at the opening of my writing workshops. These usually include a few people who are wondering why they are there, and I’m convinced it makes a difference. It’s a different way of looking at things. It lightens the load, perhaps provides a reassurance. I sometimes sense an air of 'It’ll be OK,' among the group.

Thanks Kate.

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