nonfiction

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Making Art or Documenting Facts?

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.”

fact or fiction, blurring

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.

When to Stop Researching and Start Writing

Another vigorous debate between my husband and I took place while we were running together. Interesting, since our last debate was about whether or not I am a runner… Anyway, I have been feeling stuck on a few writing projects and he thought I should just start plowing through the historical nonfiction work I’m attempting.

How Much Research Do You Do?

I thought I needed to do more research. He thought I could make stuff up, which I referred to as pulling stuff out of my butt. He suggested I just get words onto the screen and then fix them later (he wasn’t telling me to pull stuff out of my butt, at least not without wiping it off later) and this led into a long debate, through huffing and puffing and torrential sweating, about how to write nonfiction. How much research needs to happen and when does it need to happen? How much interpretation can happen especially when weaving together events that happened decades or centuries ago? How does a writer acknowledge interpretation or separate fact from sort-of-fact from utter fiction? Is there a difference? Isn’t history written by conquerors and so it already comes with some twists and interpretations? How does a writer find her way in the maze? Does she defend every word choice with an appendix that is as long as the book itself? Some of my favorite writers do and others don’t, or offer notes on a website.

So if I have an idea of a scene do I try to recreate it or do I lose myself down the rabbit hole of research and clicking, clicking, clicking, or calling, calling, calling and then find that at the end of the day I have written a single sentence that might be deleted later? I say yes, all that research means that sentence is as true as it could possibly be and that is what makes writing nonfiction feel like a treasure hunt – finding pearls and beading them together.

He thought, wouldn’t it just better to get something, some darn thing down on the screen so I don’t mope around feeling like I’ve wasted my time earning a single fact, a single date, a single name of a particular road by scouring maps and comparing date stamps? I can always go back and update it later, I could highlight the places that need more information in order to be confident of their factuality, and then I could just lose myself in the creative process of writing that scene.

Probably we are both right and this is what it looks like to write. Moping, staring, searching, moping some more, deleting, and then…aha! Discovery! And the thrill of that one detail makes it worthwhile. A treasure. That’s why I love nonfiction. When it is well done, I know how much each sentence was a battle the writer won in the end.

Here’s to winning with facts (and to winning debates with spouses).

How much do you research and when does it happen in the writing process?

*a great example of end notes that are as much fun to read as the book itself is: In the Garden of Beasts: Love, Terror, and an American Family in Hitler’s Berlin by Erik Larson

*image via Flickr

By |May 28th, 2015|Categories: Writing|Tags: , , |1 Comment
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