Turning Over New Leaf

Sunday, September 19, 2010

Creative Nonfiction – An Oxymoron?

Creative Nonfiction – An Oxymoron?

Years ago, I wrote a memoir on a foreign adoption nightmare. I was thrilled to have it published, and I even received an option for a TV movie. However, my bubble burst when the publisher insisted upon a fiction disclaimer. Fiction? I was there! My wife was there! Fiction? I received a wonderful, unsatisfying legal explanation. Despite the legalese, I stupidly felt since Chilean Dictator Pinochet was still in office, I should fear reprisals against those who helped us survive our ordeal. Unfortunately, I changed the names of several people to assure their safety. I suppose I should apologize, but at the time, we were attempting to live out the balance of our lives, and thought it might be nice to help those responsible for our survival to live out theirs as well.

Around 1990, I was doing some graduate work at California State University when I was sidetracked by the then new genre of creative nonfiction. I immediately thought the term ridiculous. I was raised in literary circles to believe things were either true or false. But it soon hit me. Nonfiction is about perception. If two people witness an auto accident, and one swears the car ran the red light, while the other swears the light was green, absent lies, it is perception. Concluding the light must have been amber is fallacious. Nevertheless, I began to relate the concept of creative nonfiction to my memoir. Was my story false simply because I called Hugo by a different name? Apparently, the lawyers never stepped over dead bodies as we did. They missed the starving children begging beneath the columns of the Presidential Palace.

Shortly thereafter, I re-read Ernest Hemingway’s memoir, A Moveable Feast. From this classic work, we learn much about the relationship between Papa and literary greats such as F. Scott Fitzgerald and Ezra Pound. Flipping through the initial pages, I learned that Hemingway endured the same aggravation I did with my memoir – the fiction disclaimer: “This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locales or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.” Poppycock! Of course, winning the Nobel Prize for literature might entice the public to purchase Hemingway’s memoir, even with the fiction tab. I also know Ernie did not stand for it. In his now famous Preface to A Moveable Feast, he states, “If the reader prefers, this book may be regarded as fiction. But there is always the chance that such a book of fiction may throw some light on what has been written as fact.”

Today, writers and publishers are divided on the genre of creative non-fiction. I am not qualified to break the tie, but I believe it was Ernie who invented the concept thirty years before the phrase was coined. About the same time my publisher’s lawyer was born.


  1. I agree that it must be one or the other, or is it like 'creative accounting'...!

    And is this another example of litigious society? Just in case someone, somewhere sues.


  2. Thought provoking.
    I agree, We do relate to the world from different paradigms of reality.
    I was an insurance adjuster and I can cofirm your point about different versions of the truth.
    Tim O'Brien said, and I'm probably paraphrasing,"sometimes the story truth is more real than the happening truth."
    W.Z. Snyder

  3. JJ: Exactly! I heard "litigious society" dozens of times.

  4. #167 Dad: Great line - and it's true!

  5. I guess I always thought that was called 'poetic license' - one's ability to portray their truth as they see it, and embellish it as they see fit. Interesting concept.

  6. Teacher Karen: As long as there is no fabrication, poetic license is almost a must for creative writers. However, some folks get very, very upset.

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  8. Oxymoron: Original giclee? Original print?

    Creative nonfiction...hmmm. Makes me think of your perception comment of ran the red light or not. My art then falls into creative nonfiction...

    Food for thought....

  9. A-M: Exactly! It reminds me of Jason's recent post on photography.

  10. I think I'm with you on this one JJ - I inherently distrust things like "creative non-fiction" - things are either real or not.

    In your red or green light scenario cited, I think that there also exists an objective truth independent from different observers' perspectives.

    I definitely think the tree still fell in the forest even if no-one was around to hear it!

  11. Actually for this very reason I really dislike the genre of novels known as "historical fiction" and I generally won't read such a novel unless it is an exceptional piece of literature in its own right - like Mika Waltari's "The Egyptian".

    The problem with historical fiction is that when you put modern characters with modern sensibilities into the past then that very act actually really misrepresents the most fundamental things to learn from history - how people viewed the world differently!

  12. Akseli: Exactly! It is a new world out there.

  13. Creative nonfiction is another way of saying fiction. I think anyone who is a writer, whether of fiction or nonfiction works, is creative. I write career books. If someone characterized them as "creative nonfiction," I would be verily insulted. Now, if the person said I was a creative soul who wrote nonfiction. That's another story. :-)
    Su-sieee! Mac
    This and That. Here and There. Now, Sometimes Then.

  14. I think that describing "creative nonfiction" as akin to fiction, except that it describes real events with real people, is a straw man argument.

    I do not regard creative nonfiction as an oxymoron. George Orwell's essays (Inside the Whale, England, Your England, etc.) are at least as creative as Animal Farm and 1984.


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