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Writing Free Verse: Word Choice

The diction of the poem is the language selected by the poet to construct a poem. A poet has a dictionary filled with word choices and a thesaurus with different shades of meaning. Traditional poetry tends to be composed of lofty language, grandiloquent language, pompous language. Modern and contemporary poetry tends to crafted with ordinary language, conversational language everyday language—diction associated with the common man, the ordinary person.  Here ‘s an example of a contemporary poem, constructed with simple language by Ted Kooser:

A Spiral Notebook

by Ted Kooser

The bright wire rolls like a porpoise
in and out of the calm blue sea
of the cover, or perhaps like a sleeper
twisting in and out of his dreams,
for it could hold a record of dreams
if you wanted to buy it for that
though it seems to be meant for
more serious work, with its
college-ruled lines and its cover
that states in emphatic white letters,
5 SUBJECT NOTEBOOK. It seems
a part of growing old is no longer
to have five subjects, each
demanding an equal share of attention,
set apart by brown cardboard dividers,
but instead to stand in a drugstore
and hang on to one subject
a little too long, like this notebook
you weigh in your hands, passing
your fingers over its surfaces
as if it were some kind of wonder.

In this article, I discuss word choice or diction as it applies to  writing a free verse poem.

The Language of Free Verse

How does a poet select words for a free poem? There are many things to consider:

  • Literal meaning or dictionary meaning of the word. The poet considers a word’s denotation, its literal meaning.
  • Implied meaning of a word or connotation of the word.
  • Sound of  the word. The poet considers alliteration, assonance, rhyme.
  • Number of syllables in the word.
  • Whether the word rhymes or not.
  • Whether the word is closely associated with another word
  • Whether the word or words provide the best simile or metaphor
  • Whether the word is a cliché.

The dictionary is full of words, which the poet can select to write a poem. The thesaurus provides an additional source of  synonyms. The task of the poet is to select words that express the intended meaning and the desired emotional response from readers. The poet should aspire to use language in a fresh way. 

Word play can be important device to convert the ordinary word or phrase into something new and fresh and original. The poet manipulates language with the intent of amusing.

Sometimes poets surprise readers by using unknown words, and so the reader must turn to the dictionary to understand the word’s meaning.  Other times the poet combines familiar words in a new way to express a different meaning. Example: Dying for love.

Poets select words so they can be used as figurative language, such as simile or metaphor, with the intent of converting an abstract idea into a concrete and particular image.

Poets select words for their alliteration. It refers to a line of a poem in which two or more words begin with the same letter or have the same sound. Example: The boy sipped the soda, then smiled and screamed.

Poets choose words because they rhyme. The rhyme might be an end rhyme, in which the words of  two words at the end of the line rhyme. Example: He dug the hole/ for the flag pole/.. The rhyme might be an internal rhyme. Two or more words on the same line rhyme. Example: The “fog blanketed the bog”….”the blight of night.”

The best way to write a poem is to use concrete nouns and action verbs. As well, use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. Why? adjectives and adverbs often create wordiness. Furthermore, often a noun or verb that includes the meaning of the adjective or adverb can be found in the dictionary or thesaurus. Poet, Louis Jenkins, does all of this with the following poem:

Diner

by Louis Jenkins

The time has come to say goodbye, our plates empty except
for our greasy napkins. Comrades, you on my left, balding,
middle-aged guy with a ponytail, and you, Lefty, there on my
right, though we barely spoke I feel our kinship. You were
steadfast in passing the ketchup, the salt and pepper, no man
could ask for better companions. Lunch is over, the cheese-
burger and fries, the Denver sandwich, the counter nearly
empty. Now we must go our separate ways. Not a fond embrace,
but perhaps a hearty handshake. No? Well then, farewell. It is
unlikely I’ll pass this way again. Unlikely we will all meet again
on this earth, to sit together beneath the neon and fluorescent
calmly sipping our coffee, like the sages sipping their tea
underneath the willow, sitting quietly, saying nothing.

In crafting a poem, the poet must also be concise, use the fewest words possible to express meaning and invoke an emotional response. Wordiness creates boredom, creates an ordinary poem. A poem is a compression of meaning and emotion. Poet Langston Hughes relied on simplicity and conciseness to create this memorable poem:

Dreams

by Langston Hughes

Hold fast to dreams
For if dreams die
Life is a broken-winged bird
That cannot fly.
Hold fast to dreams
For when dreams go
Life is a barren field
Frozen with snow.

