Making the argument

In the Spring 2011 issue of the bible of creative nonfiction, the journal Creative Nonfiction, Phillip Lopate explores whether the essay is “exploration or argument,” ultimately deciding that the best creative nonfiction essays do, in fact, make an argument, even if implicitly. And he says that teachers of creative nonfiction are at a disadvantage in one distinct way: “The creative writing teacher, whose authority extends from being a practitioner of the form, is not a trained rhetorician” (58).


Not so, Phillip Locate. For I AM a trained rhetorician. No wonder I have no problem teaching my Advanced Comp students that their creative nonfiction pieces MUST have a point, MUST persuade in some small way, MUST make an argument of some kind.

I feel quite good knowing that I have an advantage in this arena, for I am both trained rhetorician AND professional, published writer (in addition to teaching College Composition, which is all about argument and research). Hooray! (Of course, all of this know-how has zero effect on my ability to get stuff published quickly…I have to run the same marathons as you, trust me.)

So I need to put on my rhetorician hat here for a moment and share a few tips on making an argument in a creative nonfiction essay.

 1. Once you settle on an idea, ask yourself why you want to write about it. The answer to that question (unless it is a banal ‘because I want to’ or ‘because it’s interesting to me’) will likely provide a skeletal framework for your argument that will be cleverly and creatively embedded in the piece.

2. In creative nonfiction, you don’t really want to bash the reader over the head with your point or opinion or argument. You must use language, scenes, details, dialogue, description, structure, anecdotes, and moments of reflection to do that work for you. Subtlety can be just as persuasive as the invisible bat to the head. There should be no point at which you editorialize or moralize (‘the reason I’m writing this is because’ or some form of ‘the moral of the story’ or ‘what I learned was’…just don’t do it), but rather gently persuade through the hypnotic pulse of your sentences and structure. In this case, the whole really is the sum of its parts. Get the reader on your side – no one likes to be preached at.

3. Here’s a simplified rhetoric lesson. Rhetoric is the art of persuasion. Think about what persuades you. When you read an opinion editorial, do you ever think, ‘huh, never thought about it like that before.’ Gotcha! You’ve been persuaded. The piece made you think and feel something. Now, to make that work in a creative piece, think about the purpose of the essay you’re writing and the one single scene that you can include to show the import of your purpose. You’ll probably end up with more than one scene, but nobody likes to be overwhelmed, so start with one. You can build from there.

Say you want to tell the story of your dad’s abuse and how you have started to heal physically, emotionally, and psychologically. Your recovery is important because you finally feel like you are becoming your true self, out from under the weight of this experience and knowledge. The argument is that it IS possible to move past such a trauma. The story should demonstrate that abuse is dangerous and damaging and anyone reading the story should take solace that a) they are not alone and b) it IS possible to feel whole and human again.

Let’s start there.

What scene would be most important to include? Perhaps the moment you stood up for yourself and fought back. Okay. Write that scene. Now go back and think again about your purpose and argument.

Build on what you started with…what other scene might be important to include for variety and perspective? How about a moment from way back – your childhood. A moment where you were treated abominably to show the longevity and history of this abuse. Check. Write that scene.

Now your piece is getting pretty long, but you need another scene to round it out – you don’t want your story to be two-dimensional. No one is ever persuaded by two-dimensional arguments. You must address the counterpoint…your dad’s perspective.

So you pick a scene that balances the impression that you’ve given thus far that he is a two-dimensional monster…now he becomes human. It’s not important that you show readers that you have forgiven him – you may not have and this isn’t his story. This is YOUR story, so the focus should remain on YOU.

You may decide after writing these three scenes, revising, re-ordering, and polishing that they will stand alone without any explanation – the scenes make the argument. Or you may decide to play with the pieces and the structure and experiment with presentation. Whatever you decide, the underlying argument is clear because you thought about your purpose in advance, which provided a structure and guideline for your decisions.

Remember to have a purpose when writing – it will strengthen your story and improve audience (and editor!) reactions.

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