Uncategorized | June 14, 2004

One author, in response to my June 8 posting, remarked that he had resisted suggestions to fictionalize his Vietnam experience. And that leads me to ask, “How ‘factual’ is creative nonfiction?” What liberties do you, as a reader, expect (or excuse) in a writer. For example, in most cases, one can assume that a conversation that took place years ago, and recreated as dialogue, isn’t a word-for-word transcription. And of course, we understand that memory is faulty—two people at the same event may recall entirely different scenarios, even in important details. Still, we expect the author to be true to his recollection.

But what about other aspects? Can a writer make up a scene with dialogue he or she knows didn’t take place? Is it okay to drop a character out of a scene if he or she didn’t play a factor in the story? Suppose this minor character said one important thing. Is it okay to attribute her line of dialogue to a major character as a way of simplifying a scene? If a series of events took place over a three-day period, can a writer compress the time to one day?

In writing programs, there is talk about an understood “contract” with the reader—meaning that a reader has certain expectations when he or she sees the label “nonfiction.” Readers, what are your expectations? Do you care, or does it not matter as long as you get a good story? And writers, where do you draw the line in terms of what to add or subtract in a personal essay? How do you signal the reader when a scene or recalled event may not be exactly as presented? Are you “pushing the genre boundaries” or writing what simply used to be called fiction?

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