Suggestions for Word Choice

Consider the following when selecting words for a free verse poem:

  • Is the word part of everyday language, or is it graniloquent? Use plain language, everyday language, simple language to compose a poem.
  • What does the word mean? (Denotation) Use a dictionary be sure of a word’s meaning. And use the best word, the exact word to express the desired meaning.
  • What does the word suggest or imply? (Connotation) Use a thesaurus to be sure that you have selected the word the best conveys the desired meaning.
  • What emotion does the word express? Select the word that best reflects the desired emotional tone of the poem. Example: Sad, sorrowful, despondent, depressed, downcast, melancholic….
  • What is the sound of the word? Select words for both their meaning and their sound. Frequently, poets use the technique of alliteration to choose words.
  • Is the word a cliché? If so, don’t use it. These are words that have lost their freshness and surprise, and have become worn out, dull, boring.
  • Is the word jargon? Avoid using this type of language. Only those who know the jargon will understand it’s meaning. Furthermore, this type of language is “worn out”, not fresh and original.
  • Select words for their conciseness. Less is often more. The poet should try to make the point with the fewest words. The poet should make every word count.
  • Be careful when using slang or profanity. Often there is a negative connotation. Always consider the intended audience.
  • Prefer familiar instead of foreign words. Most contemporary poets use a conversational tone, which is expressed through everyday language, plain language. However, it is acceptable to use a foreign word to add surprise.

Summary

A free verse poem is composed word by word, line by line.  As the poem is composed, the poet must consider both the literal meaning of each word (denotation) and the suggested meaning of each word (connotation). The poet must also avoid using clichés–words that are worn out because of overuse. And the poet must strive to use words in a fresh and surprising way, with the goal of creating an original, entertaining, memorable poem. The wrong word choice will convey the wrong meaning and invoke the wrong emotional response—or no response at all.

Resources

  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux
  • Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read & Write Poetry by Sage Cohen
  • The Poet Laureates Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun SchmidtThe Discovery of Poetry: A Field Guide to Reading and Writing Poems by Frances Mayers
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Composing Free Verse: Selecting the Title

by Dave Hood

The title of a poem is often the first thing that readers see and read. If the title is dull, readers are inclined to ignore the poem. Most titles capture the interest of the reader. Glance through any book of poetry by Bill Collins, and you quickly discover that his titles are interesting. Here are a few titles in the table of contents from the Poet’s Laureate Anthology:

  • Pin Up
  • Forgetfulness
  • Man in Space
  • Advice to Writers
  • Another Reason I don’t Keep a Gun in the House

Notice how each title hints at the content of the poem.

Though there are no rules for adding a title, there are a few helpful guidelines. Some you might already know.

In this article, I’ll discuss the purpose of writing a title for a poem and provide some suggestions on how create interesting titles.

The Purpose of the title

Some titles of poems are metaphors; others are similes. Some titles rhyme; others are whimsical. Wallace Stevens wrote a title for a poem called “No Possum, No Sop, No Taters.”

Some titles are short, consisting of a single word; Others are long. Billy Collins titled one of his poems,” Another Reason I keep A gun in the House.” It is 9 words long.

A good title adds meaning to a poem, provides context, tells the reader what the poem is about.  And a great title adds an additional layer of meaning to the poem. It illuminates some deeper meaning, some symbolic meaning, some other meaning that the words of the poem. This type of title resonates throughout the poem. A good example is Wallace Stevens poem, “The Snow Man.”

The Snow Man

by Wallace Stevens

One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;

And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter

Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,

Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place

For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.

The first reason for writing a title for a poem is to identify it. The next reason is to introduce the poem to readers. Yet, a title can have many other purposes. For instance:

  • To tell the reader what the poem is about.
  • To tell the reader who the poem is about.
  • To identify the location or setting or context of the poem.
  • To tell the reader that the poem is autobiographical.
  • To share or illuminate deeper meaning, perhaps symbolic meaning.

How to Title a Poem

How do you title a poem? Some writers jot down the title of a poem first, and then compose the details word by word, line by line. The title is like a writing prompt.  Other writers begin by composing the poem itself, then select a title. Each poet decides when to title a poem. It is a decision based the personal preference of the poet.

