If representing and exploring the real by writing in the genre of creative non-fiction is your goal, we hope these tips about what creative non-fiction is, as well as some pointers on a few genres that are considered creative non-fiction (memoir and the personal essay) can help you. We have also included some tips about Writing Negatively About People in Your Life as well as links to some well-known examples of creative non-fiction to give you a sense of what is out there.
An Introduction to Creative Non-Fiction
What is creative non-fiction?
- Creative nonfiction merges the boundaries between literary art (fiction, poetry) and research nonfiction (statistical, fact-filled, run of the mill journalism). It is writing composed of the real, or of facts, that employs the same literary devices as fiction such as setting, voice/tone, character development, etc. This makes if different (more creative) than standard nonfiction writing.
- Sometimes called literary journalism or the literature of fact, creative nonfiction merges the boundaries between literary art (fiction, poetry) and research nonfiction (statistical, fact-filled, run of the mill journalism). It is writing composed of the real, or of facts, that employs the same literary devices as fiction, such as setting, voice/tone, character development, etc.
- Creative nonfiction should (1) include accurate and well-researched information, (2) hold the interest of the reader, and (3) potentially blur the realms of fact and fiction in a pleasing, literary style (while remaining grounded in fact).
- In the end, creative nonfiction can be as experimental as fictionit just needs to be based in the real.
Content of creative nonfiction:
- It's important to clarify that the content of creative nonfiction does not necessarily have to come from the life or the experience of the writer. Say, for instance, the writer is using techniques from literary journalism to create a portrait of a person interviewed. The writer may choose to write a portrait of the interviewee through an omniscient perspective, meaning the writer wouldn't be in the piece at all.
- On the other hand, nonfiction writers often choose to write about topics or people close to them (including themselves). As long as the piece deals with something real, or something based on the real, the writer is allowed to take the piece in any direction he or she wishes.
- In creative nonfiction, writers attempt to observe, record, and thus shape a moment(s) from real life. Writers thus extract meaning through factual details—they combine the fact of detail with the literary extrapolation necessary in rendering meaning from an observed scene.
- At the same time, successful creative nonfiction attempts to overlay fact with traditional conceptions of dramatic structure. While rendering meaning from an observed scene, a piece should suggest a beginning, middle and end that clearly conveys the conflict and the characters, and pushes the action toward some sort of closure.
- In effect, creative nonfiction attempts to project a dramatic, literary framework upon everyday existence, rendering it enjoyable, enlightening and potentially meaningful.
- While writing creative nonfiction, writers should dwell on sensory details and "show show show."
- A piece should never just tell the reader something or summarize—this is what research non-fiction does.
Different types of creative non-fiction writing:
- Due to the fact that creative nonfiction is an ever-evolving genre of writing, it is difficult to define set types:
- The Personal Essay:
A piece of writing, usually in the first person, that focuses on a topic through the lens of the personal experience of the narrator. It can be narrative or non-narrative-it can tell a story in a traditional way or improvise a new way for doing so. Ultimately, it should always be based on true, personal experience.
- The Memoir:
A memoir is a longer piece of creative nonfiction that delves deep into a writer's personal experience. It typically uses multiple scenes/stories as a way of examining a writer's life (or an important moment in a writer's life). It is usually, but not necessarily, narrative.
- The Short Short: A short/short is a (typically) narrative work that is concise and to the point. It uses imagery and details to relay the meaning, or the main idea of the piece. Typically it's only one or two scenes, and is like a flash of a moment that tells a whole story.
- Literary Journalism:
Literary journalism uses the techniques of journalism (such as interviews and reviews) in order to look outside of the straight forward, objective world that journalism creates. It uses literary practices to capture the scene/setting of the assignment or the persona of the person being interviewed. It can often be narrative or heavily imagistic. Another important aspect of literary journalism is that it often stretches the idea of "objective facts" in order to better reflect real life and real people. In other words, while journalism is about being completely objective, literary journalism says that people can't be objective because they already have their own subjective views about the world. Therefore, by taking the "objectiveness" out of the journalistic process, the writer is being more truthful.
- The Lyric Essay:
The lyric essay is similar to the personal essay in that it also deals with a topic that affects the reader. However, the lyric essay relies heavily on descriptions and imagery. Lyrical suggests something poetic, musical, or flowing (in a sense). This type of piece uses a heavily descriptive, flowing tone in order to tell a story.
