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View Full Version : When is is not Non-Fiction anymore?



zeprosnepsid
03-21-2005, 07:02 AM
So, for a while now I've been thinking about telling the story of my grandmother and her family. They have a really terrific story of growing up in the south in the 30s and 40s. But I'm having trouble thinking about how to do it. I want it to be narrative non-fiction. It's a romantic tale and telling it journalistically would not really work.

But I wonder, how can it be written like a novel but stay within the bounds of non-fiction. I wonder if I'd be better off (and tell a better story) writing it as fiction -- "based on true events".

So where do you think the line is in narrative non-fiction. At what point is it not non-fiction anymore? Also, has anyone else tried to tell someone else's story as a narrative non-fiction? How did you approach it.

I think I might need to read Midnight In The Garden of Good and Evil. The writer isn't a character in that book right? It's a lot easier when the writer is a character I think (like Under the Tuscan Sun or something).

aka eraser
03-21-2005, 09:40 AM
I've always been a seat-of-the-pants writer, very un-analytical, so my advice should be taken with the appropriate dollop of salt.

I'd just start writing the story, see what form it begins to take, and figure out how to label it later.

maestrowork
03-21-2005, 09:48 AM
As far as I know (I could be wrong), if you fictionalize any part of the memoir (dialogue, events, etc.) then it's technically fiction. I don't know how they can verify, especially some of the characters are dead. I think you can paraphrase dialogue, etc. and change characters' names. But I think it is considered fiction if you have to make any part up.

sgtsdaughter
03-21-2005, 10:11 AM
eh . . .this is a tricky field to pin point. call it the historian in me (i.e. the day job finishing a doctorial dissertation), but many editors and critics will slam you unless you have clearly stated that your work is fictionalized.

essentially the rule of thumb is that if you take a memoir and beef it up with fiction then it's a historical fiction/memoir piece. marketing yourself as this genre might make an agent/publisher more willing to work with you because you have been upfront with the conceptualization of the story line.

Annessa

Mike Coombes
03-21-2005, 11:43 AM
At it's most basic, simple reportage is non-fiction.

Beef it up a little, you have creative non-fiction (a definition I hate).

Your best bet is to write it as fiction. Unless granny was famous, or was the secret lover of whichever president was in power at the time, it's not going to be a top seller. As a fictionalised historical account (based on fact makes it even better) people will read it.

Tish Davidson
03-22-2005, 05:18 AM
There is a lot of leeway in creative non-fiction, which is a cross between reportage and fiction and memoir and some travel books. Most use dialogue, and I'll bet that most is "gist of the conversation" dialogue, not "exact words out of their mouth" dialogue.
Take a look at some books done in that style and decide for yourself. Try The Prize Winner of Defiance Ohio by Terry Ryan, Angela's Ashes by Frank McCout, Coyote by Ted Connover, Praying for Sheetrock by Melissa Fay Greene. Your best bet is to read some books like the one you are thinking of writing and get an idea from them of how the material is presented. You can't make stuff up, but you can decide how to present the story. Basically I agree with Frank, write the book, then worry about it.

mommie4a
03-22-2005, 07:20 AM
I agree with the write it and see what you've got.

But, if you want to get more of a sense of what is creative nonfiction (a controversial moniker indeed), I'd also like to recommend that you check out Lee Gutkind at http://www.creativenonfiction.org/default.htm. Also, The Writer magazine recently had a couple of articles on Gay Talese, a well-respected non-fiction writer who is famous for writing about Frank Sinatra without ever speaking to him. The Sinatra piece is considered a classic.

The Color of Water by James McBride is a good memoir and so is All Over But the Shouting by Rick Bragg (although he was picked apart a year or two ago for allegedly getting help from less senior journalists and not giving them credit). These are both memoirs by journalists but not so much about their writing, more about their families.

There's lots of other resouces about narrative nonfiction, if you care to google it.

Sassenach
03-22-2005, 06:18 PM
o, The Writer magazine recently had a couple of articles on Gay Talese, a well-respected non-fiction writer who is famous for writing about Frank Sinatra without ever speaking to him. The Sinatra piece is considered a classic.


I agree that the article "Frank Sinatra Has A Cold" is a classic, and disagree that it's what he's famous for. He's written some of the best nonfiction ever.

mommie4a
03-22-2005, 09:44 PM
With you all the way! He's famous for many other things. I meant famous as in often recognized for, but certainly in addition to his other works. His is a lengthy career in the genre.:Sun:

triceretops
03-22-2005, 11:15 PM
This is a question that hits so close to home for me that I don't even like discussing it anymore, but my case and book subject is so much more different than yours. You asked if anyone else has tried to tell someone else's story--you bet, and I failed miserably at it because I didn't have a direct and personal source from which to gather info. I had only newspaper clippings and articles. I'm well aware that some of the most facinating bestsellers have been written this way--people that weren't even on the scene or had contact, but yet fictionalized the entire account and made it so entertaining that it was snatched up by a google-eyed editor. I'm a great story teller--I'm not a lier--and I resent this type of writing. Sorry, personal rant, there.

However, you have first hand knowledge of this subject from your grandparents. You shouldn't have any problems filling in the narative gaps. Have you considered a diary format, something akin to I Will Bear Witness. Also, what was that story written by Laura Engels, that did so well--Little House on the?

Triceratops

zeprosnepsid
03-23-2005, 03:49 AM
thanks for everyone's help. Since I haven't read a lot of 'creative non-fiction' I think it's good advice to look at some and see if something strikes me.

