Writing Tips

The Morals of Non Fiction Writing

Hi Bookworms!

I have a confession that will make my Fiction Friends sad.

I have gotten so deep into Creative Non Fiction this semester. I’m in love. I have always enjoyed memoirs and stories that are based on real life events, but this semester I am actually taking two classes that focus on creative non-fiction. One is a workshop (meaning I write my own material most of the time) and the other is a Literary Journalism class where we read the work of others and discuss it. Like a book club.

As I said, I have always enjoyed creative non-fiction. One of my all time favorites is Truman Capote, who I started reading in Highschool because of his novel: Breakfast at Tiffanys. However, the book that really made him famous is “In Cold Blood” a non-fiction novel about the murder of the Clutter family in Holcomb, Kansas.

New favorites now include Cheryl Straid. Straid is the author of “Wild” a bestselling memoir about her experience hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. Any fans of the Gilmore Girls know that Lorelia is inspired by Straid’s memoir to make her own trek, however unrealistic.

But I’m not just here to talk bout my new favorite non-fiction writers, though I could and I will sometime, I’m here as a writer. Let’s talk about Truth, capital T.

What is the role of Truth in creative non-fiction. How much can you make up if you are writing about something that actually happened. I have professors that say it’s okay to make composite characters out of a group of ten people, or fudge a few details in conversation because no one has a perfect memory. But, I also have professors that says we are not fiction writers; therefore, there must be notes to back up everything. All detail must be 100% factual and true. Notice, lower case t.

My opinion as a writer? I think there is a difference between truth and fact. Truth is a personal opinion/feeling; meanwhile, fact is an undeniable, communal understanding.

It is a fact that today’s high temperature in Bloomington, IN is 53 degrees farenhite. It is my truth that this weather feels cozy and reminds me of being a JSOL leader in high school. So if I write a non-fiction piece about today, and I tell my readers:

“The day’s sky was a gray background, but in the foreground shone bright orange and yellow leaves, reminding us that life was not all cold and glum, yet. Like the early days when I lead fourth graders through the Wisconsin woods, and I pointed out the texture of tree bark or the veins in a leaf, today seemed full of life, not death.”

Is that an acceptable paragraph in a work of creative non-fiction? I haven’t told you that it’s 53 degrees out today. I have barley stated any ‘facts’ as some of my professors would define facts. But, I have told you my truth.

I’ll be honest, as a writer, I side with the truth argument. I would rather be playful with my language. I would rather write descriptions that lend themselves to reflection. I would rather tell you my truth than straight facts. I think in creative non-fiction, most readers will be okay with hearing truths over facts.

Just for balance, I will say that there are certain facts that cannot be altered. For instance: I cannot say that I saw a group of college students throwing a party in the meadow and claim it as fact. That is not happening out my window right now. That is too much of a stretch to make up. I can say that there are students walking through the meadow, sitting, studying, enjoying a coffee, because that is mostly true. Maybe there isn’t a student doing exactly one of those things, but it is appropriate to the scene. It normally happens within a day. I see a coffee. I see someone walking.

This is obviously up to the writer’s determination. What do you writers and bookworms think? What balance of truth vs fact are you okay with in what you read and what you write? Let me know.

xx The Professional Bookworm

1 thought on “The Morals of Non Fiction Writing”

  1. I go for the emotional truth of experience in my fiction, and that’s also what I go for when I write creative nonfiction. It’s a tricky line to straddle with creative nonfiction because you break the contract with the reader if you just make things up, particularly if you’re writing about something that happened but you weren’t involved in it. When you’re writing creative nonfiction about your own experience, then the reader understands that “facts” are going to be filtered through your memory, which can be unreliable, and your consciousness, which is subjective.


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