- The Personal Essay:
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Memoir: Tips for Writing about Your Life
Memoirs are an often overlooked subdivision of creative writing, and more specifically, creative non-fiction. They have the potential to be incredibly interesting, richly developed, beautifully moving pieces that can sometimes be confused with autobiography. Generally, autobiographies are the life story or history of a person's life written by that person. Though memoirs share some similarities with autobiographies, such as first person narration, they are more than a recounting of one's life events in chronological order. Instead, they can be descriptions of one single event or moment in one's life, rather than that life in its entirety, and tend to be written in a less structured or formal manner. Memoirs have the capacity to be funny, profound, moving, cynical, etc., and may even have resemblances to fiction in their creativity. Memoirs can focus on one specific event, place, person, etc. or they can be expanded to encompass a broader range of events, snapshots, or memories in the author's experience. Here are some basic things you should know about writing a memoir:
Here are some basic things you should know about writing a memoir:
- A memoir can be about nearly anything in your personal experience/life that is significant enough for you to want to retell it, or it can simply be a snapshot of a moment or a description of a person, place, or thing in your life.
- Choose a topic that you care about, for this will make your piece more descriptive, emotional, and creative. Even though it is about YOUR life, if you care about your topic then so will the reader.
- Seek a deeper or underlying theme within the simple description of an event etc. that the reader can connect to. Use a lot of description and imagery, if you can, to make the reader feel like they know the topic intimately.
- There is no specific form or style that it is necessary for a memoir to have USE YOUR OWN UNIQUE VOICE!
- Do not confuse memoirs with autobiography, they are NOT the same thing (as noted above). You may want to find some memoirs in the library or online in order to get a feel for the variety out there and some of the ways you might want to go about writing yours. A few examples we are familiar with are:
- My Family and Other Animals by Gerald Durrell
- Lying: A Metaphorical Memoir by Lauren Slater
- Angela's Ashes, 'Tis, and Teacher Man by Frank McCourt
- The Dog Who Wouldnt Be by Farley Mowat
- A memoir, though based on and rooted in truth and fact, does not have to be 100% straight laced non-fiction. Take a new perspective, get creative, find a way to make your piece more interesting, fresh, thought-provoking etc. In other words, just because this is non-fiction, that DOES NOT have to make it boring, dry, straight-forward, and humorless.
- Though there is some controversy over what can and cannot be called memoir, Lauren Slater's book Lying is a good example of how creative you can get with this genre. Hers is specifically labeled a metaphorical memoir in order to avoid this controversy (though it has followed her anyway), and so perhaps saying something to that effect is a way of avoiding complaints of false advertising and fraud. Though you should not claim something to be true that is not, you can choose what you want to leave out of or include in your memoir. You can make it read like fiction, and you can make conscious decisions to surround your work with ambiguity that questions the nature of truth vs. fact (as Slater does). It may sound complicated, but really is quite basic: don't make claims your piece is something it's not, don't outright lie and then say it's fact, but choose your material carefully and you can do many more things with memoirs than you might at first think (see the limits of the real in creative non-fiction).
- Finally, have fun with it! Enjoy it! Memoirs can be very emotionality releasing, fun to play around with, and can reward not only the reader but also you, the writer. Test your limits and try different ways of writingits all about self-exploration and discovery.
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The Personal Essay: A Few Pointers
The personal essay is one of the most popular forms of creative non-fiction writing found in English classes, especially in high school but also, to a certain degree and in a more complex way, college. This kind of writing allows you to explore a topic through the lens of your own, personal experiences, reflections, ideas, and reactions. It can be one of the most powerful kinds of writing you get to do, both in its direct connection to you, the writer, allowing you to engage with material in class at a very personal, complex, and meaningful level, and also in the amount of latitude that you as a writer are afforded in terms of style, technique, and form. The following are some tips and strategies to help you think as you write and revise a personal essay, or prepare to write this kind of assignment for the first time (the topic of the essay will always varywe are focused on the genre as a whole here).
- Focus. In some ways, the personal essay is similar to memoir and many of the same techniques can be used effectively. It differs in that an essay is focused on one specific topic (and here, it will be explored through your own experiences) whereas the memoir has the capability to trace or illuminate several themes, topics, and ideas via the authors life (or part(s) of that life) that he/she describes (and how he/she describes it).
- Organization. Not to be confused with form (see below). Your essay, like other essays, should have some kind of coherent organization to it. This is not to say that you must use thesis style (in fact, we are confident that powerful personal essays follow that organization scheme less than 5% of the time). No matter how you choose to organize (and what form you use), be sure that your paragraphs and ideas flow from one to the next, connected by a common theme (trying to tackle the topic on which you are writing). It can be scattered or fragmented (if that is a stylistic/form choice you make), but the entire paper should have a relationship, even if it only becomes clear at the end. This allows the reader to follow your experience.
