It happened again.

I was moving along in my happy little life as a writer and teacher of Creative Nonfiction (CNF), keeping a healthy distance from the writers and teachers of Fiction (F), staying on my side while they stayed on theirs, when seepage occurred. A writer of CNF spilled over to the F side without telling anyone. Or was she a writer of F who infiltrated the CNF side surreptitiously? It’s so hard to tell these days. But I knew one thing for sure: the border had been breached.

I knew this because the author in question had admitted it to me. We’d both attended a writing conference and presented on different panels. Hers had something to do with writing family history. Mine was called What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth? A few other CNF writers and I had ranted about what we considered the thick, impermeable line between truth and fiction. I spoke about my distaste for people who think writing the “emotional” truth, even if they invent stuff to express it, qualifies their work as CNF.  I read my favorite Mary Karr quote, which makes the issue unmistakably simple: “If it didn’t happen, it’s fiction. If it did, it’s nonfiction.”

Another panelist characterized the padding a CNF story with F to make it read better as pure laziness. We discussed notorious liars who apparently felt no shame at writing things like, “I have taken some liberties in the essay here and there, but none of them are harmful.”  (John D’Agata).

By the end, I was super charged on the gospel of honesty. Finally, I thought, we’ve made the distinction clear. Maybe now the lying will stop.

A couple of hours later, I was having dinner with the family history author. We’d published memoirs on similar topics, so I’m sure the marketing executive who brought us together assumed we’d get along. And we did, until the discussion turned to truth in CNF. While I always insist on full truth—hence the title of my panel—the other writer had no problem using techniques such as time compression and composite characters to tell her “true” story. Later she would tell me that she felt she was doing a service to her readers, making it easier for them, as if her readers were simple-minded and her story would be too dull without such manipulations.

Reader: it was not a pleasant dinner. In fact, it took me many days to get over my fury. She was publishing CNF with made up stuff in it. How was that ok?

I get riled up about this issue again and again because I was a Journalist (J) before I was a CNF writer. J’s deal in fact, all fact, nothing but the facts. Such training makes the transition to CNF rather easy. We understand that the Non never changes; we just get to be Creative in the way we express it. That means using elements commonly used in fiction: dialogue, scene, detail, opinion, varied points of view—anything, really, as long as those elements are used to express factual truth.

But not all writers have had the fiction whipped out of them in a newsroom. And since no one has ever legislated a definition of Creative Nonfiction that we all must follow, some writers interpret the term more loosely than I do. There have been calls for a clearer definition, though my favorite comes from a fiction writer who understands the church and state, editorial and advertising separation between F and CNF. She suggested a grading system similar to the one used for olive oil: “true” “extra-true” and “factually and actually true.”

I managed to forget about the fabricator from dinner until I learned that she had won a prize for nonfiction writing. Since I was about to give a CNF vs. F lecture to my students when I heard this distressing news, I thought I’d include the writer among those I out each semester. First, I contacted her to check that I’d remembered our dinner conversation accurately. Indeed, she confirmed, she “shaped” her true story by making composites of minor characters and playing with timelines. All for better flow, she assured me. Nothing “important” was untrue. (Clearly, we define that word differently, too.)

Then I started seething again. Not because she won the prize and I didn’t. (I wasn’t eligible.) Not because I think her story is unworthy. (Her subject matter is important and presenting it to the public is a good thing.) Not even because I think her work is anywhere near a fabrication of James Frey proportions. I believe that her story is essentially true, though no one can know that for sure about most CNF books since few are fact-checked. I was angry because in my mind, she’d broken the rules. She’d done the CNF equivalent of taking steroids. She’d cheated. I don’t like it when cheaters get rewarded.

But had she really committed a literary crime? Or had she just written the best book she could by following her interpretation of CNF? Though she’s as anxious as any writer to get recognition for her book, I don’t think she set out to deliberately fool anyone. And I know she’s not alone in her beliefs and practices.

So, maybe this is my problem. Maybe I need to relax a little and stop getting so angry about a principle, which isn’t good for my health or my karma. It makes me feel like a cranky tattletale to classify a fellow writer as a liar. It also wastes a lot of energy to repeatedly get so put out.

If only I could give up this fight, be more magnanimous and less self-righteous, chill the hell out. If only I could tell myself it doesn’t matter that people misunderstand the word non.

If only I could lie to myself.

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SUSAN KUSHNER RESNICK is the author of three works of creative nonfiction, including You Saved Me, Too: What a Holocaust Survivor Taught Me About Living, Dying, Loving, Fighting and Swearing in Yiddish. She teaches CNF writing at Brown University.

7 responses to “What Don’t You Understand About The Word NON?”

  1. Cyndi says:

    I’m with you on this one, Susan. I deliberately scrapped an essay I’d written, to high compliments from my writers group, when I realized my faulty memory had compressed two incidents into one.

    There’s reason we differentiate fiction from non-fiction (‘creative’ or otherwise).

  2. Uche Ogbuji says:

    Do you really believe that the Aristotelian approach to non-fiction you demand is at all possible? I don’t. Not even for a journalist. Sure journalists pat themselves on the back about that, but I’d be surprised if even 1 out of a million journalistic stories could pass a theoretical fact-check-by-time-machine test. It sounds as if the distinction you make is that in journalism even if there are inevitable distortions to truth they are not intentional by the writer. But in the typical functions of “creative non-fiction” what does it really matter whether a distortion is intentional or not intentional? It sounds as if the transgressors you mention make no bones about the fact that they process facts in some way to serve their articles. In my book, that is a higher level of probity than a journalist who is almost certainly lying to himself or herself about the factuality of their output, as well as lying to the reader, if one must use as charged a word as “lying.”

    In the end the key lies in something you said: trust the reader. Speaking for myself, I don’t care what the writer says or how they label the work. I don’t really presume the truth of *anything* I read. In the few cases where I absolutely require some best approximation of every mote of truth, I have no choice but to roll up my sleeves, consult and compare multiple sources. This has been fundamental to intelligent inquiry since the beginning of intelligence. I also don’t think I’m so special in that regard. Most people instinctively work in such a way. In fact, this basic, pragmatic fact informs most of our disciplines, including history, civics, law and science. A stark fundamentalism in labeling of “non-fiction” seems to me to be about as idealistic as argument over the populations of angels on pinheads.

  3. Chris Lowey says:

    Great article Sue and while I agree with your principal, I believe the “chill the hell out” method would benefit you more on this issue in the long run. And you do know wine and a good chat is always available at my house right 😉

  4. q says:

    what on earth is truth anyway?

  5. A says:

    Yes yes yes! Thank you.

  6. Susan, I completely agree with you but I’m afraid we’re losing the war. In a workshop I attended on creative nonfiction, samples submitted by attendees was copied and passed out as an example to emulate. After one memoir was read aloud, the writer acknowledged the incident was made up. I stated that this meant it was fiction. Another attendee said, “So what?” I was stunned. The person on the left said, “Because this is a workshop in nonfiction!” The workshop leader, a university professor who teaches creative nonfiction, said nothing. He did not even comment.

  7. Constance Campana says:

    I know memory is not completely reliable; I know feeling usually is. What I am most conscious of is being honest, e.g., “This is how I remember my father that night:——-” In other words, I think it’s important to keep to the reality of what’s being written by stating honestly what you know and don’t know. I think it’s all right to say things like, “I don’t remember if my mother ever met him. If she had, she would have thought him ‘safe’.” Etc. I DON’T like composite people. I don’t think time should be (or needs to be) compressed. But anyone who writes CNF is writing from memory; often the objective is to SEE the memory. I think we need to keep the fallibility of memory in front of us at all times; staying honest about memory is what gives the writer credibility.

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