How accurate should truth in creative nonfiction be? After all, truth is truth. Or is it? Even a story based on the truth still ends up being constructed using the same literary devices used to craft fiction. The recent release of Bohemian Rhapsody is a great example of how the timeline of real life can be shifted around to build momentum in a story. The biopic’s finale makes the Live Aid performance come across as a triumph after Freddie Mercury is diagnosed with HIV. In real life, he didn’t find out the status of his health until a while later.
In some nonfiction circles, such shifting of events would be considered dishonest. Yet, the essence of the band’s story is kept in tact, the greater overall truth still accurate. On the other hand, some would question the decision to recreate most of the band’s iconic Live Aid performance at the end of the movie. What purpose does it serve the narrative to mimic such a historical performance exactly? As this movie example reveals, rendering truth in creative nonfiction is rife with sticky points.
Truth in Creative Nonfiction
Rendering the truth in creative nonfiction is an art form. Crafting a narrative involves shaping material to tell a real life story using the same literary techniques as fiction, but the story must be factually accurate. Whereas fiction begins in the imagination, creative nonfiction springs from actual events. Any writer who wants to coax a story from life’s seeming chaos has many choices to make.
Memory is a fickle thing. People often don’t remember things accurately, and time can further erode or shift memories as newer influences come into play. A detail might be remembered inaccurately, but it’s still true to the writer’s memory. This raises the question of whether realizations of erroneous recollections should be alluded to as an equally important part of the narrative. The role of truth in creative nonfiction is also further complicated by how no two people will recall an event the same way.
Telling Truths Subjectively
Everyone experiences reality differently due to the subjective lenses they encounter the world with. A person’s unique backgrounds and beliefs act as a filter used to process events, and lifetimes are spent building frames of reference. Even the words chosen to describe an event shape its perception by an audience. The rendering of subject matter varies depending on the discourse community it’s intended for. It’s necessary to consider the goals and purposes of the particular group the text must reach.
Using Composite Characters
Bringing together the main traits and influence of two or more people into one composite character might be done to protect the so-called innocent or for the sake of supposedly streamlining the number of people in narrative, but doing so brings into question the ethics of doing so. Conflating characters might be done with the intention of strengthening the story, but as it shifts the focus into the imaginary realm.
Adding or Subtracting Details
Once a writer feels compelled to add details that were not part of the story, the motivation for doing so must be questioned. If the intent is to use imagined details to arrive at a greater truth, why not just write fiction since it can also communicate larger truths about the world? On the other hand, is it any more acceptable to simply not mention something by leaving it out entirely? Another tendency may be to compress time to speed up the story.
What are your thoughts on truth in creative nonfiction?
This post originally appeared as a guest post on D.G. Kaye’s blog. You may also like reading Pitching to Literary Agents at a Conference or Determining Your Book Publishing Goals.
In my view, the accuracy of truth can’t be questioned because it may differ, as every individual would report the events or situations according to his own perspective. Imagination of the writer is difficult to curtail and that too contributes to crafting the story. Memories often change their contours in creative nonfiction as we tend to add our own reflections and reactions to the memory.
There is a very thin line between a factually correct story and the way a writer wants to present it. Readers may not know when he bounces in and out of that line.
Balroop, it’s interesting how two people can remember the same event in entirely different ways. In the memoir Educated, the author notes a few times how her version of events differs from that of other family members.
Memory is always a tricky thing. I think no matter the devices a writer uses to tell the story — compression of time, rearrangement of timeline — there needs to be a commitment to not changing the essence of the story. Of course, that’s a gray area, too. I appreciate it when a CNF writer adds a blurb at the beginning of the book, stating if they’ve changed timelines or other things, and stating that their recollection is theirs only, and may differ from others.
Laura, I fully agree. I am not fully certain how I feel about changing timelines to serve the story. I side closer to it not being okay, but every writing situation demands different approaches.
I’ve been thinking about the different ways we remember things as I work on a memoir about the passing of my parents. My three siblings recall things unique from what I do. I feel that as long as I am clear about what is my memory versus our collective memory, I should be safe telling the story.
RoseMary, you make a great point about differentiating between your memories and collective ones. I’m often surprised how my sisters remember certain aspects of my parents differently than I do, but then I’m not surprised when I remind myself how we each interpret the world through lenses that are made of the many influences present in our lives.
Rendering the truth in creative nonfiction truly is an art form. I think the writer can choose to order the events he/she wants to tell us in any way that works, going back and forth in time. However I do think it is dishonest to time shift and portray the incidents as occurring in a different sequence than they did. I also don’t think composite characters or details that didn’t really happen should be included. If the writer needs that to tell the story, consider using the real life events as a springboard for a fiction piece.
