Where Ideas Grow

A blog for students of creative writing at York St John University

How Non-Fiction Can Help You Creatively

Sometimes I find that reading non-fiction works is disregarded among readers and aspiring writers. When creating a fiction piece, there may be prejudice that inspiration for writing is harder to draw from in non-fiction. Sometimes people think non-fiction works are just fact-relaying Wikipedia-style documents that showcase fewer forms of creativity. However, I find that in non-fiction, I absorb writing styles, information, and ways of approaching life that can help establish creative pieces and the foundations that inspire me to write in the first place.

Throughout this article, I will talk about various forms of non-fiction I have read and how it has inspired me creatively – whether it is from the writing style, or the contents itself, with the aim to inspire others who may not read non-fiction to do so also. If you love non-fiction, I’d love to hear your favourites. It is fun finding inspiration in unexpected pieces; it uses a different part of your brain that will ignite when you write. 

Starting with the obvious, the memoirs of renowned authors offer a great source of individuality. It lets you look inside their brains and discover what makes them tick. Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft, Margaret Atwood’s On Writers and Writing, George Orwell’s Why I Write and Leila Silmani’s The Scent of Flowers at Night are some examples. However, one that piqued my interest recently was Murakami’s What I Talk About When I Talk About Running. I have not touched a Murakami book since I was 18 and a university flatmate borrowed me Norweigan Wood, yet What I Talk About When I Talk About Running was unique to me as the author blends both the craft of writing and the strain and perseverance of physical exercise into the same stream. He combines these two challenges and discusses how synchronising them helps him to achieve both a finished novel and in this case, a marathon. Literary creation is a mental marathon. As far as ‘well-being’ memoirs go, Murakami’s made me think a lot about how physical health is synonymous with mental health: the latter’s strength often affects my ability to be creative. Reading writers’ memoirs is useful in realising that the most prolific writers have the same struggles as any other; coming up with plot lines, reaching deadlines, writer’s block, and simply finding the effort to put pen to paper at times. It is relatable and enjoyable, and often I discover new techniques and strategies to help me find my spark.

I enjoy reading memoirs and autobiographies of people I wouldn’t usually consider. Reading an autobiography makes you feel much closer to that person, whether you are their biggest fan or have just heard their name in passing. They are typically written in a strong chronological format that makes for great structure and visions into the ability to pick out moments of a lifetime that will be entertaining and worth noting. I read Johnny Cash’s autobiography at 16 for no reason other than its mention in High Fidelity (2000), one of my favourite films. I have no real passion for Cash’s music in all honesty, yet his autobiography was such an enjoyable read. There are moments within it that have stuck with me and facts about Cash himself that I can relay to this day. Of course, autobiographies are inspired by a true life, that resulted in major significance, and I find their format useful for inspiring bildungsroman novels and descriptions of childhood. Small factors or happenings in someone’s life that made them who they are today.

Reading real accounts of human lives makes you appreciate tenderness. Condensing a lifetime into 300 pages or so is a mighty task, which, as another example, Anthony Bourdain mastered. Again, Bourdain was able to pick out moments from his fruitful and ambitious life and compress them into snappy stories that keep the reader flicking through the pages. In his memoir Kitchen Confidential, there is an especially funny story where Bourdain retells a time when an interview he had went very wrong. The pacing and humour are magnificent. 

I suppose autobiographies allow us to pause our own lives and live inside someone else’s for a brief moment; serving not only as an inspiration for writers in characterisation, but pacing and selecting significant stories within a story. Additionally, I think reading the autobiography of a person that you may not have been interested in previously causes an out-of-body experience, letting you leave the claustrophobic nature of your own mind and delve into that of another. It broadens your horizons to the stories that are constantly happening around us. Speaking of claustrophobia…

A simple fact book gets my mind whirring – facts on science, human nature, and all things weird and wonderful. Particularly if you are a writer of sci-fi or horror, facts are priceless because they allow us to reach a distinct part of our subconscious, and when this is fed into your work, it will touch your readers’ subconscious too. Kate Summerscale’s Phobias and Manias was a joy to flick through, disturbing at times (descriptions of entomophobia: a fear of insects, which I suffer from badly) yet incredibly insightful in learning about uncanny fears where the origins of such are not quite distinguishable. If a fear exists, there is a piece of entertainment media centered around it. Musophobia (the fear of rats and mice) was bound perfectly in James Herbert’s The Rats. Thallassophobia (the fear of large bodies of water) is captured in Peter Benchley’s Jaws, and hynophobia (a morbid fear of sleep) was executed in 1984’s A Nightmare on Elm Street. If you are a horror writer, understanding the nature of why certain things are scary to some will help you tackle how to make your piece even more frightening to your reader. For sci-fi writers, I recently enjoyed Becky Smethurst’s Space: 10 Things You Should Know. A brief selection of space facts is interesting for anyone, but particularly if you write stories set beyond our galaxy, a brief understanding of what lies out there can really flesh your story out. Blend both phobias and space and you get something along the lines of Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979). The creativity is endless.