A title has a purpose, sometimes more than one purpose. The title can represent the first line of the poem.  The title can tell the reader what the poem is about. For instance, “Forgetfulness” is the title of a Billy Collins poem, and the first line is “The name of the author is the first to go….” Right away, the reader knows that the poet is writing about memory loss.

In the “Writing the Life Poetic”, Sage Cohen writes, “Titling a poem is an art.” In other words, finding the title is a creative process.” She goes on to write, “Often a title informs the reader about how to enter the poem and gives him an idea what kind of poem it will be.” Take note of these titles, created by memorable poets:

  • The Fish, by Elizabeth Bishop. The title informs the reader that the poem is about a fish.
  • In the Library, by Charles Simic. The title tells the reader about the setting of the poem.
  • A Fantasy, by Louis Gluck. The title tells us she is imagining something. She goes on to write how a fantasy of a funeral can offer closure to grief.
  • Happiness, by Robert Hass. This abstract title tells the reader that the poem is about happiness. The poet illuminates what happiness is in his poem with concrete and specific details.
  • Pin Up, by Billy Collins. The title is an interesting generalization. We learn that the poem is about the pretty women who adorn a calendar.

Often, you’ll rely on your creative thinking skills, such as brainstorming, using associations, to writing titles. There are no rules, only suggestions for how to write a title for a poem. Here are a few:

  • Use a word or phrase to tell the reader what you are writing about. For instance, if you are writing a poem about love, you might use the title, “On Love.”
  • Use a word or phrase that reveals the context of the poem, such as the social, political, historical time.
  • Use both abstract and concrete titles.
  • Use a simile or metaphor to title a poem.
  • Use a whimsical title.
  • Use a word or phrase from the poem itself as the title.
  • Use the title to represent the first line in the poem.
  • Use the title to represent the last line in the poem.

A simple way of selecting a title for a poem is to make the title the first line of the poem. Poet, Kim Addonizio, begins by posing a question in the first line.

What Do Women Want?

by  Kim Addonizio

I want a red dress.
I want it flimsy and cheap,
I want it too tight, I want to wear it
until someone tears it off me.
I want it sleeveless and backless,
this dress, so no one has to guess
what’s underneath. I want to walk down
the street past Thrifty’s and the hardware store
with all those keys glittering in the window,
past Mr. and Mrs. Wong selling day-old
donuts in their café, past the Guerra brothers
slinging pigs from the truck and onto the dolly,
hoisting the slick snouts over their shoulders.
I want to walk like I’m the only
woman on earth and I can have my pick.
I want that red dress bad.
I want it to confirm
your worst fears about me,
to show you how little I care about you
or anything except what
I want. When I find it, I’ll pull that garment
from its hanger like I’m choosing a body
to carry me into this world, through
the birth-cries and the love-cries too,
and I’ll wear it like bones, like skin,
it’ll be the goddamned
dress they bury me in.

Summary

The important points to remember are that the title of a poem should relate to its content. The title should also introduce the poem, share some context, tell the reader what the poem is about, either implicitly or explicitly. The title is often the first thing a reader sees and reads. If the title is dull, uninspiring, the reader is likely to move on, without taking the time to read the poem.

Resources

  • Words Overflown By Stars: Creative Writing Instruction and Insight From Vermont College of Fine Arts M.F.A Program, edited by David Jauss
  • Writing the Life Poetic: An Invitation to Read & Write Poetry by Sage Cohen
  • The Poet Laureates Anthology, edited by Elizabeth Hun Schmidt

Composing Free Verse with Visual Imagery

An image is a visual picture like a snapshot or photograph. Creating visual imagery is a powerful way to compose a poem, bringing it to life, recreating an experience, communicating in ways that entertain.

Poets use imagery to compose free verse poetry. They create interesting images with description, vivid details, and by showing the reader, not telling them.

Poets also convert the abstract into something concrete, something that can be understood. This understanding evokes an emotional response in the reader.

Here’s a good example of how poet, Gary Soto, creates a powerful, compelling, entertaining poem with imagery:

Who Will Know Us? by Gary Soto

for Jaroslav Seifert

It is cold, bitter as a penny.