Donna, we’re certainly on the same page. Once a writer veers into creating composite characters and the like, the writing is veering into fictional territory and should be labeled as such.
I would say there should be some leeway. As you pointed out, perception plays a big role in this type of writing. What is important to one person who was there isn’t necessarily important to another. Composing one character out of many may be a little too much but, then, that’s just my opinion.
Jeri, have you read or seen the movie, The Help?
Glynis, I have both read The Help and seen the movie. I didn’t write a very favorable review, which can be found on this website 😉
Lots to think about here, Jeri. I think depending on the story familiarity to the general public, an author might want to be careful to write is as it happened…of course, embellishing some detail but not changing the actual chronological events. As a reader, when I see the word non-fiction, I’m thinking it’s TRUE. So, I get a little annoyed when a story is re-told so far from the truth or the facts yet still maintain it as non-fiction.
Your example of the movie about Queen is a good one. Many people have complained that there was far too much omission of events which can also be a problem in creative non-fiction
If a story is obscure then I think the author can get away with a lot more creativity. That Barbara Kingsolver quote is apt! If in doubt about the truth, we can always examine ‘facts’ of the story. Facts are not interpretations. Either they happened, are true or they did not happen and are false.
Interesting post and topic, Jeri 🙂
Lisa, I’m glad you found this a topic with lots of food for thought. You comment about obscure stories makes me think about how many memoirists will often wait until one or both parents passes away before writing about them.
Great pointers Jeri. What stuck out most to me is what I often question: if you’re going to embellish stories why not just write in fiction? Maybe some think sensationalizing a true story is more intriguing to a reader instead of a fictional tale. Will we ever know?
DG, I’ve gotten frustrated in the past when people will join a nonfiction writing group and then submit a “story” based on real events. It takes a lot for some writers to understand what they are doing has become fiction and is not longer really the “truth.”
I have two thoughts about this. First, the term creative non-fiction already suggests that the truth might be true but maybe not literal. The other is that i’m not sure most fiction really comes from the imagination. Sometimes fiction, like non-fiction, is a re-tell of life experiences. Maybe just enhanced a bit. Like a photo you take on your phone.
Ken, both points you make are great ones. There’s a lot of leeway on either side of the fence, but it sure is fun to discuss the implications!
There’s leeway and there’s fiction. A while back I was helping a client write a memoir. She wanted to “get the facts straight” but also tell HER story. The subjective aspects of memory were at the front of my mind during the entire process. It was her experience of the events and her experience of what motivated her that led the way for me. She was the one conflicted about the experiences of others. It was an interesting process that ultimately led to her moving on from the abuse that dominated her history and deciding to let the project go.
In the meantime, the ideas that arose from her story have crept into my fiction. Her memories, her sense of her own culpability, her reluctance to label herself as a victim of other people, informs some of my ideas for characters. I think I inherited some of her reluctance to move the events around to fix a more compelling narrative. That is for nonfiction… in fiction… that’s another story! Move the events, make the STORY compelling.
Candy, fiction is great in the freedom it allows writers, and I think that freedom can be overwhelming to some. Perhaps that is why I gravitate more to writing nonfiction.
That’s a great quote by Barbara Kingsolver, and I didn’t realize that about the timeline of Bohemian Rhapsody. Such a thought-provoking question! But since even two people can experience the same reality differently, surely there must be room for interpretation in fiction.
Meredith, difference of experience is a given. It’s when timelines start being messed with that I get nervous.
As someone who used to be in “the entertainment biz”, I’d say all theatrical story telling (even true stories) need to be taken with a grain of salt. The bottom line is to tell a rewarding story that will make money, even if the details aren’t 100% accurate. But I hold non-fiction book writers to a higher standard in my head. I don’t know why I expect a book to be more truthful – but for some reason I do.
Erica, books I think get held to a higher standard because they’ve been around longer and seem more permanent in some ways than theatrical performances.
Interesting post. I don’t write non-fiction, and I haven’t read much of it, so I’ll refrain from your questions. Reality can easily morph into fantasy.
BTW, I saw Bohemian Rhapsody and though it was phenomenal. Freddie was full of talent.
Denise, Remi Malek definitely did an outstanding job.
I loved Bohemian Rhapsody and didn’t realize the sequence of events was different in real life for Live Aid like that. And as you say people sometimes remember the same event so differently… It can cause family arguments sometimes lol 😉 So the lines of fact vs fiction blur sometimes..!
Christy, Bohemian Rhapsody is a great example of how real events can be re-ordered to achieve a particular effect.