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