Creative Nonfiction Strikes Back
Recently, I was scrolling through one of my nonfiction communities on Facebook and thought it was strange that none of the discussions or book launches people shared were in the creative or narrative vein. Not one. Everyone is writing self-help books, books about money, family and so on. Where are the memoirists? The lyricists? The personal essayists? The genre-defying, form-busting tinkerers? I posted a very simple question: What even is nonfiction? What can it be, or not be? The responses left me feeling like I needed to scrub them off in a hot shower.
“Nonfiction to me is all facts,” said one.
“No dragons, vampires, gnomes, no robots that come to life. No talking animals. Lol,” replied another with no small amount of snark. Others simply pasted word-for-word definitions from the internet, as if I had never thought to consult a dictionary on this question. There you have it. What I thought was a casual misunderstanding from the public is actually a dogmatic attempt by fellow writers to stifle creative license with it-happened-ism. Nonfiction, they say, is about things that actually happened. (As the target of such attacks, I ask not to be spoken to with that tone.)
They condemn anything that claims to be nonfiction but doesn’t adhere to falsifiability. Anyone who knows me knows I’m a skeptic; I think it is necessary to doubt and to demand evidence for claims. Some things surely must be true and shouldn’t not be confused with what is not. Stories that meet the standard of nonfiction I talk about would not hold up in a courtroom or science journal, but that has never been the intent. We investigate very different things, and through different means. Unfortunately, I get the impression that commercial writers harbor some resentment towards my kind. There are people who spend their lives conducting excruciatingly tedious research before they publish anything. They may consider someone like me to be intentionally obscuring reality to push a narrative, claiming to be nonfiction when the term suits me, then hiding behind creative license when it doesn’t.
We now find ourselves in a chicken-or-egg problem: do nonfiction writers and academics shape public perception, or are they simply giving the people what they want? I think there is a positive feedback going on too, but the onus is certainly on the professional writer to know better. Nowhere in my lyric essay on boy-to-man traumas do I assert that I got all the facts right about my childhood. That is simply inferred based on ignorance of the genre. My family has every right to dispute any individual claim I make. The brain works hard to keep trauma at a safe distance from our waking thoughts. The puddle of wine speckled with broken glass on the kitchen floor, was it chardonnay or merlot? Was that a Tuesday? Maybe a Friday? Who cares! The imagination is real. The thought is real. The futile struggle to emancipate myself from my past is real. If you say you saw an angel and it brought you to tears of joy and grace, I may doubt the existence of angels. I may not deny the impact that that encounter had on your life.
We may agree, however, that the term creative nonfiction needs to go (see John D’Agata’s introduction to We Might as Well Call it the Lyric Essay). I don’t know what we would put in its place, but it may be time to try harder to make this distinction. You might ask, if I’m not that concerned with the truth, why not just call what I do fiction? Because, the foundations on which I build are far too material to fit there, either. Besides, all honest writing seeks to at least ask the right questions. Samwise Gamgee shows us courage; Gandalf, wisdom; Gollum, moral and spiritual corruption. Even in the most fantastical tales we find some insight that is not merely fictional. Just as all fiction contains a grain of truth, all nonfiction in some way misses the mark in conveying reality, which is to be expected. The creative nonfiction writer aims high, knowing his or her arrow can never achieve its goal head on. Maurice Sendak was once asked why he writes for children, to which he replied, “I don’t write for children. I write. And people say, ‘That’s for children!’”
There comes a point when labels become prescriptive rather than descriptive; we’re more concerned with telling people who and what they are rather than simply observing and understanding. Again, both have their place. I’d be more than happy to let the journalists and STEM folks huddle under their umbrella while I dance in the rain.