Jul 192011

While salivating my way through the most recent issue of Creative Nonfiction (the “food issue”), I encountered a discussion (some might say THE discussion) that continues to define (plague?) creative nonfiction writing in general.  I am of course referring to the issue of accuracy.  The old argument goes like this: on one hand, this is NON-fiction, so everything must be accurate, wholly accurate, and verifiable.  On the other, this is CREATIVE, so bending, slanting, embellishing is just fine as long as the spirit of truth is upheld.

This debate is not engaged directly in the pages of issue 41, but rears its head in two places.  There is this, in an interview with Ruth Reichl, restaurant critic, former editor at Gourmet, and nonfiction writer:

You can’t [make things up in a memoir] but you can combine things… Certainly in “Tender at the Bone,” for instance, the best story is the one about my brother Bob’s engagement party.  It’s a wonderful story, all true, but it’s really two parties conflated into one….. Nothing in there is made up, but it makes a much better story put all together in one place.  I think one of the great things you get to do with memoir is selectively cherry-pick your memories.

The interviewer prods Reichl and she offers further examples of the degrees of truth in nonfiction writing.  She mentions drug addition, conjuring (as perhaps this discussion forever will) A Million Little Pieces.  The second time the debate comes up references that maligned “memoir” directly.  Robert Atwan, The Best American Essays series editor, ruminates on E.B. White’s essay “Death of a Pig,” exposing White’s perhaps deliberate embellishment of his own emotions for literary effect.

Atwan’s analysis is insightful, and definitely worthwhile reading for any budding (or since-fruited) essayist.  He classifies the “distortion of truth” into five categories, roughly: outright lies, deliberate omissions, personal biases, minor factual errors (which Atwan calls “mostly inadvertent and benign”), and distortion by the very act of writing something down—by the act of creating art.  It is this complex fifth category on which Atwan spends his time, taking apart White’s essay as an example.

The implication here seems to be that some sins of inaccuracy are more grievous than others, but (taking Reichl’s statements into account) that continuum is different for different writers.  In fact, Reichl’s permissible “conflation” could be a sixth category in Atwan’s catalog.

My writing background is journalistic, so accuracy is very important to me.  However, my articles for design magazines are rarely fact-checked and I hardly ever call a second source to verify the back stories designers tell me–I simply trust them.   And, I am regularly guilty of “deliberate omissions,” since, say, writing just 2500 words on five miles of lakefront parks requires me to leave certain things out.  My personal biases and my critic’s mind, invariably make me decide what stays and what goes.  So in my typical article, I transgress in two of Atwan’s ways: personal biases and, likely, minor factual errors.

However, Reichl’s admission of conflation bugs me.  Leaving something out feels to me like basic editing, while bringing characters and stories into a place they never were feels like fiction.

So: where do you stand?  This forum has seen dozens of essays about places where we live, several about childhood (old memories ripe for mis-telling), travel dispatches, and even a few science pieces.  How true is true?  How non-fiction does CNF need to be?  Does it vary by the type of CNF?  Hmmm….

-Adam Regn Arvidson

  5 Responses to “Categories of Untruth: the CNF debate continues, by Adam Regn Arvidson”

  1. Adam, in my (VERY!) humble opinion, I believe that we as CNF writers owe the truth–to the craft, to the reader, and to ourselves. In the interest of applying art to the craft, I understand Reichl’s combining the events of two engagement parties into one for the sake of getting out the message without belaboring the point by relating the social graces, awkwardness, niceties of two similar events taking place within days of the other. For me, as a reader, I expect the writer to keep my interest and to tell me that she’s conflated two events into one for the sake of moving forward the story. If she doesn’t reveal the fact up front, and I later learn that she’s done so, I’ll question the writer’s reliability.

    • That’s a well-reasoned argument, Cheryl. I of course like CNF for precisely this reason–that it’s not journalism. But your final sentence is the crux of it for me. I ask myself now what else was “untrue” in that particular work. Thanks for reading!

  2. I have to say as a journalist I come down on the other side of it–like I’ve given up on the notion of objectivity to begin. When I read a memoir, I assume from the outset it will have that Reichl-style conflation and omission to get to emotional or narrative truth and simplicity. I don’t trust the memoirist any more than I trust a fictional first-person narrator, which is to say, I trust him or her based on how s/he writes, not on how that conforms to facts.

  3. I am not as humble as Adam, but I do have opinions:

    Given that writing is representation, explanation, explication and sometimes obfuscation, truth is a strange concept. We look for precision and accuracy, honesty and integrity, but truth? What is that?

    When I am writing about science, the C in CNF is all about, to paraphrase Rich Farrell, finding the way to the heart – to share an appreciation emotionally rather than pedantically.

    When it comes to the NF, the science itself, I agonize and check facts and try to make sure that the way I say something will conjure a reasonably accurate idea of the thing. To fully explain would require an infinite regress. There must be a representation and the reader needs to trust the integrity of the science writer.

    It seems to me that building a reputation as a writer requires not only a body of good writing, but also a track record of integrity. With respect to the two parties issue – the author was lazy. There is always a way to do it right. With respect to Adam’s leaving stuff out – I see no other way!

    • Fascinating… Perhaps its a matter of how “story-like” the material is. A narrative about a family at a party (or two) gains importance from what the writer does with it. There are plenty of ways to make that same story uninteresting and therefore not worth reading (if I dare say that…). A narrative about, say, a political campaign, a key scientific development, or an historical event, has embedded importance, but becomes a “story” through the writing. The fact, therefore, should be dealt with more carefully…I suppose…

      Lynne knows this well (and does this well). Cellular structure may be important but isn’t inherently a “story” — until it’s been in her hands for a while and “translated” for the rest of us… But if we find out the science was wrong, then what…

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