Some Points on Creative Non-Fiction

If it isn’t verse…

And it isn’t fiction…

It just might fall into the realm of creative non-fiction.

Creative non-fiction has many of the same elements of fiction. After all, a personal essay or a memoir does tell somebody’s story. Good storytelling incorporates the same linguistic resonances and descriptive qualities, the same arch, the same built-in tensions, foils, resolutions. The difference is that the particular story being told is…true (ish). Often, like in fiction, creative non-fiction focuses on emotive or abstract elements in the story, rather than strictly the facts. It focuses on history and perception. It focuses on personal epiphany, transformation, redemption. The list goes on.

Creative non-fiction departs from journalism, in that a journalist, on most platforms, is obliged to “just the facts, ma’am.” The date and time. A car crash. Three passengers. Sustained injuries. Etcetera. Journalism, too, can be creative–but it must not mislead the reader.

In fact, it’s true for both forms. In creative non-fiction as in journalism, you can’t intentionally mislead your audience.

But it’s often muddier than it would seem.

As mentioned, creative non-fiction often depends on the emotionally perceived elements of actual events. Trouble comes, though, when we try to derive our account or memoir from fictitious events. While we contrive to record those experiences and life events that corroborate our feelings and perceptions about life, no matter how strongly a recorded event–or dialogue!– may resonate, it isn’t creative non-fiction unless those events reflect a historical occurrence.

Take the poster child for failed creative non-fiction: James Frey. You know the story…

freyJames Frey, author of A Million Tiny Pieces, first shopped his book as a novel, but was turned away by many publishers. He then marketed the book as a memoir, and was picked up by Random House. Later, he was obliged to re-market it again, as what it was originally intended to be– a “semi-fictional novel”– when it was discovered that he fabricated many events found in the account. He initially justified these apocryphal elements by saying they reflected the “essential truth of [his] life.” (source)

Frey felt that it “fit” with his narrative persona to include details about his life as a drug dealer in his book–even though many of those details were fictitious. And that would have been fine–if he were Sylvia Plath, writing her biographical novel The Bell Jar. But he wasn’t. It’s important to remember that readers don’t arrive at your narrative with your ideologies and perceptions. They arrive with their own! What you tell them in a work of creative non-fiction will be assimilated into their construction of reality and they will take something away from that encounter for better or worse.

Let’s end on a quirky political note– the article cited above also notes that Frey didn’t use traditional quotation marks around much of the dialogue in his book, opting instead to start each new exchange with a paragraph break. In more ‘ideologically’-inclined news media, this is attempted in different ways. While I in no way endorse Kim Davis’ many publicity stunts as of recently, I have to call out a sympathetic pundit in an article out this week from Occupy Democrats. It features a headline that exhibits a similarly “creative” method of enhancing the story. See below.

The banner/headline uses a colon after “Pope Francis,” leading the reader to believe that what follows are his words. Or at least his sentiments.  Those were not his words. And his feelings on Kim Davis have not been discussed.

Bottom line: strive not just to be compelling, but to be authentic in your personal essays, your memoirs, and yes–your news converage!

What about you? What do you feel creative non-fiction should do for the reader? What do you feel is most important when conveying true facts in a personal essay or memoir? And what, if any, do you consider grey areas?


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