If you write creative nonfiction, you’re surrounded by questions about the truth. How much truth is too much? What is the author’s truth versus that of his or her subjects (characters)? Is it okay to invent part of the narrative and still call it nonfiction? What about the things you don’t remember or the things you can’t be sure of firsthand? Can we presume what a real person’s feelings were at a particular time, or is it okay to surmise based on the events surrounding them?
One of my creative nonfiction friends from school said recently that she gets paralyzed in her writing when she has to try to expose her own truth. She’s so afraid of the judgments she might get, especially from family and friends, that she hasn’t written lately.
I suggested (only partly in jest) that she call her writing fiction. It’s not like there’s a mandate that prevents someone who got her MFA with a concentration in creative nonfiction from writing fiction, too. I told her that fiction isn’t really that different in the end because it’s a thousand tiny truths stitched together.
The more I thought about this, the more true it became to me (and we are talking about truth, after all). When I look at my fiction writing, it’s filled with things I’ve experienced or seen or been told. It’s centered on emotions I’ve felt or tried to sympathize with. It’s inventions created with the excess bits and pieces that are laying around my emotional junk drawer.
My mother recently read one of my ARCs for my new book, Leaving Kent State, and she said afterward, laughing a little, “I saw all the Fedels and my family scattered through there.” It made me laugh. “Write what you know,” I said. She nodded. “Write what you know.”
I’m not trying to diminish the seriousness of calling something nonfiction that isn’t (yes, I’m referencing that whole James Frey debacle). Writing creative nonfiction requires authenticity and truth. But what I am suggesting is that in every work of fiction, there is more truth stitched throughout than we care to admit. It doesn’t matter what the context is, whether it’s fantasy or historical fiction or sci-fi. It doesn’t matter whether it’s romance or a thriller. Sometimes it’s just the truth of our desires or the truth of how we wish the world could be. But it is still truth, whether it’s our own or someone else’s. The emotions and goals of the characters must ring true for a reader to become engaged in the story.
Sometimes, I know exactly how my friend feels. I often don’t write something into a story or don’t tackle the story I’d really like to because I’m afraid of the truth there. I’m afraid that someone might discover that truth and might be hurt by it or worse, exposed by it. And there are so many stories to tell, I don’t know how much it matters if I let some slip away. Maybe it’s me who can’t really face the truth of those stories and I need to write what scares me, as they say.
Whatever I write, though, I know that at it’s gooey, chocolatey center or it’s hard, diamond core, it is in fact the truth. Because, in the end, it’s the truth of your story that readers are craving. And in the end, only the truth will set you free.