I’m on a train, rocking toward the cemetery

To visit the dead who now

Breathe through the grass, through me,

Through relatives who will come

And ask, Where are you?

Cold. The train with its cargo

Of icy coal, the conductor

With his loose buttons like heads of crucified saints,

His mad puncher biting zeros through tickets.

The window that looks onto its slate of old snow.

Cows. The barbed fences throat-deep in white.

Farm houses dark, one wagon

With a shivering horse.

This is my country, white with no words,

House of silence, horse that won’t budge

To cast a new shadow. Fence posts

That are the people, spotted cows the machinery

That feed Officials. I have nothing

Good to say. I love Paris

And write, “Long Live Paris!”

I love Athens and write,

“The great book is still in her lap.”

Bats have intrigued me,

The pink vein in a lilac.

I’ve longed to open an umbrella

In an English rain, smoke

And not give myself away,

Drink and call a friend across the room,

Stomp my feet at the smallest joke.

But this is my country.

I walk a lot, sleep.

I eat in my room, read in my room,

And make up women in my head —

Nostalgia, the cigarette lighter from before the war,

Beauty, tears that flow inward to feed its roots.

The train. Red coal of evil.

We are its passengers, the old and young alike.

Who will know us when we breathe through the grass?

In this article, I’ll write about how you can use imagery to write free verse poetry. First, I’ll define what imagery means, and then I’ll explain how to create poems that include imagery.

Definition of Imagery

An image is like a scene in a film. It is concrete, specific, and particular. It shows vivid details that evoke an emotional reaction. The image shows the reader. Imagery appeals to the senses: the readers sense of sight, touch, smell, hearing, taste, touch.

Imagery was born from a group of poets who called themselves the “imagists.” In 1913, poet, Ezra Pound, wrote a short manifesto, which was highly influential, for the imagist movement, a force that had a huge impact on developing modern poetry, especially the free verse poem. Pound wrote that poetry should consist of vivid “concrete images” instead of abstract ideas. He wrote: “use no superfluous word, no adjective, which does not reveal something.” Pound’s most famous poem was very short, and titled “In a Station of the Metro.” It reveals how powerful imagery can be.

In a Station of the Metro

by Ezra Pound

The apparition of these faces in the crowd;
petals on a wet, black bough.

There are two types of images that you can create:

  • The literal image. Using vivid details and concrete, specific and particular details to construct the image.
  • The figurative image. Using simile, metaphor, symbolism, personification to create the image.

As well, compose a poem using sensory imagery. It is language that appeals to the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing.  Use language that describes how something or someone smells, how someone or something feels, how something or someone tastes, what do you see. Writing about the senses speaks to your readers emotions and to your imagination.

And, you show your reader instead of telling them.

What is the difference between showing and telling?

Telling: It rained this morning.

Showing: On this hot, humid summer day,  for just a few minutes, the rain poured down unexpectedly like a morning shower in the bathroom that turns from hot to cold, making you shiver as though it was winter.

Telling the reader means to write “declarative statements”. These are composed with facts, not vivid details, not vivid descriptions.

The golden rule of poetry is to show, don’t tell. (Writing the life Poetic by Sage Cohen) The easiest way to show readers is by writing concrete, specific, particular descriptions of things, people, places, experiences, abstractions.

You can also show your readers by converting the abstract into something concrete with metaphor or simile. Both the simile and metaphor enable you to compare one thing, something abstract,  with something else, something that is concrete.

Example: What is freedom? It is like throwing off the chains/ that shackle you to your past/ and running free in a field/ of sun flowers to the pristine lake/where a row boat waits/ for you to escape/ to a new life/.

When composing a poem, there are times when you’ll want to tell your readers things. Sage Cohen, the author of “Writing the Life Poetic”, suggests using the following guideline: “A good question to ask yourself every time you make a declarative statement is “What would happen if I described this instead of naming it? In other words, experiment with your creative writing.”

