This topic has always felt interesting to me, especially when comparing movies and TV shows to books. There seems to be a much higher standard or sticking to facts with books. A movie or even a show like The Tiger King can say, “based on actual events” and then veer wildly off course. But a book? Not so much.
William Zinsser says, in Writing About Your Life, “To write a memoir you must manufacture a text. You must construct a narrative so readers will want to keep reading. You must, in short, practice a craft. You can never forget the story-teller’s ancient rules of maintaining tension and momentum…give yourself a plot.”
Lee Gutkind, editor of Creative Nonfiction, in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, is adamant that writers of nonfiction cannot make things up. He questions time compression and composite characters. He says, “Making stuff up, no matter how minor or unimportant, or not being diligent in certifying the accuracy of the available information, endangers the bond between writer and reader.”
Ann Patchett says that Lucy Grealy said, in Truth and Beauty, “’I didn’t remember it,’ Lucy said pointedly. ‘I wrote it. I’m a writer.’ This shocked her audience more than her dismissal of illness, but she made her point: she was making art, not documenting an event.”
Philip Lopate says, in To Show and To Tell, “In giving it shape, a NF writer may be obliged to leave out some facts, combine incidents or even rearrange chronologies. Fine. I do not think we need aply the strictest journalistic standards of factual accuracty to all literary NF.”
Joan Didion says, in On Keeping a Notebook, “I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”
Roy Peter Clark in The Line Between Fact and Fiction in Creation Nonfiction says, “The nonfiction writer is communicating with the reader about real people in real places. So if those people talk, you say what those people said. You don’t say what the writer decides they said. You don’t make up dialogue. You don’t make a composite character.” And he finishes the piece with this: “So don’t add and don’t deceive. If you try something unconventional, let the public in on it. Gain on the truth. Be creative. Do your duty. Have some fun. Be humble. Spend your life thinking and talking about how to do all these well.” (italics mine because, well, amen to that about pretty much everything I do)
And then there is the ever-controversial John D’Agata who says changing a fact is justifiable if you do it in the name of art, Lifespan of a Fact. If three trees sounds better than eight trees, write three. Even if there were eight.
When it comes to writing nonfiction, should writers be held to the same factual standards as news reporters? Is it ever okay to compress time? To create composite characters? To change names and details? How much does art come into play when writing nonfiction?
If that is too many questions to answer, how about just one: Can a nonfiction writer change anything when writing an essay? and if even that is too much to think about, go read the books here. They are all excellent.
This is SO good. Good quotes – good tension between the quotes – good questions! I remember when the Three Cups of Tea controversy came up and most of us who had lived in Pakistan were not surprised. Namely because we had friends living in the area and locals had never heard of Greg Mortenson,I blogged about that as well so am looking forward to reading your piece! And what if you are accused of telling a lie, when you’re just writing from the perspective of what you know? My friend Jonathan in his memoir acknowledged the imperfection of ‘memory’ from the start….is that perhaps the most important thing? To acknowledge that this is your perspective that you write to the best of your ability? And then there are the haters that will hate just because you are the one who put words to the story….! Thanks so much for these suggestions and quotes. I love some of the stuff I’ve read by William Zissner.
I’m going to go find your piece on the Three Cups of Tea now, would love to hear your perspective on that.
Terrific quotes and it’s such an interesting question. I find myself quoting people on things that get at the heart of what they say and capture their voice but might not be totally factually correct. I think if we work on that – getting to the heart of the truth, there’s still room for some art. Otherwise it’s just a play by play and there’s nothing literary about it. I guess it’s a slippery slope though since if you get too “artful” you can steer too far from the nonfiction part. Anyway, as long as you are asking these questions hopefully that will steer you on the write path!
I like how you said getting to the heart of the truth leaves room for art. Yes, it is slippery but asking these questions, and reading the thoughts of other writers (like those here) with these questions in mind keeps me focused.
I’m reading Zinsser’s On Writing Well right now. In this book he seems to mostly argue for being true to the facts. He does, however, suggest the writer narrow the focus and choose the details that help to create a solid story. “To write good memoir you must become the editor of your own life, imposing on an untidy sprawl of half-remembered events a narrative shape and an organizing idea.” Could he be suggesting something similar with the quote you’ve got above? That it’s not about inventing a story as much as it’s about choosing what to include to maintain the story structure?
