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.