After looking at the bigger picture of human nature, I like then to zoom closer – not at atoms, but at subjects that are locked in our hearts. John Armstrong’s conditions of love: the philosophy of intimacy and Annie Ernaux’s A Simple Passion (or anything by Ernaux, for that matter) are both insightful and gutwrenching reads that leave consumers face to face with their inner and deepest emotions. Armstrong’s writing highlights the literary works of Flaubert, Tolstoy, Goethe, Austen, and Turgenev – writers who tackled themes of unrequited love and incommensurable desires. By giving the reader an understanding of the psychology and philosophy of love, Armstrong’s ideas are a handbook for creative writers wanting to express such a vast and tender topic within their writing and dissect it. Ernaux’s A Simple Passion is a fleeting memoir about an affair she had as a younger woman with a married man that consumed her entire being. Her honesty and writing style is sublime. By tapping into her real emotions, Ernaux gifts readers and aspiring writers the chance to feel the heartbreak, loss of identity, and even dignity she felt. Because of their shortness, Ernaux’s memoirs are masterclasses in how to grip a reader and make them feel such strong emotions with so few pages – a magnifying glass. When a writer is so honest with us, it gives us inspiration to be more honest within our own work. Writing is an exercise that is born from love itself, whatever the genre, a love to be heard and for the ability to express, even entertain. Reading about human nature in such a context has helped me understand myself and where my creativity is born from.

Subcultures, societies, and sometimes outcasts, joining together and creating an entire movement out of creativity and passion make for wonderful non-fiction reads. This could be music movements, art movements, sports movements, and general timestamps in society that have earned a name and a following. The Cure’s Lol Tolhurst provides insight into one of my favourite subcultures in Goth. He links relevant cultural surroundings, literature, music, and of course, fashion into a web of brilliance. Similarly, another recent read of mine, Catland by Kathryn Hughes, discusses the rising popularity of cats in popular culture; her catalyst being the art of Louis Wain. Wain created an empire from his paintings of anthropomorphic cats. For me creatively, reading non-fiction books that showcase how entire societies are moved by this kind of collectivism inspires me to write more. I think the fact that we name and group together people with similar interests is often a way to embrace inclusivity, a way of saying we are not alone with our passions, that out there someone likes the exact same things as you, they may even be on the other side of the world. Therefore, reading such works about these cultures is a way to reach out, continue learning, and nourish our passions that can later be fed into our creative work. Eventually, a person may read your work who does in fact live on the other side of the world, and connect with you and your writing instantly, because of the references you make.

The aim of this was not to force feed my interests, but hopefully, to inspire more creative writers to look beyond solely fiction and literature for inspiration or even reading material. Reading non-fiction can be liberating, for me personally, because information is fed to me in a creative way that transpires and grows within my work. Whether it is factual, scientific, cultural, or autobiographical, there is a line of non-fiction for everyone. It gives you the backing of many wonderful voices, minds, and information behind you whenever you write creatively.

Anna Edwards

Books mentioned:

Armstrong, John. Conditions of Love : The Philosophy of Intimacy. London, Penguin, 2003.

Bourdain, Anthony. Kitchen Confidential : Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly. London, Bloomsbury, 22 May 2000.

Ernaux, Annie. Simple Passion. S.L., Fitzcarraldo Editions, 2021.

Hughes, Kathryn. Catland. John Hopkins University Press, 25 Apr. 2024.

Murakami, Haruki. What I Talk about When I Talk about Running. Vintage Canada, 11 Aug. 2009.

Smethurst, Becky. Space : 10 Things You Should Know : 14 Billion Years for People Short on Time. London, Seven Dials, 2019.

Summerscale, Kate. The Book of Phobias and Manias. Profile Books, 6 Oct. 2022.

Tolhurst, Lol. Goth. Hachette Books, 26 Sept. 2023.

Photo by Tim Wildsmith on Unsplash

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