- Form. One of the best parts of this kind of writing is the power given to you as the writer. There is no form, no formula, no tried and true method that you must use to be effective. In fact, to copy something that somebody else has done is not only rather boring, but also defeats the purpose of this being a personal essay. Choose a form and style that suits you and is fitting for the experience that you are describing. Try to think of the form as a part of the writing itself, not just a framework for it: the form should actually enhance and make more poignant what it is you are taking about. Push the boundaries, but dont go too faryou are still writing an essay (and be sure that you follow any specific requirements outlined by your professor).
- Diction/Language. Like form, in the personal essay (and creative writing generally, perhaps even, to some extent, writing in general) the way in which you say something can mean just as much as the form into which you place what it is you are saying. Use language to enhance what you are writing about and not just as a means to say it. Here is where you can get really creative and appropriately use linguistic play to explore your topic and your own relation to it in new and complex ways.
Choosing at Topic and Approach
When beginning a personal essay, you should choose a significant event in your life. This can be almost anything, but something about it should matter to you. Many personal essays hinge around a sad experience, but joy is just as strong an emotion, if not more so. As always in creative writing, you should consider why you are writing this piece: what can writing about this experience teach others? What can you learn from revisiting the memory? In a personal essay, the importance of the word “personal” is not to be undervalued. Whatever you choose to write about must be important to you, hinge around your experience, and have some impact on you.
When writing a personal essay, it is important to remember that the main character is you. This is challenging for a lot of people who are used to expressing themselves through a character or through poetry. Personal essays demand more vulnerability than either of these forms. In a personal essay, the writer should never be afraid of the word “I” in fact, it should be used as often as possible. In most situations where you find yourself straying into the first person plural (“we”) or even the third person, using such vague language as "one could" or “one would,” you will almost always find the writing becomes stronger if you replace the subject with “I.” Most of the time, drifting into vague language is a sign that you are trying to convey a message you find “too” personal and are afraid of expressing. However, it is this vulnerability that fuels the personal essay. You cannot learn from the experience unless you are honest with yourself, and readers will not be able to understand why this experience is significant if you hide yourself from view. Your character in the story can only develop if you claim the story as your own.
While one of the most common kinds of creative non-fiction writing (at least in an academic setting), the personal essay is probably one of the harder assignments to revise. After all, how do you fix a paper that is composed of very personal ideas? A personal essay is not like a formal analytical essay-- it doesn't need an explicit thesis-driven format. Therefore, revising a personal essay can be complicated, especially when you feel as though you don't want to tamper with personal thoughts. However, a personal essay often needs someone to tamper with it in order to make it a complete piece. Below we have listed several steps that may be useful when revising or giving feedback on a personal essay (either your own or someone elses).
- Voice/Tone: The voice and tone are important in the personal essay because they reflect the attitude the writer is trying to get across. Is the mood happy? Sad? Is it serious? Are we placed inside the writer's head? These are all important questions to ask in order to realize the effect/the emotion the writer wants the piece to convey. Ask yourself (or the writer): Is the writer's voice consistent throughout the piece? Does it reflect the tone of the piece? Does the piece incorporate some experimental ideas? It is not necessary to have a personal essay be experimental, but it does need to be unique to the writer (hence the name). Some experimental ideas include: playing with the sentence structure by juxtaposing short sentences with longer, complicated sentences ... playing with word usage by including repetition or alliteration ... or playing with form by including other voices, dialogue, and points of views.
- Showing v. Telling: Details and imagery can only help a personal essay; they help to develop a story by making it more real to the reader. A personal essay doesn't necessarily need scenes, but it does need a well formed focus or point and imagery can help to establish that.
- Character Development: If the personal essay has characters, make sure they're developed clearly and that the relationships between the characters are developed. Dialogue between characters not only helps the reader to understand the relationships, it helps the reader to understand the individual characters and their actions. Imagery also helps with this and ties back into showing v. telling; by describing a character through details (of their actions or their appearance), we better understand a character.
- Original Language: Everything in a piece of creative writing is subject to scrutiny, including word choice. Therefore it's helpful to look closely at language. Is the writing fresh? Are there any obvious clichés that detract from the piece?
- Form: How a piece of creative non-fiction writing is put together is extremely important. The form not only needs to be organized well, it also speaks to the piece as a whole. Good questions to ask: Why is it organized in this way? How does this reflect your (or the writers) experience? It's also helpful to discuss different form techniques such as flashbacks, stream of consciousness, or different scenes that piece together a writer's main idea.
