Truth in “Creative Nonfiction”

Whenever I talk of my genre—the chosen field that I have dedicated my life to—my husband puts dangling air quotes around it. As in: “Creative Nonfiction”.

We will be sitting at the table talking with his parents about a memoir that his mother and I have both read, and from the corner of my eye I’ll see him mouth the words, fingers raised in bunny ears.

“It can’t be trusted. It might as well be a made up story.”

This is a reaction than I’m often prepared for in the classroom, but not so much within the confines of my home. In fact, every semester I teach the essay—whether in a composition course, a creative writing one, or some delightful hybrid—I always have at least one student object vehemently during the introductory materials.

As is common, at the white board I draw a line between “Fact” and “Truth” and together we deconstruct the ideas and what ethical considerations we must be mindful of. “For our class,” I say, “we will create our own definition of truth and that is what we will abide by.”

As an emerging creative nonfiction writer, I held tight to Philip Gerard’s definition, which, please excuse my paraphrase, I still often state many years later as being “truthful to the emotional experience”. I liked the freedom it gave, and the acknowledgment of perspective.

This definition, though, doesn’t quite fly with my husband.

In the years of Mark reading pieces I’ve written, or others’ essays that I’ve thrust his way, he always pauses to point at certain words, certain moments to say, “But that’s not exactly what was said” or “It didn’t happen quite like that”. Considering multiple events that have been condensed into one scene, for example, he tisk-tisks with distaste.

Yet, he will also be giddy and become bright-eyed when he says I’ve “nailed it, absolutely nailed it” about a person or some dialogue. The delight he finds is only matched by my own delight in his verbal head patting. Then, still, I will remind him: it’s not about that, not really.

My students, though, are quick to suspend, even if temporarily, any concerns they might have about factual accuracy. They’re hungry to pull apart their lives, to share, to try to piece it all together. With a spark I see rarely with any other project, as if they’ve just been waiting for me to come along and force them into considering their own existence, they achingly dig in.

When I talk with students about the difference between creative nonfiction and fiction, I tell them that they’re using the elements of fiction but to tell a story about the truth of their lives.

“But it has to be made interesting,” Mark says, when we finally have it out one night.

“Of course,” I say, “it’s storytelling.”

“Exactly,” he says, and we go round and round. “It can’t be trusted. It might as well be a made up story.”

I wax poetic about the role of truth, a song I’ve sung to him many times.

“Embellishing,” he says. “It’s a true story, but it’s told better.”

I think, as our conversation wanes and we head off to bed, in some ways, with that last bit he’s right: it’s got to be told better, or else who would want to read it? And, in its most necessary way, it has to be told better, or how else will deeper meaning of the human condition ever prevail?

Or at least, as it stands, that’s my version of how the evening ended.




Version 2

Marissa Schwalm is an Associate Editor for The Flexible Persona.




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