Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Writing Creative Non-Fiction

By Tim Hillegonds, @TimHillegonds

Part of the How They Do It Series   

JH: I'd like to welcome Tim Hillegonds to the b log today to chat with us about writing about our lives. More specifically, writing creative non-fiction. I've always admired non-fiction writers, because making things up seems so much easier to me (grin). Writing about real life, and the real world, seems much more difficult.
Tim is a Chicago-based freelance writer that spends most of his time boxing, playing soccer, and trying to convince his wife that the terms freelancer and unemployed are not synonyms. He's got a blog, a book, and pit bull named Uriah. You can check out his site at

Take it away Tim...

For those of us who write creative non-fiction—be it essay, short story, memoir, or one of its various other forms—the feeling we have about writing is universal. There’s something soothing about taking life as it is and deconstructing it until it’s laid out before us like the big block Chevy engine that dad keeps saying he’s going to get around to putting back together. We can visualize it when it’s spread out all over the oily garage floor. We can take a much-needed step back and see how it all really fits together, and, ultimately, the critical role it plays in making the car run.

But where do we begin once we’ve committed to writing about our lives?

Where do start when we finally sit down at the computer and stare into the endless white abyss of Microsoft Word? Well, we start with our experiences—our own unique involvements in this crazy little thing called life. Let me try and explain by using an experience that’s close to my heart.

In the summer of 2009, I made the decision to leave the job I was at and take a position with another company. The career move seemed simple enough—more money, more opportunity, and a chance to go back to school to finish my undergraduate degree—but the decision was gut wrenching for one specific reason. The CEO of the company I was leaving was a mentor of sorts; he was also the guy that had given me the opportunity to get sober. When my life had been falling apart all around me and it seemed I had played my last decent hand, he’d secured me a bed at the Rolls Royce of rehabs in Center City, Minnesota, and wrote a check for $22,200 so I could begin putting it back together.

Let’s stop for a moment. In the paragraph above, there’s probably enough basic content to pull two or three essays out of it. I could expound on my decision to leave the job, my desire to finish my degree, getting sober, my experience in rehab, or how I felt when my boss wrote such a large check on my behalf. Creative non-fiction is about taking those basic strands of commonality—in this case desire, betrayal, loyalty, change—and weaving them into palpable, universal garments the reader can try on. Let’s continue.

My boss had always told me that I wouldn’t owe him anything. He’d always told me that it was his duty, his obligation as a fellow alcoholic, to give back to someone else. In the years that followed his gracious act of kindness, I tried to show how grateful I was by being fiercely loyal. I moved to two different states and sacrificed a lot of my own happiness so the company could grow. I put my vocation before everything else in my life. For the better part of eight years, I did everything I could in hopes that he would recognize just how truly appreciative I was.

Again, we can pull universal themes from this experience. I could expand on my relationship with my boss and how it changed once I felt like I owed him. I could use the settings of the states where I moved as background. I could juxtapose my desire to be successful in my career against the resentment of always feeling I had to pay back his act of kindness. In short, I could take these small experiences, these small individual events, and build on them to engage the reader in a way they could relate to.

Essays are what happens after life’s been lived.

Whether we read them or write them, we can find understanding in them. It’s where the absurdity of life is pondered in an effort to leave breadcrumb trails for those that come behind us. Essays are where we take our personal inventories and figure out what we’re lacking or running out of—what we need more of in our lives.

When we write essay and memoir, we’re taking the time to reveal our true selves in their purest forms in the hopes that someday the words we write will reach someone. We start with an experience, we write it down, we reflect, and then we build on it. Because there’s something purifying about the writing process, something that happens when one’s thoughts make that Pinocchio-like journey from the brain to the page. Magically, somewhere along the way, we figure out how we truly feel.

For writing to resonate is has to be real. It has to be raw. It has to be unafraid and forthright. And for it to be all that, to do all that, it has to start with an experience. The key to writing essays and memoir is to keep writing until you begin to see what you’ve really intended to say. But the only way to do that is to start with an experience that resonates within yourself, and then whittle it down until it takes the beautiful shape it was meant to.

You’ll be amazed at what you’ll find.


  1. Good stuff! Writing non fiction had helped me to make sense of the world, almost like therapy. It is frustrating, too, feeling like you constantly have to tie up the loose ends of life neatly. I wouldn't trade the experience for anything, though.

  2. Summer, I'm right there with you. It's almost like you get preconditioned to look for the lessons in everything...which can get REALLY annoying. But you're right, I wouldn't trade it either!

  3. Wow. Interesting stuff. And not what I thought. To me, writing non fiction always implied endless fact checking and making otherwise dry issues come to life. Thanks for sharing.