- Fiction/Poetry Techniques: Since creative non-fiction writing is such a hybrid and multi-faceted genre, it's often helpful to use/borrow techniques from fiction or poetry. Scenes, dialogue, narrative structure, setting, and an emphasis on language are all important aspects of creative nonfiction as well.
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Writing Negatively About People in your Life
When it comes to writing creative nonfiction, the vast majority of the material is going to be from experience. Writers will write about things they have gone through, monumental events in their lives, and the people they have encountered. While the closest people in your life often leave a positive impact, what happens when you want to write negatively about them? It can be hard to feel like it is your place to expose personal parts of others without their permission for the sake of your piece. However, it is ultimately your decision what you would like to write about and what you feel is necessary to include. It is also important not to embellish or include elements of fiction in your creative non-fiction. So if that means describing an explosive fight between you and your parents or outing your sibling for a crime they committed, you as the author have the authority to do so. But if this is something that causes you anxiety or makes you feel like youre abusing your power, here are a few things to consider.
- One, who is your audience? If your piece is not likely to make it very far out of your classroom environment, it may not be necessary to warn the people in your life that they have become characters in your piece. However, if your piece is going to be published in some sort of way or might have the opportunity of circulating, odds are high that you will want to inform the people in your life before they find out on their own.
- Two, what is absolutely necessary? Trashing loved ones in your life could be a necessity to the point you are trying to make in your creative non-fiction piece. However, you could also become carried away and swept up by emotion and decide to include things out of spite rather than out of need. Always reread your pieces for intention and make sure that sensitive, personal aspects of your piece are crucial to the understanding for the audience and not just fluff. When youre playing with emotions, it is even more important to write with intention.
- Three, do they need to know? If you still feel like you want to make your piece transparent with the people you have turned into characters, do so in a professional way and be prepared for backlash. It is important to warn them that you do delve into personal matters but that you do not wish for the audience to hold that against them and that you would not include it if you did not find it absolutely necessary.
- Lastly, be aware that they are free to react in any way that they want to, and if that is negatively, remember to keep your integrity. Just because they have disliked their portrayal in your piece does not mean you need to filter or sensor it in any way. Be respectful of their feelings but stick to your guns as a writer.
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- Excerpt from Holidays on Ice by David Sedaris A collection of memoir-essays by David Sedaris, this particular except is from the essay entitled SantaLand Diaries, where Sedaris recounts his experience working as a holiday elf for Macys. It is a great example of memoir. As you read, think about the debate going on about the memoir (see handout on memoirs)where do you see embellishment or possible stretching of the truth for artistic purposes? How is this different from a straight autobiography? What kinds of stylistic devices is Sedaris using that would make this a piece of creative non-fiction?
- Excerpt from Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test
This piece is a classic example of Literary Journalism (also called New Journalism). In it, Wolfe is reporting on both the sixties in general as well as Ken Kesey, the author of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, from the period spanning the late fifties to 1965. Considered to be an essential period piece of that decade, this novel is also one of the first examples of Literary Journalism. What about this piece separates it from more traditional journalism? How is it closer to what we would otherwise consider (mistake for??) a novel? From this excerpt, can you see how this kind of journalism is considered a kind of creative non-fiction? What does this type of journalism have to offer us as readers that more traditional journalism doesnt/cant? This piece also demonstrates nicely the concept of the limits of the real in creative non-fictionhow so? (see our note on this concept under Creative Non-Fiction)?
Note: To access excerpt, follow the link, click where it says “click to look inside” and then use the arrows to flip the pages.
- Excerpt from Lars Eighner's Travels with Lizbeth: Three Years on the Road and on the Streets
A great example of memoir. What do you see as the point or message of this piece to be? How does the author accomplish this? What features make this an example of creative non-fiction? Of memoir?
The Line Between Fact and Fiction
Journalists should report the truth. Who would deny it? But such a statement does not get us far enough, for it fails to distinguish nonfiction from other forms of expression. Novelists can reveal great truths about the human condition, and so can poets, film makers and painters. Artists, after all, build things that imitate the world. So do nonfiction writers.
To make things more complicated, writers of fiction use fact to make their work believable. They do research to create authentic settings into which we enter. They return us to historical periods and places that can be accurately chronicled and described: the battlefield at Gettysburg, the Museum of Natural History in New York City, a jazz club in Detroit. They use detail to make us see, to suspend our disbelief, to persuade us it was "really like that."
