Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Guest Post: Fact Vs. Fiction: What is the place of “Truth” in Creative Nonfiction?

I'm very excited to have Amber Whitley from Ink Affairs posting today. In addition to being a great fiction writer, Amber writes creative nonfiction. As you may know, creative nonfiction is huge right now. Given the explosion of the genre, and the fact that I don't write a lot of creative nonfiction, I asked Amber to tackle the sticky area of "truth" in creative nonfiction.

Enjoy! You're in for a treat!

Fact Vs. Fiction: What is the place of “Truth” in Creative Nonfiction?
by: Amber Whitley

The term “creative nonfiction” is an oxymoron. Creation implies imagination and fabrication used to develop a story whereas nonfiction requires an absolute veracity that leaves no room for anything except the truth. So how, as artists, do we navigate this potential minefield?

Very carefully.

Think back to a moment that was important in your life – a first kiss or wedding or death – and try to remember the scene as vividly as you can. It’s difficult, right, to get all those little details like conversations, attire, setting, or even names. Now think back to something that happened last week. Is that any easier? Of course it isn’t. If we cannot trust our memory to accurately relate something that happened to us last week, then how could we ever expect it to remember all the details necessary to write a nonfiction piece about something that happened five or ten or twenty years ago? This is the problem inherent in writing creative nonfiction; unfortunately, it doesn’t have a neat solution.

Writers handle the “truth” problem in creative nonfiction in many different ways. Some writers try to stick to the factual truth of a story and will not put in any elements that they don’t directly remember or can’t verify by speaking with a family member or looking at a photograph. These writers usually don’t incorporate dialog in their stories because, let’s face it, it’s almost impossible to remember a conversation word for word without having videotaped it or otherwise recorded it. Other writers – myself included – aim for an emotional rather than strictly factual truth. What’s important to me isn’t that the particular details remain unchanged, but rather that I stay true to the deeper emotional truth of what happened.

In a piece soon to be published by Breakwater Review, I relate an experience that happened to me while a Peace Corps Volunteer in Kazakhstan. While dining out with friends, we were invited to join three businessmen at their table where we talked about politics and lesbianism and women’s role in society. It was an experience that has stuck with me years later, but in the telling of it I had to create certain facts, skip over others. For example, although I remembered what the men looked like and were wearing, I had completely forgotten their names. Also, I was faced with the challenge that this discussion was done in a foreign language, so not only did I struggle to remember verbatim what people said, there’s also the distinct possibility that I might have mistranslated something. Should I not have written this story because of the fallibility of memory? Did I change what happened? No. The place, the people, what we were drinking, the Cuban cigars, all of that happened. For the dialogue, however, necessity forced me to stick to the meaning and heart of the conversation, thus sacrificing word choice on the altar of creativity.

So where is truth in creative nonfiction? It’s there; it has to be. Without a solid foundation in factual truth, you might as well call your story fiction and be done with it. But what do you do when you don’t have enough factual memories to fill in the details or when you need to combine five ancillary characters into one for the sake of good narration? Each writer will have to decide that alone.

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