Figurative Language

Use figurative language or trope to create vivid images, to surprise, to invoke a particular mood or tone, to create a pleasurable read of a poem. Figurative language makes an association with something that is different, such as comparing the abstract to the concrete or one object to another object that is different. Here are the most popular types of figurative language:

  • Simile-Using like or as to compare one thing to another. Example: The house looked like a garbage dump.
  • Metaphor– A direct comparison between different things. Comparing one thing to another without using like or as. Example: She is the Goddess of Eros walking the beach. His life is a party.
  • Symbolism-Using a word to mean something more than its literal meaning, a word that has a connotation of something else. Examples: Cross, dove, water, fire, white, black. Some symbols are personal; the writer creates them. Other symbols are universal, understood very everyone, and so they are “archtypes.”
  • Synecdoche-Using an associated quality of something to represent the whole. Example:  Cleats and helmets raced up the football field, crashing, careening.
  • Metonymy-Using a word or phrase to represent or stand for another word that is closely associated with it. The gun represents military aggression. The guns and grenades turned the quiet town into a war zone, corpses littering the streets.
  • Personification-Assigning human attributes or qualities to things, animals, nature, anything that is not human. Example: The wind whispered……………the tree stood at attention…the sky wept….

Creating Imagery

How do you create interesting and memorable poems with imagery? First, convert an “abstract idea”, such a love, death, freedom, into a “concrete image.” How do you convert the abstract into something concrete? You do the following:

  • Write vivid details. Example: The rusty gate cut his hand like a knife.
  • Write concrete, specific, particular descriptions. Example: Sweating and out of breath/ tormented by the ghosts of memory/She cycled/ the yellow twenty speed bike/the one her deceased husband had given her/ up the steep gravel road/a place where they walked, shared secrets/as though she was racing in the Tour De France
  • Simile. Using “like” or “as” to compare one thing to something different. Example: He composed the poem like someone who was possessed by madness.
  • Metaphor. Comparing one thing to something other thing that is different, without using like or as. Examples: The used book is junk…The house is a graveyard…The car is a home…The woman is a mannequin dressed in the finest clothes that money can purchase.
  • Symbolism, personification, synecdoche, metonymy. (see the previous section for details)

Summary

All good poets use the various tools in the imagery toolbox to construct free verse poetry. Imagery involves converting the abstract into something concrete. Imagery is about associations, comparing one concrete thing to another. Imagery is about using language that appeals to the readers sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing. Writing in images requires that you create “word pictures” with simile, metaphor, concrete and specific and particular details. Imagery is an essential technique for writing compelling and illuminating and pleasurable free verse poetry.

Resources

To learn more about using imagery, read the following:

  • The Poetry Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux.
  • Ordinary Genius: A Guide for the Poet within by Kim Addonizio
  • The Poet Laureate Anthology, edited and introduced by Elizabeth H. Schmidt, forward by Billy Collins
  • Writing the Life Poetic: An Introduction to Read & Write Poetry by Sage Cohen

The Ethics of Writing Creative Nonfiction

By Dave Hood

What are the ethics of creative nonfiction? The intent of the writer must be to write honestly and truthfully. The writer must not change facts, distort facts, fabricate facts, tell lies, or mislead the reader. Changing a story by adding significant, false details or events that never happened is writing fiction, not creative nonfiction. And if readers discovers that they have been deceived, the writer will lose credibility and a reading audience. And so, when writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalistic essay, the writer must strive to tell the truth the best he/she can. As well, the writer must not fabricate events or experiences.

In this article, I’ll discuss the ethics of writing creative nonfiction. The following will be covered:

  • Facts and Emotional Truth
  • Memory and Imagination
  • What gets included and omitted
  • Dealing with Exaggeration
  • Compressing Time
  • Composite Characters
  • Cues and Disclaimers

Facts and Emotional Truth

When writing a personal narrative essay or memoir, you are required to mine your memory for details of a past event or experience. Yet, much of the detail is lost, forgotten with the passage of time. Other details are filed in your unconscious mind. Insignificant details cannot be recalled. Conversations between people cannot be remembered verbatim. How can you fill in the details of things that have been forgotten?

Most writers believe that when writing creative nonfiction, the writer has an ethical responsibility to “tell the truth” the best he/she can. This implies that significant events must have happened. The writer cannot fabricate events. For instance, the write cannot write that he/she visited some place and experienced some setback, obstacle, or adversity—-when it never happened. This is fabricating a story. It is writing fiction–not creative nonfiction, which is based on fact and truth.

Telling the truth also means fact checking. For instance, if someone is alive who can enlighten you about some experience, you are required to listen to their point of view. That is why conducting interviews is a often a required form of research for some creative nonfiction, such as literary journalism and writing a memoir.