For centuries writers of nonfiction have borrowed the tools of novelists to reveal truths that could be exposed and rendered in no better way. They place characters in scenes and settings, have them speak to each other in dialogue, reveal limited points of view, and move through time over conflicts and toward resolutions.
In spite of occasional journalism scandals that hit the national landscape like plane crashes, our standards are higher than ever. Historical examples of nonfiction contain lots of made-up stuff. It appears as if, 50 years ago, many columnists, sports writers and crime reporters—to name the obvious categories—were licensed to invent. The term piping—making up quotes or inventing sources—came from the idea that the reporter was high from covering the police busts of opium dens.
Testimony on our shady past comes from Stanley Walker, the legendary city editor of the New York Herald Tribune. In 1934 he wrote about the "monumental fakes" that were part of the history of journalism and offered:
It is true that, among the better papers, there is a general professional condemnation of fakers. And yet it is strange that so many of the younger men, just coming into the business, appear to feel that a little faking here and there is a mark of distinction. One young man, who had written a good story, replete with direct quotation and description, was asked by the city desk how he could have obtained such detail, as most of the action had been completed before he had been assigned to the story.
"Well," said the young man, "I thought that since the main facts were correct it wouldn't do any harm to invent the conversation as I thought it must have taken place." The young man was soon disabused.
In more recent times and into the present, influential writers have worked in hybrid forms with names such as "creative nonfiction" or the "nonfiction novel." Tom Rosenstiel catalogues the confusion:
The line between fact and fiction in America, between what is real and made up, is blurring. The move in journalism toward infotainment invites just such confusion, as news becomes entertainment and entertainment becomes news. Deals in which editor Tina Brown joins the forces of a news company, Hearst, with a movie studio, Miramax, to create a magazine that would blend reporting and script writing are only the latest headlines signaling the blending of cultures. Prime time news magazines, featuring soap opera stories or heroic rescue videos, are developing a growing resemblance to reality entertainment shows such as "Cops," or Fox programs about daring rescues or wild animal attack videos. Book authors such as John Berendt condense events and use "composite" characters in supposedly nonfiction work, offering only a brief allusion in an authors note to help clarify what might be real and what might not. Newspaper columnists are found out, and later removed, from the Boston Globe for confusing journalism and literature. A writer at the New Republic gains fame for material that is too good to be true. A federal court in the case of Janet Malcolm rules that journalists can make up quotes if they somehow are true to the spirit of what someone might have said. Writer Richard Reeves sees a deepening threat beyond journalism to society more generally, a threat he calls evocatively the "Oliver Stoning" of American culture.
The controversies continue. Edmund Morris creates fictional characters in his authorized biography of Ronald Reagan; CBS News uses digital technology to alter the sign of a competitor in Times Square during the coverage of the millennium celebration; a purported memoir of a wife of Wyatt Earp, published by a university press, turns out to contain fiction. Its author, Glenn G. Boyer, defends his book as a work of "creative nonfiction."
To make things more complicated, scholars have demonstrated the essential fictive nature of all memory. The way we remember things is not necessarily the way they were. This makes memoir, by definition, a problematic form in which reality and imagination blur into what its proponents describe as a "fourth genre." The problems of memory also infect journalism when reporters—in describing the memories of sources and witnesses—wind up lending authority to a kind of fiction.
The post-modernist might think all this irrelevant, arguing that there are no facts, only points of view, only "takes" on reality, influenced by our personal histories, our cultures, our race and gender, our social class. The best journalists can do in such a world is to offer multiple frames through which events and issues can be seen. Report the truth? they ask. Whose truth?
Caught in the web of such complexity, one is tempted to find some simple escape routes before the spider bites. If there were only a set of basic principles to help journalists navigate the waters between fact and fiction, especially those areas between the rocks. Such principles exist. They can be drawn from the collective experience of many journalists, from our conversations, debates and forums, from the work of writers such as John Hersey and Anna Quindlen, from stylebooks and codes of ethics, standards and practices.
Hersey made an unambiguous case for drawing a bold line between fiction and nonfiction, that the legend on the journalists license should read "None of this was made up." The author of Hiroshima, Hersey used a composite character in at least one early work, but by 1980 he expressed polite indignation that his work had become a model for the so-called New Journalists. His essay in the Yale Review questioned the writing strategies of Truman Capote, Norman Mailer and Tom Wolfe.
Hersey draws an important distinction, a crucial one for our purposes. He admits that subjectivity and selectivity are necessary and inevitable in journalism. If you gather 10 facts but wind up using nine, subjectivity sets in. This process of subtraction can lead to distortion. Context can drop out, or history, or nuance, or qualification or alternative perspectives.
