How true Creative Nonfiction? Detremining MY Definition of Truth for the Genre

14 Feb

Determining My Definition of Truth in Creative Nonfiction


The boundaries of creative nonfiction will always be as fluid as water.

                                                                                                —Mary Clearman Blew


            In an essay titled “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction” that originally appeared in The Fourth Genre and has been reproduced in many other creative nonfiction texts and anthologies, Brett Lott states that “Any definition of the true worth to you as a writer will and must come to you experientially. What creative nonfiction is to you will reveal itself to you only at the back end of things, once you have written it.” This essay and phrase intrigued me. I am now nearly three years post-MFA and still lack a firm grasp on what creative nonfiction has revealed itself to be.

            There can be no discussion of creative nonfiction without a debate over the degree of truth to be observed, and this debate always focuses on the debacle surrounding the James Frey book. (I will not call it fiction or nonfiction.)

            Frey’s mistakes have not furthered the debate over the degree of truth necessary for creative nonfiction, but merely polarized the extreme positions and created an environment where all future memoirists will be required to tag and qualify all creative material.

            At one end of the extreme stands Lee Gutkind, the self-proclaimed Godfather of creative nonfiction. “The importance of providing accurate information cannot be overemphasized: names, dates, places, descriptions, quotations may not be created or altered for any reason.” (Gutkind 10)

            At the other end of the spectrum stands a host of others who allow a more liberal interpretation of the truth. B. Minh Nguyen and Porter Shreve state in the introduction to their textbook titled Contemporary Creative Nonfiction that “a work of personal creative nonfiction cannot guarantee accuracy, nor does it need to—but must still, at its core, be emotionally true.” (4)

            Leeway is given to an author who evokes the emotional truth of the experience he is describing in a manner that allows for a better understanding of the impact of the event.

            Operating at this end of the spectrum are a host of other writers, including Mimi Schwartz, who admits in her essay “Memoir? Fiction? Where’s the Line?” reprinted in Dinty Moore’s textbook The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction, that she has used composite characters:

            …in a memoir about six months in my marriage, I made a few composite characters

of minor characters and wrote this disclaimer in my introduction:

The story is 90% factual; the rest is made up to protect those who didn’t ask to be

In this book…I had three friends who were thinking about divorce, so in the book

I made a composite character and we met for cappuccino. (290)

 The admission by Mimi Schwartz is clear. The character she met in her memoir was not real. The conversations she had in those scenes never occurred. Why, then, is this bending of the truth acceptable, but James Frey is metaphorically burnt in effigy for his creations?

Another example of a wonderful memoir is the National Book Award winner The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion. In this book Didion never reveals what caused her daughter’s mysterious illness. For the sake of argument, I want to speculate about this cause. Would Didion’s memoir have been criticized if the daughter’s illness were caused by some personal fault or habit, for instance a heroin addiction? Would Didion have deserved criticism for omitting such a fact?

Perhaps the degree of truth is not as important as the reason for the factual distortion. In the Introduction to The Art of the Personal Essay, Phillip Lopate says:

The personal essayist must above all be a reliable narrator; we must trust his or her core of sincerity. The spectacle of baring the naked soul is meant to awaken the sympathy of the reader, who is apt to forgive the essayist’s self-absorption in return for the warmth of his or her candor. (Lopate)

               In a sense, the author of a piece of creative nonfiction assumes the role of a political speechmaker. If the person giving the speech loses credibility during the course of the speech, the listeners will begin to drift. If the voters cast a vote of confidence for the speaker and learn later they were lied to, they will be outraged. In the Old South, such politicians were tarred and feathered and rode out of town on a rail.

            In Tell it Slant, a textbook about writing creative nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola, the authors note an interesting fact:

            …when a writer publishes a piece of fiction that contains highly autobiographical elements, no one flinches; in fact, such blurring of the boundaries is often presumed. But to admit fictional techniques into autobiographical work creates controversy and furious discussion. The nature of the essential pact with the reader—that sense of trust—demands this kind of scrutiny into the choices we make as nonfiction writers. (38)

A sense of trust is the most important element of creative nonfiction. When we bend the truth too far we violate this sense of trust. Brett Lott states in his essay mentioned earlier that “It appears that an accurate portrayal of the author is the key to the skewing or omission of facts.” In Diddion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, an omission of any possible causes of Quintana Roo’s illness in no way slants my view of the author. The story is about how the author dealt with the death of her husband during her daughter’s sickness. If the daughter had ever in fact been responsible in any way for her own sickness, Didion acted properly by not revealing this fact. The cause of the illness does not affect the emotional truth of the story–Didion’s loss of her husband while tending to her sick daughter.

The revelations made by Frey about his factual deviations prove that his indulgence with the standard of truth is a different matter. A note from Frey is included in the latest paperback edition of A Million Little Pieces. In this note, Frey states:

I embellished many details about my past experiences and altered others in order to serve what I felt was the greater purpose of the book…I made other alterations in my portrayal of myself, most of which portrayed me in ways that made me tougher and more daring and more aggressive than in reality I was, or I am…My mistake, and it is one I deeply regret, is writing about the person I created in my mind to help me cope, and not the person who went through the experience. (VI)

James Frey created a version of himself that never existed. That was the James Frey he described in his memoir. His factual distortions were not to protect anyone else, but to portray himself as a tuff guy who overcame his addiction to drugs by fighting a twelve-step system that he actually embraced. This was his unpardonable sin.

With creative nonfiction, the author is saying, “This happened to me.” A literal interpretation of this caveat would make any improvisation or embellishment of fact unacceptable. But writers of this genre do alter facts when they can not remember them. Facts are also altered when authors do remember, but cannot disclose the factual truth in order to protect the privacy of persons involved.

In my own work, I have an essay titled “My Jericho March.” I created a composite scene representing many different issues from my childhood. In this scene, I help my sister bury a puppy, and we talk about the age of accountability. I express my rage over our religious indoctrination by going immediately inside the house and telling my mother I was not going to church with her anymore.

This scene represents a compression of characters, events and time. My sister never had a puppy named Elvis. But we had many puppies that we buried in the exact spot and in the exact manner described in the essay.

I had experienced many instances of rage and frustration over the systematic brainwashing of my siblings in the Pentecostal doctrine; I had heard all my life about that magical moment when I reached the “Age of Accountability” and would burn in hell if I died unsaved.

The framework of the essay—a classroom assignment with 5000 words—made it impossible for me to accurately develop these scenes. So I created the puppy Elvis to allow me to condense the type of relationship I shared with my younger siblings. This allowed me to show in one instance the frustration that had accumulated to the point where I was actually brave enough to tell my mother I would no longer go to church with her.

My description of the confrontation with my mother over attending church with her is factually accurate, but the timing is not. The day I confronted my mother, I had played softball all day long and was exhausted. When I walked in the door, I was told to get ready for church. I walked up to her and said I would not. Then she said that I had reached the age of accountability and God could no longer hold her responsible for my soul.

In reality, I stood waiting to be slapped, just as I had described in my composite scene. The slap never came. In my presentation of this turning point in my life, I believe I created a composite scene with a compression of time that allowed me to accurately depict the relationship between my mother and my family. The setting was real; the characters were real, and the climax of the scene occurred exactly as described. I made no attempt to make me look as more of a troubled teenager than I already was. If she had struck me, the scene might have had more impact, but that would change the entire nature of the moment. Her relinquishment of control over the one thing in my life she absolutely insisted I do—attend church—was a turning point in my life. The emotional truth of the scene lay in her surrender, not in her violence or in the death of a puppy. My apprentice work as a writer is simply a crude attempt to reveal this truth. In “My Jericho March” I omitted many of the worst battles I had with my mother.  But my mother is still alive and has a different view of our confrontations.

In the future a disclaimer may be required at the front of every book of creative nonfiction. This is regrettable. The ridiculous, orchestrated actions of all of the parties involved in the Frey debacle have set back the academic debate over this delicate issue and caused tremendous damage to the art as a whole. Many of the extremists who favor an absolute standard of truth claim vindication. Academics who espoused a relaxed standard on factual accuracy and an absolute standard regarding emotional truth are running for cover in light of the public response to Frey’s revelations. At the AWP panel on creative nonfiction—held in Austin in 2006—emotional truth was never discussed in depth. Frey’s actions dominated the panel discussion.