Some writers believe that if minor details of things or events cannot remembered, such as the colour of the shirt, the name of a street, the food eaten, cannot be remembered, then they cannot be included. In other words,  ” probable details”, such as  what you probably ate, or wore, or thought the street name was, must be omitted. These writers believe that “no” detail can be added unless you are absolutely sure. In other words, there is no room for fabrication, even by adding insignificant details.

Other writers believe that it is acceptable to write about “emotional truth” in a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalism. What is emotional truth? It  refers to the writer’s “felt experience” in dealing with a person, place, thing, adversity, setback, and so forth. Emotional truth answers the question: How did you feel? For instance, suppose you lost your  job, and it felt like the world was coming to an end. Then emotional truth dictates that you can write about how the experience felt to you. You would include the facts of the experience and also the emotional truth of the experience. For instance, the writer of creative nonfiction might respond to a job loss by writing: “Losing my job was like a death. I mourned the loss for years…”

Memory and Imagination

Our memories are faulty. We cannot recall every single detail of an event or experience that happened, far back in our past.

As well, the truth is often a matter of perspective.  What I believe is true, and you believe is true might not be the same. Often our imagination plays a role in filling in the forgotten details of memory.

And so, the writer relies on his imagination to invent details of an experience or event that actually happened. Otherwise, the writer would be unable to write the narrative. Many writers believe that it is acceptable to drill into the imagination, withdrawing  insignificant details of an event, providing that  important aspects of the event are not changed, or that lies are not told.  Many writers of creative nonfiction also believe that they be allowed to interpret the facts of the experience as they see them, so long as the intention is to tell the truth—-not lie, not deceive, not distort, and not fabricate significant details or events.

What Can be Included and Omitted

A writer of creative nonfiction will often include certain facts and omit others. If  you are writing an opinion essay, there is nothing wrong with including only facts that support your argument, ignoring the opposing argument. Often the lack of time and space prevent you from exploring both sides of the argument.

But readers expect you to paint an accurate portrait of a person or an event with words. They expect that the writer will accurately describe events that have happened, and not add details that never happened. They expect the writer’s “best evidence.”

What can be omitted? Essentially, if the fact or detail is not relevant to a story, it can be left out or omitted. But to omit important facts or details is to distort and mislead the reader. And so, all important facts should be included, and then interpreted by the writer in the memoir or essay.

 The writer can respond by writing about the “emotional truth” of an event.  Often two people have different feelings about the same person, event, experience. And so, the writer is not making up details or fabricating a story when writing about the emotional truth.

Some writers believe that if something cannot be verified by fact-checking, then it must be omitted from the creative writing. Other writers rely on emotional truth to help them make the decision about what to include and omit. For instance, Joan Didion, a well-known writer, believes that the writer can construct reality based on their own “sense of truth.”

As well, the degree of truthfulness depends on the type of creative writing. If you are writing a literary journal essay that will appear in The New Yorker , or writing a memoir that will include people who are still alive, or writing a profile about a famous person,  you’d better get your facts correct. Otherwise, you’ll face retribution.  On the other hand, if you are writing a personal narrative essay about a memory that happened 50 years ago, the need for absolute truth and fact-checking is not as important. What matters is  the writer’s “sense of truth.” This means: What did the writer recall? What did the writer remember about the experience? What did the writer remember about the person?

Dealing with Exaggeration

Some writers exaggerate the truth to get laughs. For instance, in 2008, when humour writer David Sedaris, released a book of stories called, “When you are Engulfed in Flames”, some well known people accused him of exaggerating the truth. And yet many believe that “exaggeration” and embellishment are acceptable when attempting to share a larger truth.  In the response to criticism of Sedaris, Columnist Jon Carroll wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle:”A humorist has lots of latitude because funny things don’t usually write funny.”

Other writers believe that exaggeration is  an acceptable technique providing the reader knows that the writer is exaggerating the facts of the story. If the writer is going to use one of the devices of humour, such as satire or exaggeration, he/she must indicate this to the reader by ” cueing the reader”  or by writing a ” disclaimer.” 

 The intent of the writer must not be to use exaggeration to mislead or deceive. Sometimes the writer applies the label “humorist” to his work. This identification tells readers that the writer might embellish the truth to get laughs.