While subtraction may distort the reality the journalist is trying to represent, the result is still nonfiction, is still journalism. The addition of invented material, however, changes the nature of the beast. When we add a scene that did not occur or a quote that was never uttered, we cross the line into fiction. And we deceive the reader.
This distinction leads us to two cornerstone principles: Do not add. Do not deceive. Lets elaborate on each:
Do not add. This means that writers of nonfiction should not add to a report things that did not happen. To make news clear and comprehensible, it is often necessary to subtract or condense. Done without care or responsibility, even such subtraction can distort. We cross a more definite line into fiction, however, when we invent or add facts or images or sounds that were not there.
Do not deceive. This means that journalists should never mislead the public in reproducing events. The implied contract of all nonfiction is binding: The way it is represented here is, to the best of our knowledge, the way it happened. Anything that intentionally or unintentionally fools the audience violates that contract and the core purpose of journalism—to get at the truth. Thus, any exception to the implied contract—even a work of humor or satire—should be transparent or disclosed.
To make these cornerstone principles definitive, we have stated them in the simplest language. In so doing, we may cause confusion by failing to exemplify these rules persuasively or by not offering reasonable exceptions. For example, by saying "Do not deceive," we are talking about the promise the journalist makes to the audience. A different argument concerns whether journalists can use deception as an investigative strategy. There is honest disagreement about that, but even if you go undercover to dig for news, you have a duty not to fool the public about what you discovered.
Because these two principles are stated negatively, we decided not to nag journalists with an endless list of "Thou shalt nots." So we've expressed four supporting strategies in a positive manner.
Be unobtrusive. This guideline invites writers to work hard to gain access to people and events, to spend time, to hang around, to become such a part of the scenery that they can observe conditions in an unaltered state. This helps avoid the "Heisenberg effect," a principle drawn from science, in which observing an event changes it. Even watchdogs can be alert without being obtrusive.
We realize that some circumstances require journalists to call attention to themselves and their processes. So we have nothing against Sam Donaldson for yelling questions at a president who turns a deaf ear to reporters. Go ahead and confront the greedy, the corrupt, the secret mongers; but the more reporters obtrude and intrude, especially when they are also obnoxious, the more they risk changing the behavior of those they are investigating.
Stories should not only be true, they should ring true. Reporters know by experience that truth can be stranger than fiction, that a man can walk into a convenience store in St. Petersburg, Fla., and shoot the clerk in the head and that the bullet can bounce off his head, ricochet off a ceiling beam, and puncture a box of cookies.
If we ruled the world of journalism—as if it could be ruled—we would ban the use of anonymous sources, except in cases where the source is especially vulnerable and the news is of great import. Some whistleblowers who expose great wrongdoing fall into this category. A person who has migrated illegally into America may want to share his or her experience without fear of deportation. But the journalist must make every effort to make this character real. An AIDS patient may want and deserve anonymity, but making public the name of his doctor and his clinic can help dispel any cloud of fiction.
Fired Boston Globe columnist Mike Barnicle writes:
I used my memory to tell true tales of the city, things that happened to real people who shared their own lives with me. They represented the music and flavor of the time. They were stories that sat on the shelf of my institutional memory and spoke to a larger point. The use of parables was not a technique I invented. It was established ages ago by other newspaper columnists, many more gifted than I, some long since dead.
A parable is defined as a "simple story with a moral lesson." The problem is that we know them from religious literature or ancient beast fables. They were fictional forms, filled with hyperbole. Mike Barnicle was passing them off as truth, without doing the reporting that would give them the ring of truth.
In the Middle Ages, perhaps, it could be argued that the literal truth of a story was not important. More important were the higher levels of meaning: how stories reflected salvation history, moral truth or the New Jerusalem. Some contemporary nonfiction authors defend invention in the name of reaching for some higher truth. We deem such claims unjustifiable.
The next guideline is to make sure things check out. Stated with more muscle: Never put something in print or on the air that hasn’t checked out. The new media climate makes this exceedingly difficult. News cycles that once changed by the day, or maybe by the hour, now change by the minute or second. Cable news programs run 24 hours, greedy for content. And more and more stories have been broken on the Internet, in the middle of the night, when newspaper reporters and editors are tucked dreamily in their beds. The imperative to go live and to look live is stronger and stronger, creating the appearance that news is "up to the minute" or "up to the second."
