Friday, March 4, 2016

Composing Real Life: Putting the FICTION in Nonfiction

In my fiction class the other day, my professor made a comment comparing my fiction writing to my nonfiction.

“You seem so in control of your characters in your fiction,” she said. “And with your nonfiction, there are too many people on the stage. I always want you to edit down the characters, maybe combine a couple and cut some out.”

Her comment made me laugh. I come from a big family! What does she expect? (And while I wish I could control my family members, I can't!) But my teacher is bringing up something that we talk about A LOT in my nonfiction class: What liberties can we take when we are writing true stories?

We just read Richard Blanco’s hilarious memoir about growing up in Miami, The Prince of Los Cocuyos, which comes with an interesting disclaimer. He writes in his author’s note at the beginning of the book: “I’ve compressed events, changed the names of people, places and things. At times I have collaged two (or three) people into one, embroidered memories, or borrowed them. I’ve bent time and space in the way that the art of memory demands.”

Almost every memoir that we have read in my nonfiction class comes with some version of this author’s note, and we always spend class time speculating what characters were “composited” and which events were compressed.

When people ask what creative nonfiction is, I tell them it’s applying the tools of fiction to tell true stories. In nonfiction writing, people you know become “characters” and real events become “scenes.” This is how nonfiction is different from journalism or reportage. We are shaping real events into a compelling story, but in order to do so, we might have to take some creative liberties.

For example, if I were writing a memoir, my gaggle of Cuban aunties might become a single character. Or, if I wanted to write about my daily drives to elementary school with my father and sister, I might borrow dialogue and events from several of those drives and roll it into one scene. Would this make my writing less true? Can this still be considered nonfiction?

You may be wondering why a writer of nonfiction would even consider employing these strategies. There are several reasons. First of all, you must understand that our loyalty is to the reader. As writers, we have made a contract with the reader to tell them a story, and we are going to tell the best damn story that we can.

If I were to name my aunties, all eleven of them, how would this effect the reader? Would the reader be able to keep track of who said what? More than likely, they would become overwhelmed by the abundance of characters on the stage (as my fiction professor was when reading my nonfiction.) The same goes with the car rides. Sure, I can try to recreate for you each separate car ride when my father said something crazy and my sister did something funny, but by compressing them into one scene, you get a feeling for what those car rides were like. Everything I am saying happened did actually happen; it just might not have happened in the exact way that I am describing it.

Writers must decide for themselves where they stand on this issue. But even if you don’t feel comfortable combining a few minor characters into one or compressing events, most likely you are still not telling the “whole truth and nothing but the truth.” Why is that? Because, in order to fulfill your contract as a storyteller, you are going to cherry-pick what events and characters to write about. This is called narrative omission. Again, what we do as storytellers is very different from what journalist do. Our loyalty is to the story and not necessarily to the facts.

So how does omission work? Well, let’s say I’m writing a hypothetical memoir about my lifelong battle with diabetes (*completely made up scenario). Of course, lots of other things are true about my life, such as taking a trip to Africa and having a love of whales. But if these things don’t pertain to my battle with diabetes, does it make sense to include them in my memoir? Two things may be happening in your life simultaneously, but one thing will have to do with what you’re writing about and the other doesn’t.

Readers pick up a memoir for a very different reason than they do a work of historical nonfiction; the art of memoir demands a reader who appreciates emotional truths. Memoirists understand the malleability and ambiguity of memory, and their attempt is to write as close to their truth as possible. Of course, each person in any situation will have a different perspective of the same event. As Blanco writes in his author’s note, “these pages are emotionally true, though not necessarily or entirely factual.” It is up to the reader (and the writer) to decide how to come to terms with this complexity.