Sunday, August 19, 2012

How creative can creative nonfiction be?

I'm currently taking a course in creative nonfiction as I work toward my master of fine arts degree in creative writing. For me the mixing of 'creative' with 'nonfiction' is fraught with dangers – how creative can one be with the facts and still be telling the truth?

This past week I found myself among the minority in a debate over whether David Sedaris writes nonfiction. (For those who don't know Sedaris's work, I recommend starting with "Me Talk Pretty One Day," an anthology of his essays.) In his piece "Remembering My Childhood on the Continent of Africa." Sedaris wrote that his life growing up in North Carolina had been so dull compared to his partner Hugh's upbringing as a child of the diplomatic corps stationed in various African nations that he coopted Hugh's childhood. Not out of a sense of wanting to be closer to his partner or out of any empathy for his partner's experiences; he deliberately presented events from Hugh's life as his own memories for no other reason that he found them more interesting than the truth – and by extension made him more interesting. Sedaris revealed that he routinely picks up other people's life experiences "like swiping change from on top of the dresser" and uses them as his own. To my mind this was an admission to breaking a rule, perhaps the rule for a journalist or essayist – that whenever reality is not what he'd like, he makes things up.

Strictly speaking, reality isn't always necessary for truth. There is a kind of truth that can be revealed through exaggeration or parody. In this regard stand-up comedy comes to mind. Mostly because I like stand-up – but the stand-up I like is that which holds up a mirror. One of my favorite devices for explaining our peculiar brand of racism here in the USofA is Christopher Titus's "I'm whitey and I apologize" routine. (Legally available in two parts here: part one and part two.) Most folks get it. As I'm sure most folks can think of at least one comedian whose humor illuminates truths that might not otherwise be seen. Or at least talked about.

There's also a breed of truth revealed in fiction. I suspect everyone has had the experience of being moved or enlightened by something in a novel or story that perhaps would not have affect them to the same degree if it had been prosaically stated. The same is true of song and poetry. As Chief Bromden so eloquently avers in Ken Kesey's One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest: "It's true even if it didn't happen."

There are a lot of essayist whose work I enjoy who may address truth but make no claim to writing nonfiction. I'm a big believer in truth through humor. Garrison Keiller - taken in small, carefully monitored doses - comes to mind. His 'memories' of Lake Woebegone probably contain elements of truth – the bones beneath his stories, as it were. But his insights into human nature are conveyed and illustrated through the fiction he builds around what truth there is. Jon Stewart wouldn't be able to bare the heart of American politics as effectively as he does if The Daily Show was a nonfiction news program.

Even in nonfiction, reality and truth are not always linked. Journalists often create composite characters – particularly when the identifying individuals might put them in danger. For the most part we accept accounts in which time is telescoped, the pace of the narrative flow skipping over gaps of time where nothing relevant happened, creating the impression events were closer together than they were, as nonfiction.

In the 1970s Hunter S. Thompson's "gonzo journalism" introduced us all to a subjective, first person reporting told from so deep in the narrator's mind that his fantasies, fears, prejudices, and hopes were injected into the factual account – a stream of consciousness in a blender approach that nonetheless conveyed a true and trustworthy presentation of events as the reporter perceived them. We knew – and hopefully he did, too – that he never conversed with spokes-lizards for the administration or witnessed sequined weasels devour each other at a cocktail party. He was using metaphor to characterize and editorialize. But underlying his surreal imagery was a foundation, a soul, of truth as he understood it; he was being honest. As he said somewhere, and I'm paraphrasing: "None of the great journalists in history were objective. Thomas Payne, Mark Twain, H.L. Mencken, all knew journalism was a means of affecting their environment. I have never understood the worship of objectivity in journalism. Of course, flat-out lying is different from being subjective."

In each of these arenas of creative nonfiction – gonzo journalism, memoir, first-person accounts, remembrances, investigative reports, biographies - we as readers can accept that the writer sometimes uses composite characters and/or events to illustrate while protecting the privacy and perhaps safety of others and we (usually) have no problem with humor and/or exaggeration employed to make a point. We as readers take as a given that the writer is presenting truth is being honestly presented. (Note that opinion - from movie reviews to political 'analyses' - are not, strictly speaking, nonfiction. Those presentations of subjective impressions have their own rules.)

A creative nonfiction writer - or a creative writer of nonfiction - can use humor, exaggeration, parody, composite characters, telescoped timelines or even reordered events and still give her readers an honest and insightful experience. A writer cannot pass off things she has made up when the truth does not suit her purposes and still call what she writes nonfiction.

What about you? What admixture of 'creative' do you think is acceptable in nonfiction. At what point and under what conditions does creative nonfiction go over the line into fiction?


Charles Gramlich said...

When I'm reading essays like Sedaris, I assume that much of the material has some leeway taken with it. When I'm reading science essays, however, I like to think I'm seeing clearly the facts, and the writer's opinion on the facts, but those two things kept separately.

Liane Spicer said...

Another thought-provoking post.

When I think of creative nonfiction I think of memoir/remembrances and understand the 'creative' part comes from the subjectivity, selection of material to present, ordering of the material, interpretation and extraction of themes, symbols, etc. It's like impressionism in art where the subject, however prosaic, is imbued with the artist's unique experience and perceptions.

When I think of creative nonfiction I most certainly do not think of journalism of any stripe, nor biography, and certainly not investigative reports where presentation of objective reality is the goal.

Much of what you have described, such as Sedaris's work, falls squarely into the realm of fiction as I understand it.

Jewel Amethyst said...

I've seen creative non-fiction that sticks to the facts, but present the details in narrative form that makes it as interesting as fiction.

My favorite creative non-fiction thus far is Rebecca Skloot's "The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks." The creative part is more in the author's journey to gather information on the family, than in the biography of the person.