Time frenzy, however, is the enemy of clear judgment. Taking time allows for checking, for coverage that is proportional, for consultation and for sound decision-making that, in the long run, will avoid embarrassing mistakes and clumsy retractions.
In a culture of media bravado, there is plenty of room for a little strategic humility. This virtue teaches us that Truth—with a capital T—is unattainable, that even though you can never get it, that with hard work you can get at it you can gain on it. Humility leads to respect for points of view that differ from our own, attention to which enriches our reporting. It requires us to recognize the unhealthy influences of careerism and profiteering, forces that may tempt us to tweak a quote or bend a rule or snatch a phrase or even invent a source.
So lets restate these, using slightly different language. First the cornerstone principles: The journalist should not add to a story things that didn’t happen. And the journalist should not fool the public.
Then the supporting strategies: The journalist should try to get at stories without altering them. The reporting should dispel any sense of phoniness in the story. Journalists should check things out or leave them out. And, most important, a little humility about your ability to truly know something will make you work harder at getting it right.
These principles have meaning only in the light of a large idea, crucial to democratic life: that there is a world out there that is knowable. That the stories we create correspond to what exists in the world. That if we describe a velvet painting of John Wayne hanging in a barber shop, it was not really one of Elvis in a barbecue joint. That the words between quotation marks correspond to what was spoken. That the shoes in the photo were the ones worn by the man when the photo was taken and not added later. That what we are watching on television is real and not a staged re-enactment.
A tradition of verisimilitude and reliable sourcing can be traced to the first American newspapers. Three centuries before the recent scandals, a Boston newspaper called Publick Occurrences made this claim on September 25, 1690: "... nothing shall be entered, but what we have reason to believe is true, repairing to the best fountains for our Information."
We assert, then, that the principles of "Do not add" and "Do not deceive" should apply to all nonfiction all the time, not just to written stories in newspapers. Adding color to a black-and-white photo—unless the technique is obvious or labeled—is a deception. Digitally removing an element in a photo, or adding one or shifting one or reproducing one—no matter how visually arresting—is a deception, completely different in kind from traditional photo cropping, although that, too, can be done irresponsibly.
In an effort to get at some difficult truths, reporters and writers have at times resorted to unconventional and controversial practices. These include such techniques as composite characters, conflation of time, and interior monologues. It may be helpful to test these techniques against our standards.
The use of composite characters, where the purpose is to deceive the reader into believing that several characters are one, is a technique of fiction that has no place in journalism or other works that purport to be nonfiction.
An absolute prohibition against composites seems necessary, given a history of abuse of this method in works that passed themselves off as real. Although considered one of the great nonfiction writers of his time, Joseph Mitchell would, late in life, label some of his past work as fiction because it depended on composites. Even John Hersey, who became known for drawing thick lines between fiction and nonfiction, used composites in "Joe Is Home Now," a 1944 Life magazine story about wounded soldiers returning from war.
The practice has been continued, defended by some, into the 1990s. Mimi Schwartz acknowledges that she uses composites in her memoirs in order to protect the privacy of people who didn’t ask to be in her books. "I had three friends who were thinking about divorce, so in the book, I made a composite character, and we met for cappuccino." While such considerations may be well-meaning, they violate the contract with the reader not to mislead. When the reader reads that Schwartz was drinking coffee with a friend and confidante, there is no expectation that there were really three friends. If the reader is expected to accept that possibility, then maybe that cappuccino was really a margarita. Maybe they discussed politics rather than divorce. Who knows?
Time and chronology are often difficult to manage in complicated stories. Time is sometimes imprecise, ambiguous or irrelevant. But the conflation of time that deceives readers into thinking a month was a week, a week a day, or a day an hour is unacceptable to works of journalism and nonfiction. In his authors note to the best-seller Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, John Berendt concedes:
Though this is a work of nonfiction, I have taken certain storytelling liberties, particularly having to do with the time of events. Where the narrative strays from strict nonfiction, my intention has been to remain faithful to the characters and to the essential drift of events as they really happened.
The second sentence is no justification for the first. Authors cannot have it both ways, using bits of fiction to liven up the story while desiring a spot on the New York Times nonfiction list.
Contrast Berendts vague statement to the one G. Wayne Miller offers at the beginning of King of Hearts, a book about the pioneers of open-heart surgery:
This is entirely a work of nonfiction; it contains no composite characters or scenes, and no names have been changed. Nothing has been invented. The author has used direct quotations only when he heard or saw (as in a letter) the words, and he paraphrased all other dialogues and statements—omitting quotations marks—once he was satisfied that these took place.
