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Creative Non-Fiction?

This week is Creative Non-Fiction Week at Columbia, which features readings and panel discussions with writers in the genre who work in various media outlets. Creative Non-Fiction has been called “the fourth genre”, the often-forgotten cousin of fiction, non-fiction, and poetry, which makes me feel slightly better because before I started my MFA, I had no idea that it was recognized as something different from stuffy old non-fiction.

I’ve thought quite a bit about how to define the genre, and honestly, the best I’ve come up with so far is it’s a piece of writing that is [mostly ?] true, but told narratively, like a story. But what happens when you get the facts wrong, or your memory of the event is different from someone else’s? For instance, last summer my family auctioned off a gun we owned because my great-great uncle, Tim O’Neil, an East Chicago cop, used it to shoot and kill John Dillinger. I wrote about it, and my mom read the piece and pointed out to me that several of the details were wrong. But she also thought that I captured the feeling of the event in a way that was true. So, is that piece really non-fiction because I got some of the background information wrong? I say yes, because I told it in the way I remembered it, even if the way I remember it is only 90% true to what actually happened.

Or what if, like me, you have a fiction writer’s tendency to exaggerate? In my family, we have a long history of embellishing the truth for purposes of entertainment: The line at the DMV had at least a hundred people in it! Last winter it was twenty below for weeks at a time! That guy who sat across from you on the train was easily the most handsome man I have ever seen! The fish I caught was thiiiiiiiis big! What’s the harm in a little bit of exaggeration if it helps you make your point? Right? Aren’t we writers at least partially in the business of entertaining?

But when is exaggeration just a euphemism for lying? The question of truth in creative non-fiction took center stage a few years ago when Oprah lampooned James Frey for his “memoir”, A Million Little Pieces, much of which was totally fabricated. This may be an extreme example, but really, how reliable is memory anyway? It’s unethical to make up facts, yes; but personal memories are different. They are malleable, they change with time, and they are shaped not only by the event itself but by your personality, your culture, your perspective. And some memories, like beloved stories of lost loved ones, become legends among groups of friends or families, with details that may or may not be true but are now accepted as part of the fabric of the story.

So am I saying that it’s okay to lie and present your creative non-fiction as truth? No. But it’s still so much fun to find out what happens when you decide to translate a memory into a story—and then to show it to someone who was there, too: you might be surprised at how differently they remember it.

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