On the Truth in Nonfiction

I had a wonderful time discussing life writing last night with Matt Caprioli, who recently published his excellent memoir One Headlight. We spent some time talking about the line between fiction and nonfiction. Here are some quotes by famous writers on the matter:

Emily Dickinson: “Tell all the truth but tell it slant.” 

Mark Twain: “Never let facts get in the way of a good story.”

Oscar Wilde: “No great artist sees things as they really are. If he did, he would cease to be an artist.”

Oscar Wilde (again): “The difference between literature and journalism is that journalism is unreadable and literature is not read. The function of the artist is to invent, not to chronicle.”

Pam Houston said something similar; according to Montana Public Radio, she promises 82 percent truth in fiction, and she doesn’t believe there’s much difference between fiction and non-fiction.

While Caprioli stated that he was very careful to write a factual account, having been a journalist earlier in his life, he also said that perspective weighs heavily in any true account, and that psychology has taught us that memory itself is an act of creating.

In my own nonfiction writing, I am careful to stick with the truth as I remember it. However, what I am really after in my work is crafting the “felt-truth,” or emotional truth, of an event. A more journalistic type of chronicling would not achieve this effect, and so I use my creative writing tools as I recreate the story. These are the same tools I apply to my fiction. I love to use symbolism, metaphors, and similes, all of which depart from “just the facts” into the world of art. Also, I deploy thick description of landscape and character, even though this might stress the elements I feel about the place and person over other qualities that are also there, in a sense distorting the ‘real’ place or person. Lastly, I often rearrange the order of events; by this I do not mean that I make up a false timeline, but rather I carefully place each plot element, telling the reader the story in a way that makes best use of tension, surprise, and narrative arc. In this sense, I agree with Dickinson, Twain, Wilde, and Houston. I am writing the truth, but I use a heavy hand in crafting the story so that readers are able to truly experience what I felt during the event.

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