There are two ways imagination comes into play with creative nonfiction. The first is simply that the writer can imagine all she wants in an essay, as long as the border between observed truth and imagined truth is acknowledged. So for instance, a memoir essay might contain the sentence “I have no idea where my sister disappeared to that cold December afternoon, and she has never told me, but I’ve always thought perhaps she went to see our Aunt Molly to ask about cousin Mike’s death….”
The second and more significant way that imagination comes into play is that a creative nonfiction writer must create the form, shape, language, metaphor, and rhythm of the essay. We are not all photo-realists. So just like a painter must use aesthetic imagination to decide how to paint an apple (think O’Keeffe, think Picasso, think Seurat), a writer of literary nonfiction—nonfiction that is an art form not just informational—has to invent the way in which the story is told, and then apply each brushstroke within the greater frame. Arranging an artistic presentation of sentences that are based in fact and arranging an artistic presentation of sentences that are based in fiction takes a great amount of imagination and vision either way.