Creative Nonfiction: A License to Lie?

The short answer is “no.”

Then there is the longer answer based on my own experience with creative nonfiction. Perhaps a definition would be in order. Creative nonfiction is halfway between fiction and nonfiction. An author uses actual events but is allowed to shape them with literary techniques. The writer may use a plot that is not chronological, may create dialogue that might or might not have occurred, and may use flashback and foreshadowing. However, the events described should be factually accurate.

Several years ago, as I toiled away at my own creative nonfiction memoir about my teaching life, a 2005 Robin Williams’ film called “Final Cut” kept floating through my memory. “Final Cut” presented a future world where a resident received an embedded chip at birth that recorded his entire life. At his death, a “cutter” (Williams) made the final cut—a video version of the deceased’s life obtained from his chip and shown at his memorial service.

The resulting video was a masterpiece of spin.

At the same time, Williams’ character had his own moral dilemma: he believed he was responsible for the death of a childhood friend. But did he remember that incident accurately?

Memory and perception.

I would like to believe that my own book and the censorship work of Robin Williams’ character bore little resemblance to each other.  My memoir consisted of fifteen short stories about my interactions with students who came into my life and changed it.  I asked myself two questions: How could I create a clear and whole image of the past, warts and all? How could I tell if my own memory was accurate?

I answered these questions by keeping my book’s goal in mind—to display the life of a teacher and her interactions with students as realistically as possible. I created dialogue—yes, created it—but made sure that each conversation was supported by the facts. Often I used non-linear plots to hold reader interest but still maintain accuracy. In creative nonfiction, the line between truth and fiction depends on the author’s judgments about style. For the sake of accuracy, these sometimes become moral decisions when dealing with real people and events.

Through interviews with those who shared my past, I realized my memory was pretty good with a few glaring exceptions. I conducted over a hundred interviews—in person, recorded, by email, and by phone. The whole project took five years because I was determined to blur those lines as little as possible.

Yes, point of view makes a huge difference. MY point of view shaped the material because it was my life, but careful research smoothed the inaccuracies and memory gaps. The resulting life story bore little similarity to the spin put on the lives of Robin Williams’ clients in “Final Cut.” My memory—like that of Williams’ character—was sometimes faulty. Fortunately, I had the memories of others to help me share and sift through the past. So rather than being a license to lie, my own creative nonfiction experience was an opportunity to connect with the past as honestly as possible.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *