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Creative Nonfiction: Writing about Fact and Truth

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March 2010
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Creative nonfiction involves writing about facts using literary devices, your memories or recollections, and  your imagination. You can write about any topic, such as birth, love, sex, death, sports, travel, science, nature, and so forth. Often you will need to remember or recollect the details of what happened, especially if the event or story took place many years ago. Questions will arise about accuracy of the reporting, whether you are telling the truth, and your subjectivity and objectivity in presenting the truth. In addition, sometimes you will need to check your facts by interviewing friends or relatives who might not want you to write about them, or the event, or story. So, you will be faced with an ethical dilemma.

This article discusses how you draw the line between fact and fiction, gain trust from your readers, deal with ethical dilemmas, and determine your subjectivity and objectivity when writing creative nonfiction.

Drawing the Line between Fact and Fiction

In writing creative nonfiction, you must present facts accurately. You must be honest and truthful. Otherwise, you are writing fiction, a story that is made up.

To write factually and accurately, you will often need to conduct research. For instance, if you are writing a personal essay, you might have to visit the place where the event took place or contact friends and relatives who remember the event.

Even if you feel you know the facts, you will still need to complete some fact checking. You might have to look at old photos, conduct an interview, or read old journals, newspapers or magazines.

Sometimes the line between fact and fiction is ambiguous. Often the writer will need to make a judgement call. Some people believe that once a fact is distorted or embellished, it is fictional. Others believe that creative nonfiction that is based on memories or recollections will be distorted. Memories aren’t 100% accurate. The writer will have to engage in a certain amount of fabrication to present the facts. There is no objective record, only the memories and recollections of the writer about an event that happened in the past. For example, when using dialogue in a memoir, the writer will often have to “invent” the actual dialogue. There is no way the writer will remember every word that was spoken. The important point to remember is that the writer must do his/her best to remember accurately. To verify memories or recollections, the writer check the facts to be sure that his/her view is accurate.

In the essay Memoir? Fiction? Where is the Line?, Mimi Schwartz writes that the creative nonfiction writer can write about “emotional truth.” What she means is that if it feels true to you, you can write about it as though it were true. But you will need to warn your readers or provide them with a disclaimer. For instance, if you are going to write about a memory but cannot remember all the details, you can say any of the following:

  • Perhaps she said…
  • I imagine she said…
  • To the best of my knowledge…
  • As I recall…

Author Alice Laplante states in The Making of a Story that the number one rule of writing fiction is “accuracy, and the rigorous adherence to facts.”

Gaining Trust from Your Readers

When you write creative nonfiction, you are asking your readers to trust you, to believe you. But the readers trust must be earned. As the reader reads your personal essay, memoir, or travel piece, he/she might think : Do I trust this writer? Do I believe what he/she is saying? The best way to gain your reader’s trust is to tell the truth.

In writing about past events, you will struggle with memory and accuracy. There are no rules other than you must do your best to present the facts as you know them to be. For example, you might not know what your exact thoughts were on the day of the event, but you will remember the event, the date it took place, the consequences, and the significance for you. The key point to remember is to be honest with your memories. Don’t embellish them. As well, do some fact checking. You might have a diary or old photo or personal journal. Or you might be able to interview a friend or family member who can confirm your recollection. And write about the emotional truth that resulted from the event—-what it means to you, how you felt about the events that took place, what your views are .

To gain your reader’s trust, make your account as honest and interesting as you can—without fabricating it. This is how you will gain your reader’s trust, and make them believe in what you wrote.

Ethical Considerations

In writing about real people and real events, you will sometimes need to consider ethics, such as the right to privacy and the betrayal of trust.

There is a need for full disclosure when interviewing and writing about real people and events. For instance, when interviewing a person, you must make it clear that you are collecting information for a story that you intend to write about. If you don’t disclose your intention to the person you are interviewing, you are being unethical. When writing about events that happened in the past, you will often need to obtain oral or written permission to avoid being unethical.

Sometimes a writer will not want to write about a true story because he/she will hurt or offend people who were participants in the story. For instance, if you are writing about child abuse, you might be reluctant to tell your story. Not only is it embarrassing, but it will upset or anger others who were aware of the events. On the other hand, if the person is deceased or estranged from you, you might be more willing to disclose this information. Often, ethical decisions are based on your own point of view: To show and tell becomes a matter of considering the costs and benefits.

Subjectivity Versus Objectivity

In writing your personal essay or memoir, you can be subjective. You can include personal opinions, thoughts, emotions—anything that is subjective. So, while the event must be presented objectively, you can interpret it subjectively, from your own point of view.

In some creative nonfiction, you will need to make a decision about point of view. Some writers believe that you can write in the first person point of view, using “I.” Obviously, if you are writing a personal essay, you will write in the first person. It is more intimate, more real, and natural. Moreover, you are the central character in the story.

But there will be times when you are not the central character. You might be just an observer of the story or events. The question is then whether to narrate your story in the first person or third person. For instance, if you want to tell the story as the events unfolded, you might want to use the third person “he/she.”It is more objective. Clearly, the decision to place yourself in the story or out of the story is a personal decision.

When writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal essay, memoir, or literary essay, you must remember that your writing needs to be based on fact, which must be accurate.  You must present the facts to the best of your ability. You must also be ethical in conducting research and revealing personal information about other people. To gain your reader’s trust be honest with yourself and tell the truth. Finally, you can include your own perspective or point of view, but you must tell the truth.


For more information on how to write creative nonfiction, you can read:

  • The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing by Alice Laplante
  • Tell it Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller
  • The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty W. Moore

1 Comment

  1. Zebedee Collins says:

    I am a writer, and I want you to know that I really appreciate your blog entitled: “Find Your Creative Muse,” which, I think, is very enlighten to writer such as myself. I have wrote a book about the Wrongful Death of My Son, and I used the genre of Creative Nonfiction to write the book; however, while writing my book, I sometimes struggled with recalling every little details of the events which took place, but nonetheless, I knew the facts concerning each events which took place. So base on the facts, which I knew, concerning each events which took place, I took “Literary License” and use “Subjective Recollection” to recall and fill in the occasional vague little details of some of the events. After I learned about the genre of “Creative Nonfiction,” and while sticking with the facts, I was able to finish writing my book with less struggle and frustration with recalling every little detail surrounding each event which took place. I think more writers will be liberated and able to write with less hindrance when they become enlighten about the genre of Creative Nonfiction; Keep up the good work.

    P.S. I’ll be awaiting your reply.

    Zebedee Collins

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