May 16, 2012

Fact vs. Artistic License in Creative Nonfiction

What would you do if you suspected a client of inventing elements of his or her memoir? This question was raised in a recent developmental editing class with the Author-Editor Clinic. It is particularly relevant for me because of a recent debate within the creative nonfiction community that I’ve been following with great interest.

In February, well-known essayist and professor John D’Agata and fact checker John Fingal published The Lifespan of a Fact, which is the stylized version of a debate they had while Fingal was fact checking an essay D’Agata had submitted to The Believer. In the book , D’Agata champions the artistic over the factual and argues that if a fact needs to be fudged or exaggerated or changed or invented to serve the Art of the piece, so be it. Facts in and of themselves are boring, he argues, and sometimes need to be dressed up so the reader has a better experience.

The Lifespan of a Fact set off a firestorm in the creative nonfiction community, and the debate raged from the pages of The New York Times to to Brevity Magazine (see links below for further reading). It’s a fascinating conversation about the Big Cultural Questions: What is Truth? What is Art? 

I hold to the idea that yes, CNF is Creative Nonfiction, but that this means adhering to facts while at the same time applying an artistic eye to the story that results from the foundation of facts. And I think the same applies across nonfiction genres from literary journalism to CNF essays to book-length memoir. 

Fact or Memory?

Facts may become fuzzy in our memories, but we can look them up and verify them. What was the population of LaCrosse, Wisconsin, in 1954? What street was the house on? What color was it? How many people were in the family?

Our memories of events can seem clear to us, but be “misremembered,” or at least interpreted differently, by each person involved. Our memories of events can’t be verified down to the tiniest detail, even by the most meticulous of fact checkers—even video history can be affected by angle, lighting, clarity, and so on.

Writing Choices

There are many ways for memoirists to write scenes or refer to dialog that make it clear that they are not claiming to recount something exactly as it happened in the past. In Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction, Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola offer quick examples of phrasing that can cue a reader, such as “I imagine” or “Perhaps” or “I would like to remember.” Cues like these may seem jarring or artificial to a writer, but they can be integrated in such a way as to become a natural part of the writer’s voice in the memoir. In her essay “A Sketch of the Past,” Virginia Woolf cues the reader over and over again as part of the fabric of her memory-making: “One more caricature comes into my mind,” “That is all I know about her; but I remember her as if she were a completely real person, with nothing left out,” “I cannot see Kensington Gardens as I saw it as a child.”

There are also ways for writers to flat-out tell readers what they’re doing early on, as in a disclaimer or in an introduction or prologue. In his memoir A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, Dave Eggers lays all his cards on the table in his hilarious “Preface to this Edition”: “For all the author’s bluster elsewhere, this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes.” He then proceeds to detail, in ten pages, what he has fictionalized.

Sherman Alexie calls his The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian a novel. When asked in an interview why he hasn’t written a memoir yet, he replied that The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian was first drafted as part of a memoir he had started years before, but since the events would seem too fantastic a story to be believed as a memoir, he developed it into a novel instead.

Ethics and Expectations

I believe that most people who read creative nonfiction aren’t looking for “liars” and realize from their own experience that memories change over time. What gets writers in trouble is when they completely invent elements of the story because they think it will make the story more exciting or interesting. If a writer thinks she should invent characters out of whole cloth because the real people involved seem dull, then she probably needs to rethink the story as a whole. If a memoirist feels that a scene with slow pacing could improve by adding drama with a fictionalized argument, then he is falsifying an experience that he’s claiming other people, real people, have had. That is where the line between truth and falsehood has been crossed.

As far as ethics are concerned, I think an author questionnaire given to a new client could go a long way toward seeing who the writer is and where he or she falls on the scale of understanding the memoir author’s responsibilities to truth.

It all comes down to the writing in the end. If the story is truly worth telling, if it is worth the reading, then it is worth the writer’s time to get it right, to get it as close to the truth as is possible. And if the facts are dull, then it is part of the joy of the writing process to figure out a way to write the facts beautifully.

Editors, where do you fall on the debate over fact vs. artistic license in memoir? How do you help your writers achieve a balance between the two? How have you responded to clients who may have crossed the line?

—Mary-Colleen Jenkins (who also blogs about books at Too Fond of Books)

want to read more?

  • Laura Miller’s “In Defense of Fact Checking” in Salon
  • The start of a lengthy debate on Fact vs. Art in Brevity Magazine’s blog
  • Jennifer McDonald’s “In the details” in The New York Times Sunday Book Review
  • An in-depth, yet snarky debate on the subject (with lots of F-bombs dropped in for good measure)


    1. This is a great discussion, Mary-Colleen, thank you for posting!

      I'd like to add that one reason writers might change facts wasn't mentioned here, and that is to preserve the privacy of people mentioned in their memoir. I worked with a client who intentionally described inaccurate familial relationships among characters in her memoir to protect close family members from being identified, while still trying to preserve the accuracy of the emotional relationships and the events that occurred. After reading this article and the additional links, I might in hindsight have tried to have a more in-depth conversation with that client about her choices. But weighing the good of the story and the good of the reader against the good of one's family is a serious decision. And saying "names have been changed" (more elegantly, I hope) doesn't exactly pinpoint the liberties taken in this instance. Interesting to think about as an editor, and perhaps even more fraught for the writer.

    2. This seems to me a largely superfluous debate, and it also stretches the meaning of debate since there's actually very little in the way of logic or rhetoric employed in D'Agata's claims. There is both a narrow and a broad way to unfold D'Agata's position.

      In the narrow sense, the post addresses the issue contra D'Agata in that yes, 'we can look facts up.' But these types of facts, mere data largely, have little to no impact on the whether or not CNF is interesting in the artistic sense. These facts are either true or they are not, according to the best sources available to check them against.

      The wider sense of the argument is what truly renders D'Agata's position absurd. Factual or not, facts, their lifespan and checking of them place no constraints whatsoever on the artistic merit of CNF. Volumes could be mounted here, but the mere existence of the New Journalism, now nearly 50 years old, will suffice. Gay Talese said he wanted to write prose as lyrical and poignant as F. Scott Fitzgerald did, but he wanted to write essays. From 'Frank Sinatra Has A Cold' and onward, many would argue he did just that. In no way is the artistic value of Talese's, (or any CNF writer), work constrained by the blunt reality of 'facts' and whether or not they have been verified and true. (And it was heavily fact-checked by the Esquire copy desk). D'Agata is just offering a red herring disguised as argument. That it is taken seriously and even published as a debate says more about the ethical standards, or lack thereof, of publishers willing to release sensational memoirs that are short on artistic merit but long on debauchery and recovery. If the memoirs in the United States were of the literary value of a Diana Athill I think this debate would largely not exist. But publishers have to compete against television and even more ephemeral mediums, so the sensational, factual or not, rules.

    3. Re: the dilemma of Kyra's client, here's an advice columnist's response to a writer who didn't disguise the person at the heart of his CNF essay and subsequently got into trouble with her about what he had written. It was re-posted on the blog for Brevity magazine, and it's very interesting to see the comments. (Refreshingly civil comments, by the way.) Most writers who responded do not agree with the advice given to the writer.

      I've read other accounts of memoir writers losing all connection with family after their books have been published. It's a risk a writer should think about very carefully. But even when protecting a "character," my opinion is that a writer should be upfront about creating composites.

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