When I was growing up, my mom kept the Reader’s Digest magazines in the bathroom. My dad had built a shelf into the wall that held the garbage can, toilet paper, and Kleenex box, with several shelves above that for scented soaps and the magazines. The first articles I read were the “Drama in Real Life” stories. At the time, I didn’t know they were creative nonfiction; I just knew that they were interesting stories.
During my first degree, I enrolled in the only two writing courses offered at my university: fiction and creative nonfiction. I wasn’t quite sure what creative nonfiction was, and I didn’t think I wanted to write nonfiction—I was already a committed novelist at that point—but it was a writing course. I discovered, through the reading and writing we did in that class, that I enjoyed nonfiction. In fact, my first published pieces (before I started my English degree) had been creative nonfiction.
What is Creative Nonfiction?
You won’t find a section titled “creative nonfiction” at the bookstore. It is usually filed under sub-genres, like memoir or biography or travel or inspirational. The Chicken Soup for the Soul books are creative nonfiction, as are most magazine features. As I’ve discovered in this term of university, creative nonfiction is a blanket term for many types of writing, from literary journalism to personal essays to profiles (just as, for that matter, fiction includes sci-fi, fantasy, romance, history, etc).
In some ways, creative nonﬁction is like jazz—it’s a rich mix of ﬂavors, ideas, and techniques, some of which are newly invented and others as old as writing itself. The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques ﬁction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present nonﬁction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make nonﬁction stories read like ﬁction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. ~ Lee Gutkind
Is Truth Required in Nonfiction?
Until I started my classes at UVic, I hadn’t heard of James Frey’s novel A Million Little Pieces. Or should I say James Frey’s memoir A Million Little Pieces. Apparently, it’s been both. He originally tried submitting it to publishers as a novel. Nobody wanted it. So he called it a memoir and submitted it one more time. Bite. Bestseller. Oprah show. Then the bad news: somebody found out that A Million Little Pieces wasn’t actually fact. That Frey kinda smudged a few details, here and there, like how long he’d been in prison.
When I first heard it, it was an amusing story about the publishing industry. Frey was a smart fella who saw the hot trend for memoir and jumped on. Or you could say he was one of those guys who fictionalized his own life (and, come on, he wouldn’t be the only novelist to admit he’s written from life experience—or at least started there—Graham Greene’s novel The End of the Affair is based on life experience, as is Evelyn Waugh’s novel Brideshead Revisted). No big deal.
But a lot of people—including Oprah—have gotten really mad at Frey. Really, really mad. I don’t really understand why. I mean, I haven’t read A Million Little Pieces, so I can’t say how I would react if I had read it and then found out that, well, things got a bit stretched. If I read it now, it would be with the knowledge that Frey exaggerated things (and if I read it now, it would be just to see if someone can really write a good novel/memoir without rewriting, as Frey claims to have done).
He’s not the first writer to be unveiled as not totally honest. Farley Mowat came under fire for Never Cry Wolf by critics who said he only spent a week among wolves (not the months recorded in the book) and didn’t do half the things in the book. I haven’t found the answer to that—whether he or his critics are right—but honestly, I don’t care. Never Cry Wolf was an extremely good story. If it didn’t really happen, whatever. It was funny. It could have happened. It did happen—in Farley’s head and in all his readers’ heads.
The Spectrum of Fiction and Nonfiction
In my creative writing classes, we talk about truth, disclaimers, distinctions between terms like autobiography and memoir. We talk about a spectrum with fiction on one end and nonfiction on the other, and where does a certain piece fall in the middle. Is there supposed to be a hard, fast line between fiction and nonfiction, or can that line blur?
What do you think? Should James Frey have written his “memoir” exactly as things happened (even if that was less interesting)? Should he have warned his readers that some details in the book were changed or exaggerated? Does it matter whether his book is fiction or memoir?
The two genres I’ve written in are fiction and creative nonfiction. In some ways, writing nonfiction is easier. The story is already there for the writer; it just needs to be shaped and molded into something interesting and attractive to the reader. The Drama in Real Life stories in Reader’s Digest are interesting because the writer focuses on the tension and suspense in the story, building that up to create the drama that compels readers to find out what happens.
Fiction requires much more imagination—and yet also provides much more freedom for the writer. Each genre also garners a different reaction within the reader. We are more likely to read creative nonfiction to be informed (even if we enjoy the reading because of the writer’s use of dramatic, fictional techniques to tell the story) and to read fiction to be entertained (because it’s not true—or is it?). I’ve often found that fiction is a better way to learn about tough issues than nonfiction.
Some examples of creative nonfiction:
- Prodigal Daughter by Myrna Kostash
- The Boy by Betty Jane Hegerat
- Afflictions & Departures by Madeline Sonik
Do you prefer to read fiction or creative nonfiction?