I think so Anita. I don’t think he is advocating that stuff be made up, but that it gets organized. Sometimes though, that necessitates the bending of time or the elimination of a certain character/person who is superfluous. I suppose the point is that if that character who is cut out gets put back inside someone else, that would be untruthful. Great quote too.
Is there a difference between literary NF and biographical / historical works?
It would depend on the purpose of the writing, I assume. I don’t mind composite characters and smudged timelines if the goal is instruction or teaching. Although, if you are helping me to get to know someone or become acquainted with a culture I prefer to have solid, unchanged facts.
These are great points to consider. Thanks for bringing them up.
Okay, so, art… such as photography… can have many scales of “truth” or “realistic” portrayal. It depends on the focus of the lens… and other things as the photographer composes and edits the image. As you so delicately illustrate in the beautiful image attached to this post. Interesting…
I agree Angie, about learning new cultures/being introduced to something unusual. I’ve read some fiction books, particularly about Malawi and North Korea, that left me wondering how much was true and how much was made up because I wanted to understand those places better through reading, but because the books were labeled as fiction, I was left wondering, which is fine, they were fiction! But I certainly don’t want to feel that way after reading NF.
The idea of art and photography makes the issue even more complicated, I think. Photographers edit all the time, right? Color, focus, shading, I don’t even know. And then think about airbrushing and photoshop. The images on magazines are presented as ‘true’ and people have come to expect certain things. But are they really true? And what has that expectation done to our expectation of the written word as well? Marilyn has some good thoughts on this at her blog: http://communicatingacrossboundariesblog.com/2011/04/18/the-fine-line-of-storytelling/
there’s some stuff to think about!
i tend to think it is how you are presenting your piece. if you offer it as fact, then it needs to be. of course, my perspective and your perspective on the same exact sequence of events might be totally different, and readers need to recognize that. on the other hand, if you offer an essay as art that has grown out of facts and real experiences, there should be room to shape/form/change/elaborate/etc.
most pieces, though, fall somewhere in between.
another consideration would be the purpose of the piece, don’t you think? quick question: do you consider nonfiction writing “art” in the traditional sense of the word?
Can you be more specific with the ‘traditional sense of the word?’
I think most piece fall between as well. There is no way to write the ‘truth’ meaning the whole entire truth. That would be boring and take a literal lifetime, I wrote about it in the Three Cups of Tea link.
if i remember correctly, the etymology of the word art – initially, it referred to specific skill sets learned and then practiced well, or expertise/ability in scholarship and learning – then evolved in the 16-1700s to refer to the creative, imaginative skills most people usually label as art (not to mean the first sense of the word is never used… it just doesn’t seem as prevalent).
good writing, in my opinion, will reflect both – whether it is fiction or nonfiction. perhaps in nonfiction, however, the creative/imaginative side would not be reflected in the recounting of the keystone facts/specific details/major points, but rather in the approach, perspective, use of language, etc.
I love this Richelle. Both – yes. I hadn’t thought of it this way before but that is what is often missing. Books/articles I read might read gorgeously but don’t seem to offer more than pretty words and rhythms. Others offer so much meat and depth but are dull. The trick, the ‘art,’ is finding and balancing both.
[…] (PSS: Just yesterday the great Rachel Pieh Jones published a bunch of amazing resources for those of us who are interested in the ethics of non-fiction. I want to read all the books! Go check that out here.) […]
did you read all of these books? oh my. now i want to go read them all. excellent resource, Rachel!
Yup, and they’re all good so I’d recommend any/all.
It’s important to make it clear if you have changed facts for the sake of the story. Otherwise your credibility is threatened. I was very upset when I worked for a major Christian agency to read a piece in their magazine about a fictitious volunteer in the area where I was working, with no indication that he was fictitious. The story also referred to agency programs that didn’t actually exist. I was also disturbed when the agency’s president appeared in a video telling a fictitious story about a refugee, again with no acknowledgment.
Yikes. Those examples are pretty clear cut that they needed to described as fictitious. I also read a book by a Christian who alternated his personal story with a story of another person. Not until the very end of the book, and in a short almost miss-able line, did he say the other story was made up. Frankly, it made me mad and made me doubt much of what was in the parts about his own story. Why not just say it upfront?
[…] I thought, one degree. Who cares? Who would even notice? […]