Thursday, September 20, 2012

What is this thing we call Creative Nonfiction?

I teach, therefore, I question. Introduction to Writing Creative Nonfiction. Tuesdays and Fridays from 11:00-12:15. I teach, therefore, I question.

I question, and encourage my students to question—everything about the process of writing. Why we do it, how we do it, what it is we do when we do it.

We are making a list, as they learn, of what creative nonfiction actually means. It is simpler to make a list of what it is not.

It is creative writing in which nothing is made up.
It is creative writing in which NOTHING is made up.
It is creative writing in which NOTHING is MADE UP.

Can there be dialogue? Yes—but only if it is not made up.
Can there be metaphor? Simile? Yes, and yes.
Can we employ fiction techniques. Yes. Please.

Just don’t make stuff up. If there is something in quotation marks, know where it came from. Don’t put words in anyone’s mouth. If you did that to me, I would be ticked off. Wouldn’t you?

Do you disagree with any of this? PLEASE: discuss.


Deborah Heiligman said...

Of COURSE I agree with you. And I really don't like the term creative nonfiction because I think it implies that we can be "creative" with facts. I like Narrative Nonfiction better. Or, really, if only we could think of a better word for nonfiction. Verity? Why is it NON something? But I digress (or do I?). When I write nonfiction I want to use most of the techniques of fiction except the fiction part. I give a talk called "You Can't Make This Stuff Up," which has double meaning, of course. No, you can't make up anything! But also, why would you want to? This real stuff is just so great!!!

Jennifer Armstrong said...

What would you call something that is a hybrid? I wrote a book in which I created illustrations (for lack of a better word) with words. They were intended to represent my understanding of the events I was chronicling, but these illustrations were invention. These were the "Photos Not Taken," in my book about Civil War photography published some years ago by Athenaeum. It was clear they were imagined scenes, just as an illustrator would invent a scene. So would you consider that book to be fiction on account of these word illustrations?

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Yes, Deborah, I use Narrative Nonfiction or, as you know, Passionate Nonfiction, myself. I agree that Creative Nonfiction can lead people astray. And I think our collective has long complained about the non issue; the non is exactly what confused me when I was a kid!

Tanya Lee Stone said...

Jennifer--has it remained categorized as nonfiction? I assume you're talking about your Photo by Brady book, of which I am a HUGE fan. I remember poring over early pages at Lake George. My belief is that because your process was transparent and your intentions clear and that section was intended to supplement the rest of the book (I hope I'm remembering that right), it should not be considered fiction.

Tod Olson mixes nonfiction with some historical imaginings in his How to Get Rich books and is also transparent about what it is.

Deborah Heiligman said...

Jennifer, I go back and forth about this issue--what to call it. I'm glad I'm not a librarian or bookstore owner who has to figure out where to shelve books like that. I guess maybe you would call yours historical fiction? What do you think? As a reader I always need to know what is real and what is made up. So as long as that is clear, I'm happy. I'm not happy when people make things up and don't tell me. I also think it's criminal when people change facts because they sound better. Did you hear about that whole thing with, among others, that book Lifespan of a Fact? There has been much discussion around our place about that.

Peggy T said...

I like your list and agree wholeheartedly that our non name stinks. I try to tell people who are stuck on creative nonfiction that creative refers to the writing process and nonfiction refers to the content. Some of them still don't get it.

Jennifer Armstrong said...

I would also point to one of my favorite books by British historian Simon Schama, Dead Certainties. He uses a variety of ways of exploring two historical events, the first one being the death of General Wolfe at the Battle of Quebec in 1759. He explores this event with an interpretation of Benjamin West's famous painting; with a report on the public reception and reaction to that painting in London; with a fictional narrative of a British soldier storming the cliffs; and a few others I don't recall at the moment. It's a fascinating multi-faceted examination of how history is lived and remembered.

Jennifer Armstrong said...

So since books like my Photo by Brady and Schama's Dead Certainties are catalogued as nonfiction (I just checked our public library system to be sure!) the answer is, Yes, you can make stuff up. However, you have to do it in a way that makes it clear you are either experimenting with the form, or that your transparent intent is to engage the reader in an imaginative way with the material, or something.


So what would you call it, or classify it, if all the historical facts are true, but the dialogue is invented?

(There's an argument to be made that absent taping or transcripts, all recalled dialogue is invented, whether it's noted in a diary, relayed to a biographer, etc.)

So long as the author so indicates in an afterword, do the quote marks still take the book into fiction?

Unknown said...

Interesting discussion. Thank you Tanya. When we write creatively about the real world, we present the facts and information with our own personal interpretation. This is what differentiates nonfiction literature (which is what I.N.K. writers create) from other more pedestrian expository prose. Literature has been defined as "the single passionate voice." Our writing about the real world is injected with our own humanity and I have long said that it is revealed humanity that is the common denominator of all authentic communication.

Anonymous said...

It is an interesting discussion - especially in light of recent research that suggests our memory of an event is altered with each retelling of the event:

Roxane said...

Love this discussion. I find it especially relevant because I'm writing poems about known jazz figures and including a fictional child character. (Who knows what we'll call THAT?)
So -- what about Allan Wolf's books on the Lewis & Clark Expedition and the Titanic? They (New Found Land and The Watch that Ends the Night) are labeled clearly "a novel." Wolf researches extensively and writes in the voices of both historical figures and made-up characters (Lewis' dog, the iceberg). I read the books as, well, mostly nonfiction with some fiction. I'm not bothered by "what's real, what's not" because I sense the depth of knowledge in every word, and I know when I'm reading fiction (icebergs don't talk); the distinction is clear. Why call it a novel, though?

Fortunate One said...

I am a reader and nonwriter, who follows this blog religiously. May I suggest the term "fictionalized history" or in the case of other fact-based writing, simply "informational"? Students especially find the term "nonfiction" confusing.

One might argue that history is factual but subject to interpretation and when recorded or retold, it is subject to the biases of the teller. So how much of the reporting of events is really "true"? In most cases, the who, did what, when, and where may be correct, but the how and why might remain subjective. You have to wonder how our current times will be reported to future generations.

The fact that this topic is being discussed is assurance to me that your cast of authors are responsible writers that value transparency, and then let this reader arrive at her own conclusions.