In the old days, if you were an ambitious young Englishman looking for adventure and glory, your career path was obvious: You became a servant of the British Empire. The memoirs of George Orwell and Leonard Woolf, like the fiction of Rudyard Kipling, give a vivid sense of how exciting a young proconsul's life could be. Back home, he was just another 22-year-old, on the bottom rung of the career ladder; in India or Burma or Malaya, he was a combination of king, judge, and general, ruling a village or even a whole province with no one to supervise him. Orwell, who wrote in "Shooting an Elephant" that his experience as a policeman in Burma "oppressed me with an intolerable sense of guilt," recognized that even the hatred of the native population was a tribute to his power: "I was hated by large numbers of people the only time in my life that I have been important enough for this to happen to me."
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Even the most personal essay is usually full of substantive detail about a subject that affects or concerns a writer and the people about whom he or she is writing. Read the books and essays of the most renowned nonfiction writers in this century and you will read about a writer engaged in a quest for information and discovery. From George Orwell to Ernest Hemingway to John McPhee, books and essays written by these writers are invariably about a subject other than themselves, although the narrator will be intimately included in the story. Personal experience and spontaneous intellectual discourse - an airing and exploration of ideas - are equally vital. In her first book, "Pilgrim at Tinker Creek," which won the Pulitzer Prize, and in her other books and essays, Annie Dillard repeatedly overwhelms her readers with factual information, minutely detailed descriptions of insects, botany and biology, history, anthropology, blended with her own feelings about life.
When I refer to creative nonfiction, I include memoir (autobiography), and documentary drama, a term more often used in relation to film, as in "Hoop Dreams," which captures the lives of two inner-city high school basketball players over a six-year period. Much of what is generically referred to as "literary journalism" or in the past, "new journalism," can be classified as creative nonfiction. Although it is the current vogue in the world of writing today, the combination of creative nonfiction as a form of writing and immersion as a method of research has a long history. George Orwell's famous essay, "Shooting an Elephant" combines personal experience and high quality literary writing techniques. The Daniel DeFoe classic, "Robinson Crusoe," is based upon a true story of a physician who was marooned on a desert island. Ernest Hemingway's paean to bullfighting, "Death in the Afternoon," comes under the creative nonfiction umbrella, as does Tom Wolfe's, "The Right Stuff," which was made into an award-winning film. Other well-known creative nonfiction writers, who may utilize immersion techniques include John McPhee ("Coming Into the Country"), Tracy Kidder ("House"), Diane Ackerman ("A Natural History of the Senses") and Pulitzer Prize winner Annie Dillard ("Pilgrim at Tinker Creek"), to name only a few of the many authors who have contributed to this burgeoning genre.
He resigned and returned to England in 1928 having grown to hate imperialism (as shown by his first novel Burmese Days, published in 1934, and by such essays as 'A Hanging', and 'Shooting an Elephant').
Let nouns and verbs do the work of description for you. With nouns, your readers will see; with verbs, they will feel. In the following paragraph, taken from George Orwell's famous anti-imperialist essay, "Shooting an Elephant," see how the act of shooting the elephant delivers immense emotional impact. What adjectives would you expect to find in a paragraph about an elephant? big? grey? loud? enormous? Do you find them here? Watch the verbs, instead. Notice, too, another truth about description: when time is fleeting, slow down the prose. See how long the few seconds of the shooting can take in this paragraph. You can read the entire text of George Orwell's story by clicking , and you can read additional essays by this famous author of and at