"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       

Good Reasons for Turning to Fiction

October 24th, 2016 by

Last month, I wrote that I became interested in writing and reading creative nonfiction because it allows reflection on aspects of life that might be called spiritual. I wrote that I had experienced things that, were I to write them as fiction, would not be believed.

This month, I’d like to take up the call for writing fiction.

The truth is that some ideas are simply best conveyed, brought to life, and made engaging, if they are written as fiction. There is no strict rule on this, of course. Everything depends on the idea in question and the nature of the particular writer.

The Memoir
I have been working for a year and a half to bring a memoir of my sister to life. The challenges I have faced could easily be circumvented, I have sometimes thought, if I could just start making things up. A bit of imagined dialogue here, a stretch of made up scenes there, and I might be able to make a compelling story, even get my reader to feel what I felt. I might not be able to capture everything a person said thirty years ago. But by making things up, I might be able to give a sense for what things might have happened.

There are some nonfiction writers who are fine with this. They write that it is okay to make things up, as long as they stay close to the “emotional truth” of the situation, what David Sedaris has called “truthiness.” (I am envious of how much Sedaris seems to remember of family conversations from the 1960s.)

Other writers—Gay Talese, for example—argue that this is to write fiction. According to Talese, when a writer changes even a character’s name to protect them, he or she has turned to writing fiction.

The Fiction
Memory and imagination are powerful features of consciousness. And while I can’t settle this argument between nonfiction writers over their craft, I have found writing fiction to be a way of exploring ideas and experiences that I’ve had sometimes to understand better what happened. I’ve added new details, changed the gender of characters, and changed the order of events. I’ve done this to tell a compelling story. I’ve tried, anyway.

And after writing a lot of nonfiction, I’ve found myself moving back to fiction. I’ve even done this with the memoir I’ve mentioned above. I’ve begun writing it as fiction—changing the names, changing some of the situations, but basically trying to get to the heart of what happened.

I won’t say that this has been liberating. But it has helped me to see the story in a new light.

Who knows? Six months from now I might have a short novel that parallels the nonfiction I have been working on. What will that look like? What should I do then?

Perhaps I could try to publish both.

Posted in Uncategorized| 6 Comments


Comment by Tim Riter on October 24, 2016 at 9:19 pm

Tom, the line is blurring between the two worlds, and one of my favorite books, A River Runs Through It, did a nice blend of a family memoir in a semi-fictionalized story. It entranced me enough to research which events were factual and which were truthy.

Comment by Tom on October 24, 2016 at 9:29 pm

Thanks, Tim. I suppose this isn’t all that earth shattering. A River Runs Through It is a great example–I can see how that would be a favorite of yours. As I wrote this blog, I was thinking about Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried.

Comment by Nancy Brashear on October 24, 2016 at 9:35 pm

Tom–Thanks for your insights! Personally, I’ve found that writing a memoir (also about a younger sister who has been a missing person for the last thirty seven years) is difficult for me because of family members who would read it and, perhaps, object to my view of truth. By morphing elements into fiction, I am freer to explore the storyline(s). I’m a bit of a writing coward, I’m not afraid to say!

Comment by Tom on October 24, 2016 at 9:42 pm

Nancy, doesn’t the concern (or fear–perhaps it’s fear) of having other family members read it sometimes get to be too much? You raise a great point–what I’m trying to aim at here–that turning to fiction can allow you to get at the truths you have known and understand. Thank you for this insight.

Comment by Joseph Bentz on October 25, 2016 at 9:03 pm

Wouldn’t it be a great experiment to do your memoir as a novella and then as non-fiction and publish them both in one volume?

Comment by Tom on October 25, 2016 at 9:49 pm

Joe, I have to acknowledge you as the origin of this idea for this blog. I hardly think I will ever get anything published. It would be great to publish this memoir first as a novella and then as nonfiction. This would be incredible. Probably have to self-publish them. But this is your idea. And a good one.

Reply to Post