The interior monologue, in which the reporter seems to get into the head of a source, is a dangerous strategy but permissible in the most limited circumstances. It requires direct access to the source, who must be interviewed about his or her thoughts. Boston University writer-in-residence Mark Kramer suggests, "No attribution of thoughts to sources unless the sources have said they'd had those very thoughts."
This technique should be practiced with the greatest care. Editors should always question reporters on the sources of knowledge as to what someone was thinking. Because, by definition, what goes on in the head is invisible, the reporting standards must be higher than usual. When in doubt, attribute.
Such guidelines should not be considered hostile to the devices of fiction that can be applied, after in-depth reporting, to journalism. These include, according to Tom Wolfe, setting scenes, using dialogue, finding details that reveal character and describing things from a character's point of view. NBC News correspondent John Larson and Seattle Times editor Rick Zahler both encourage the reporter at times to convert the famous Five Ws into the raw material of storytelling, so that Who becomes Character, Where becomes Setting, and When becomes Chronology.
But the more we venture into that territory, the more we need a good map and an accurate compass. John McPhee, as quoted by Norman Sims, summarizes the key imperatives:
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. Where I came from, a composite character was a fiction. So when somebody makes a nonfiction character out of three people who are real, that is a fictional character in my opinion. And you don’t get inside their heads and think for them. You can't interview the dead. You could make a list of the things you don’t do. Where writers abridge that, they hitchhike on the credibility of writers who don’t.
This leads us to the conviction that there should be a firm line, not a fuzzy one, between fiction and nonfiction and that all work that purports to be nonfiction should strive to achieve the standards of the most truthful journalism. Labels such as "nonfiction novel," "real-life novel," "creative nonfiction" and "docudrama" may not be useful to that end.
Such standards do not deny the value of storytelling in journalism, or of creativity or of pure fiction, when it is apparent or labeled. Which leads us to the Dave Barry exception, a plea for more creative humor in journalism, even when it leads to sentences such as "I did not make this up."
We can find many interesting exceptions, gray areas that would test all of these standards. Howard Berkes of National Public Radio once interviewed a man who stuttered badly. The story was not about speech impediments. "How would you feel," Berkes asked the man, "if I edited the tape to make you not stutter?" The man was delighted and the tape edited. Is this the creation of a fiction? A deception of the listener? Or is it the marriage of courtesy for the source and concern for the audience?
I come to these issues not as the rider of too high a horse but as a struggling equestrian with some distinctively writerly aspirations. I want to test conventions. I want to create new forms. I want to merge nonfiction genres. I want to create stories that are the center of the days conversation in the newsroom and in the community.
In a 1996 series on AIDS, I tried to re-create in scene and dramatic dialogue the excruciating experiences of a woman whose husband had died of the disease. How do you describe a scene that took place years ago in a little hospital room in Spain, working from one person's memory of the event?
In my 1997 series on growing up Catholic with a Jewish grandmother, I tried to combine memoir with reporting, oral history and some light theology to explore issues such as anti-Semitism, cultural identity and the Holocaust. But consider this problem: Along the way, I tell the story of a young boy I knew who grew up with a fascination with Nazis and constantly made fun of Jews. I have no idea what kind of man he became. For all I know, he is one of the relief workers in Kosovo. How do I create for him—and myself—a protective veil without turning him into a fictional character?
And finally, in 1999 I wrote my first novel, which was commissioned by the New York Times Regional Newspaper Group and distributed by the New York Times Syndicate. It appeared in about 25 newspapers. This 29-chapter serial novel about the millennium taught me from the inside out some of the distinctions between fiction and nonfiction.
There is certainly an argument to be made that fiction—even labeled fiction—has no place in the newspaper. I respect that. Thirty inches of novella a day may require a loss of precious newshole. But do we think less of John McPhee's nonfiction in the New Yorker because it may sit next to a short story by John Updike?
It is not the fiction thats the problem, but the deception.
Hugh Kenner describes the language of journalism as:
... the artifice of seeming to be grounded outside language in what is called fact—the domain where a condemned man can be observed as he silently avoids a puddle and your prose will report the observation and no one will doubt it.
British scholar John Carey puts it this way:
Reportage may change its readers, may educate their sympathies, may extend—in both directions—their ideas about what it is to be a human being, may limit their capacity for the inhuman. These gains have traditionally been claimed for imaginative literature. But since reportage, unlike literature, lifts the screen from reality, its lessons are—and ought to be—more telling; and since it reaches millions untouched by literature, it has an incalculably greater potential.
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.
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