Compressing Time

Compressing time is a fictional technique that writer’s deploy to craft short fiction and novels. They use this technique to dramatize the story. They also use this technique to change the pace of the story–to speed by writing vivid details and particular descriptions and to slow down by compressing time by summarizing,  “tell the reader what happened.” Vivid details and description are omitted. The writer does not show what happened; the writer “tells” what happened. Time is compressed by combining events that happened over a few days, weeks, months, and so forth, into a shorter span of time.

This technique of compressing time is also used by creative nonfiction writers to craft short personal narrative essays and to write a memoir. For instance, several days might be compressed into a single day or a few hours, even less.  Pearl and Schwartz, in the text, “Writing True”, suggest that compressing time is acceptable, providing that the writer’s intent “was true–to capture the truth.”

Real time unfolds one day to the next. Often insignificant events occur during this span of time. To include these details would result in a dull, but true story. And so, many writers use fictional time to tell their true stories. Fictional time or dramatic time omits the unessential details, in order to dramatize the event or experience, and to write an entertaining, story that happens to be true. For instance, memoirist, Azar Nafisi, in Reading Lolita in Tehran, compresses time to tell the true story of a group of seven university students who are invited to meet at per apartment each week to discuss literature. The group meets for two years to discuss books. Instead of writing the details about ever meeting, from start to finish, she compresses time, and writes about the significant conflicts, interactions, experiences that took place. Compressing time allows her to explore the larger themes of oppression and identity and defiance against  the established religious culture in Tehran.

And so, compressing time is acceptable for most writers. It allows the writer to speed up the pace, remove insignificant details that can bore and distract, and helps to dramatize the story.

Creating a Composite Character

A composite character is created by combining the personality traits, behaviours, habits, and experiences of two or more people into a single person, who becomes the composite character. Sometimes names are changed in creative nonfiction to protect the privacy of someone who is alive. Other times, traits and behaviours and experience of two or more people are combined to protect the identity of a person. Essentially, a composite allows the writer to share personal information that could be embarrassing or damaging to the integrity or reputation of a person still alive. Most writers believe that using a composite character is acceptable, providing the writer tells the reader, by including a disclaimer in the preface, or as an acknowledgement, or as a footnote in the memoir. Including a disclaimer tells the reader that the writer is not attempting to deceive or lie to the reader, and so the credibility of the writer is maintained.

Cues and Disclaimers

Often the writer can use a ” tagline”  or “cue” readers when unsure of the facts or details. Here are a few ways:

“As I recall…”

“Perhaps this if the way it happened…”

“I believe…”

“I imagine…”

“I don’t recall exactly….”

“This is what it was like…”

As well, the writer can add a disclaimer to the preface, introduction, or prologue of a memoir. The disclaimer notifies that reader that the writer is  not 100% certain of the details, or that a composite character was created, or that the memoir is part nonfiction and part fiction.

For instance, In his memoir, “The Heart Breaking Work of a staggering Genius”, Dave Eggers, tells readers that part of his memoir is fiction by using humour in the “Preface to this Edition”: “For all the author’s bluster elsewhere, this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes.” He then proceeds to tell readers, in ten pages, what in the memoir is fictional.

To summarize, the intent of the writer of creative nonfiction must be to tell the truth the best he/she can, and to also write in a way that is entertaining.   As well, the writer can compress time to speed up pace and dramatize parts of the story, create a composite character to protect the identity of someone, use imagination to fill in trivial details, omit information that is not critical,  use exaggeration to get laughs, and write about “emotional truth.” The ethics of creative nonfiction require that the writer tell stories about events that are true, and not fabricated, whether the writer is writing about “self” or the outside world. And when there is any doubt that readers might be mislead or unsure of what is true, the writer must “cue the reader or write a “disclaimer.”

Your most important guidelines for writing creative nonfiction are to write honestly, even if it means “sharing emotional truth.” In other wordsl, telling your readers how it felt to you. As well, your intent must always be to  “tell the factual truth” the best you can. Fabrication of significant events is fiction, not creative nonfiction. If you desire to fabricate the details of a story, you should write short fiction or a novel.

Resources

To learn more about the ethics of creative nonfiction, you can read: 

  • Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
  • Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz
  • The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction by Dinty M. Moore