Truth, Reality, and the Facts

Posted: September 1, 2015 in Uncategorized
Tags: , , , , , , , , ,

David L. Ulin, LA Times Book Critic, wrote an article in the June 23rd edition that, once again, has brought the debate about the various uses of creative expression in nonfiction back to the forefront.

I graduated in 2010 from Antioch University Midwest with an MA, focusing on creative nonfiction.  Before I even applied for the program at Antioch, I did a lot of research on the genre, knowing that I wanted to concentrate on learning the art of writing about truth and reality, but not completely understanding how this genre was defined or whether what I wanted to write would work within its framework. I needn’t have worried. Even the staff at the school was confused and in disagreement about its definition and what I ended up writing was as much an experiment as it was a springboard to a greater understanding of this genre.

I’ve read and written a lot more in the interim five years, in both fiction and creative nonfiction, and I’m disappointed that we are still having the debate about whether or not it is proper to twist the truth and create deception when writing creative nonfiction.  I think that when we write nonfiction – purely informational or with a literary, creative slant – we have a responsibility to the reader.  In a way that is different from the fiction that we deliver, our nonfiction must be trustworthy. If we decide that we are going to equate the “creative” in creative nonfiction with “deceptive” or “not quite true,” then why should our readers believe anything we write?  Why, in fact, do we call it nonfiction at all? Why not just call it all fiction?

Someone argued with me at some point that it really doesn’t matter.  A paragraph here, a paragraph there that stretches the truth a little or some created dialogue can only enhance the story we are telling. I say that if you are unable to write the story without creating fake scenes and made up dialogue, then you shouldn’t be writing creative nonfiction.  Because you are lying.  And, for me, that’s just not ok in a work that is NOT FICTION.

Some writers write to tell a story – oftentimes their story – with the express purpose of sharing a difficult journey with readers so that those readers might finally discover someone like them. Someone who understands them. If we, as writers, allow even just a little bit of deception into our writing, we let those folks down.

So, what does the creative in creative nonfiction mean anyway?  I’ve been asking myself this for years and, though I still don’t write it very well, I think I do understand it a little better than I did. I’m taking the following from the journal that defines the genre, Creative Nonfiction. I figure if they don’t know, nobody does (bolding is mine):

“The word “creative” has been criticized in this context because some people have maintained that being creative means that you pretend or exaggerate or make up facts and embellish details. This is completely incorrect. It is possible to be honest and straightforward and brilliant and creative at the same time.

Creative” doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: “You can’t make this stuff up!””

Ulin talks in his article about the facts and truth not always being the same and, while I think I understand what he’s getting at, I’m going to be a stickler on this one when it comes to writing nonfiction for an audience. Oxford defines “truth” as “the quality or state of being true,” and “true” as “in accordance with fact or reality.”  A “fact,” then, is “a thing that is indisputably the case.”  Reality, however, is a whole different ballgame, and my reality may look completely different from yours. Perception, though, doesn’t change words used in dialogue or alter or create (usually) complete events. Memory sometimes does that, and in memoir writing, there are techniques one can use to cue the reader for possible defects in memory.  But purposeful creation of new dialogue and events that did not happen in order to make the writing more interesting is deliberately deceptive and doesn’t belong in creative nonfiction.  It does an incredible disservice to both the reader and any writer of this genre.

  1. rebeccakuder says:

    “…purposeful creation of new dialogue and events that did not happen in order to make the writing more interesting is deliberately deceptive and doesn’t belong in creative nonfiction.” I completely agree. And I look forward to talking to you about this some more when we have time. And now I’m off to read Ms. Pauwels’ post. 🙂

  2. Sammy D. says:

    Absolutely!! Coincidentally I’m in the throes of writing my own post about what CNF is and isn’t, including the standard of ‘truth’. I’ve been overwhelmed by the resources, and even moreso by the numerous terms and contradictions that define the CNF genre. Delicious debate, and goid to read your opinion.

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