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The Ethics of Writing Creative Nonfiction

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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
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1 Comment

  1. As a new student at Goddard College in pursuit of my BFA-Creative Writing, it fell into my study purposes to write in a genre that was completely different from my chosen passion. Creative Non Fiction became that genre, but as I didn’t have any notion as to what made up this particular genre I began researching. After reading your article on the Ethics of such a genre, I came to recognize in me a growing sense of fear and dread. I am by nature a fiction novelist. My passion is Young Adult Fantasy. My assignment is to write about my experiences of research as it relates to world building and how it led me to the discovery of a little known Victorian authoress who published songs, poetry, history books, travel books, nature and architectual articles and biographies. But how will I recognize when I’m writing about events that took place nearly two decades ago the parts that potentially could be rising out of pure imagination from those that are actual facts? My mind has always had a way of viewing a scene in a more fantastical sense than what others might consider more realistic. How does that reflect upon my ethical self as a narrator of creative non fiction? I equate my viewing of the world at times like that of a Walter Mitty who often turned reality into wonderful but fictionalized events or even like Don Quixote. Does this follow the essence of emotional truth? Or does this fall into complete fallacy and therefore fiction?

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