Topic 2. Truth and baloney in creative nonfiction

by Jacqueline Windh

I like the phrase that Alex Heard tweeted the other day – enough that I am stealing it for the title of this discussion!

Heard is editorial director at Outside mag. He also wrote an article in 2007 for The New Republic called This American Lie, which challenged the veracity of some of the incidents recounted in David Sedaris’s so-called “memoirs.” Heard concluded: “I do think Sedaris exaggerates too much for a writer using the nonfiction label.”

But this brings up a question that most writers of creative nonfiction have had to deal with at some point:

We write in a genre that is defined by what it is not. Creative nonfiction is “not” fiction… therefore we can’t make things up. Or can we?

After all, that word “creative” is in there, right?

The general genre of “creative nonfiction,” and in particular its sub-genre “memoir,” have had a rough go these last few years, as more than a few memoirs have been exposed to be more fiction than truth.

The first that I became aware of this issue was back in the early 90s, when my sister sent me a copy of Marlo Morgan’s Mutant Messages Down Under. I was actually living and working in the Australian outback at the time, and it was clear to me, from what I knew of the place firsthand, that there was no way that much of that story could be true. The subsequent controversy eventually led the publisher to relabel the book as a work of fiction.

Probably the most publicized example has been James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces – a  memoir about the author’s drug addiction and recovery, the truth of which Oprah publicly tore to shreds. And, in a similar vein, Margaret Seltzer’s memoir (writing as Margaret B. Jones) Love and Consequences, about growing up in LA in a world of gangs – again, turned out to be entirely fabricated. And of course there was this year’s example – Jon Krakauer’s exposé of numerous fabrications in Greg Mortensen’s memoir Three Cups of Tea.

As we all know, there are numerous other examples of so-called “memoirs” that were later exposed as lies… Wikipedia even has a page devoted to Fake Memoirs!

  • So, what do you think? Does the label “nonfiction” mean that we writers must stick to the facts?
  • Just what does that adjective “creative” apply to? Does it mean that the writing itself is “creative” – or does it mean that we can be creative with the “non” part of nonfiction… that we can invent a bit?
  • Is it OK to omit or combine characters, or change the order of events (or even omit events… or even create events) in order to streamline our narrative? Or, if we choose to write under that label of “nonfiction,” does that constrain us to stick to the facts – even if they don’t really serve our narrative well?
  • And of course, we all know that we never have all the facts, all the information – especially when we are writing memoir. Memory is fallable. Sometimes no one really knows what happened in that room. Sometimes other people who were also there have a different recollection of what actually happened than you do. How do you get around that, the unreliability of memory?
  • What is a writer’s “contract with the reader”?

I think this is going to be a great discussion – I’m looking forward to your answers… and your questions!

And, I just want to mention – this discussion is inspired by a great blog post by Lorne Daniel, and the comments/conversation that followed. I urge you to check it out. And remember to look at our ABOUT page if you want to know what this site is, umm, about…