Oprah herself has been the subject of terrible criticism from such popular culture institutions as Saturday Night Live and the cartoon South Park. The reaction of Oprah to the Frey revelations is depicted in the most degrading manner. And she deserves the criticism—as does Frey.

Oprah’s reaction, if tempered and presented in the right manner, could have elevated the debate and exposed the true flaw of Frey’s mistake—that he lied in order to portray a different image of himself than truly existed. I would have loved to see Steinberg, Gutkind, Moore, and Schwartz debating this issue with Oprah—revealing that an absolute standard of factual truth is not necessary.

The emotional truth is revealed in that moment when the experience of the author becomes universal with the experience of the reader. This is what readers of creative nonfiction yearn for. They could care less if the shirt the narrator wore that day was green or blue.

For all the good she has done, Oprah missed the chance of a lifetime to have a significant impact on the direction and development of an emerging literary genre. The debate now has turned to criticism of the parties involved and strayed from the issue that should be confronted and debated by all. We should still be asking how this episode will affect the writing public in general and the individual writer in particular. Do I need to be concerned about my factual discrepancies when I submit my creative nonfiction for publication? Will publishers in the future—who are increasingly more aware of the bottom line—shrug off publishing creative nonfiction books when the facts cannot be proven by any standard of truth? Will publishers eventually require an investigative background check of all factual claims in creative nonfiction?

The tragic results of this may be a backlash against the genre itself. People read creative nonfiction because of the unique relationship they share with the author. In the future, the buying public may look at all works of creative nonfiction and question the truth contained within those pages. If my fear becomes a reality, page after page of disclaimers will not bring back the readers who feel they have been betrayed and as a result turn their backs on the genre. The tremendous boom in popularity of creative nonfiction could be over.

In a capitalist economy, the buying public eventually decides all issues.

But if the mistake that James Frey made can be clarified and an attempt made to continue to teach and police the proper standards of truth for creative nonfiction, then Frey could go down in history as having a positive effect on the genre.

A new standard of truth could emerge that emphasized the mistakes of the past where truth was sacrificed in order to satisfy the vanity of the author or to sell books. Examples of the tremendous literary talents of Terry Tempest Williams, Joan Didion and Scott Russell Sanders could be used to show how composite characters and compression of events can help clarify the emotional truth of the lives these authors write about—a truth that would otherwise read like the 9-11 report published by the federal government.

The factual truth of that report took hundreds of pages to print. The emotional truth can be seen everywhere.

 Works Cited

Didion, Joan. The Year of Magical Thinking. New York: Knopf, 2005.

Frey, James. A Million Little Pieces. New York: Knopf, 2003.

Gutkind, Lee. The Art of Creative Nonfiction. New York: Wiley and Sons, 1997.

Lopate, Phillip. “Introduction.”  The Art of the Personal Essay: An Anthology

                          From The Classical Era to the Present. By Lopate, Ed. New York:

                          Anchor, 1995. Xxvi-xxvii.

Lott, Bret. “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction.” The Fourth Genre. Ed.

                            Root, Robert L. and Michael Steinberg. 3rd Ed. New York:

                            Pearson Longman, 2005. 359-365.

Miller Brenda, and Suzanne Paola. Tell it Slant. New York: McGraw Hill, 2004.

Nguyen, Minh B. and Porter Shreve. Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I and

                            Eye. New York: Pearson Longman, 2005.

Schwartz, Mimi. “Memoir? Fiction? Where’s the Line?” The Truth of the Matter:

                            Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Dinty Moore. New

                            York: Pearson Longman, 2006. 286-91.


3 Responses to “How true Creative Nonfiction? Detremining MY Definition of Truth for the Genre”

  1. Kelly February 14, 2014 at 3:08 am #

    What a fantastic blog post! I struggle with this question whenever I write a piece of creative nonfiction; I suppose that I lean a bit more to the factual side than you did in your conclusion, but I’m still feeling my way along the path.

  2. alanyount February 14, 2014 at 4:15 pm #

    Once again, very instructive and helpful to me in my writing journey. (And, of course, it helps that I agree with your take on creative nonfiction!)

  3. themathmaster February 14, 2014 at 4:33 pm #

    Truth, much like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder I suppose.

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