I would like to have an idea of whether I'm leaning toward the fictional or non-fictional side before I really get into it. It will determine the way I interview my subjects I think. I definitely have some research to do either way.

sorry for your troubles tricere! This is definitely a difficult sub-genre to tackle.

determined2finish
03-23-2005, 07:41 PM
I have been wondering about this very topic. I am working on some personal essays but want to conceal the identities of the other characters I'm writing about. If the subject and events are real, but the other characters are "disguised" via combining attributes of several people into one character is this creative non-fiction or fiction? Are they one and the same? Sigh...my head is spinning...:idea:

maestrowork
03-23-2005, 08:27 PM
I think we need to be very careful about the term "creative non-fiction." My understanding is that it is a non-fiction writitng in "narrative/novel" form (a la Angela's Ashes or Running With Scissors). But it doesn't mean you can "make things up" and fictionalize events or characters.

Granted, you can paraphrase dialogue or fill in some of the blanks (maybe Grandma did or didn't go to the beauty shop before killing the bastard...) but you can't change the pertinent events (Grandma really didn't kill the bastard, but oh well). There is a really murky line -- what is considered "filling in the blank" and "lies."

Your characters should be real too, and not a "composite" -- I think. For example, in Running With Scissors, Augusten changed the names and some locations to protect the real identities of the people in his memoir, but the characters are real. I doubt that he remembered every single word said or evern turn of events, but I bet he tried to write it from his memory as best as he could, without making anything things up deliberately.

Part of the allure of a creative non-fiction is the fact that it is REAL. It happened! Life is stranger than fiction. You will be cheating the readers' experience and expectations if you deliberately lie. You're better off writing a fiction based on real events, then lie to your readers about the authenticity of your story.

mommie4a
03-23-2005, 08:43 PM
There is a description of narrative journalism at http://www.nieman.harvard.edu/. On the lefthand side of the homepage of that site, toward the bottom of the column, you'll see in red "Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism." Click on that, then scroll down to "Director's Corner." There's a brief piece there called, "What is Narrative?". Yes, it's geared toward narrative journalists, but I still think it does a nice job of being short and precise and it might help clarify some questions for you, but by no means answer them all! In fact, maybe even create more...

determined2finish
03-23-2005, 10:47 PM
Your characters should be real too, and not a "composite" -- I think.

Part of the allure of a creative non-fiction is the fact that it is REAL. It happened! Life is stranger than fiction. You will be cheating the readers' experience and expectations if you deliberately lie. You're better off writing a fiction based on real events, then lie to your readers about the authenticity of your story.

Ok, so if I do make some composite characters and then it is considered fiction? Just want to clarify, here.

trumancoyote
03-31-2005, 12:25 AM
I'd have to agree w/ Maestrowork, that non-fiction is a precariously balanced field. Take Maya Angelou's I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings: it's her life from 4-5 years old, all the way up until she's an adolescent. That considered, there're naturally going to be some embellishments to speed the narrative, make it more colorful, etc. --particularly in Angelou's work-- because who the hell can remember things so precisely from their childhood? That is to say, who can remember enough to have a fluid, continuous narrative? Or the ins-and-outs of dialogue, for that matter.

It's tough. I'd personally right it as autobiographical fiction, to be safe :)

betjam
04-01-2005, 08:56 PM
I wonder when you write fiction based on real events, how much legal trouble can you get into. For example I wrote a book based on serious family issues and change the names and some events to fit the story. Can anyone in my family sue me if I don't claim it is all true and don't name them.


I think we need to be very careful about the term "creative non-fiction." My understanding is that it is a non-fiction writitng in "narrative/novel" form (a la Angela's Ashes or Running With Scissors). But it doesn't mean you can "make things up" and fictionalize events or characters.

Granted, you can paraphrase dialogue or fill in some of the blanks (maybe Grandma did or didn't go to the beauty shop before killing the bastard...) but you can't change the pertinent events (Grandma really didn't kill the bastard, but oh well). There is a really murky line -- what is considered "filling in the blank" and "lies."

Your characters should be real too, and not a "composite" -- I think. For example, in Running With Scissors, Augusten changed the names and some locations to protect the real identities of the people in his memoir, but the characters are real. I doubt that he remembered every single word said or evern turn of events, but I bet he tried to write it from his memory as best as he could, without making anything things up deliberately.

Part of the allure of a creative non-fiction is the fact that it is REAL. It happened! Life is stranger than fiction. You will be cheating the readers' experience and expectations if you deliberately lie. You're better off writing a fiction based on real events, then lie to your readers about the authenticity of your story.

rich
04-01-2005, 09:27 PM
I think Frank had the right idea: do it and then decide.

Somebody once sent me an essay to comment on. It had to do with a camping trip incident that she and her three kids experienced. I told her to get rid of one of her kids; he was in the way of the story.

LieselGarmach
04-03-2005, 07:18 PM
Rather than slanting your interviews ahead of time, why not do the interviews and then decide which way to start writing it?

When you finish the piece, leave it, and come back, you'll be able to determine which way you should go. You don't know how smoothly read it will be until you finish writing it. You'll be editing/rewriting portions either way. Trying to avoid major rewrites is almost setting yourself up for failure from the start....just my opinion.

ritinrider
04-03-2005, 08:03 PM
Rich, I did that recently with a story I'd written about the birth of my twins. I kept the twins, after all that was the whole point of the story, but lost (deleted any reference to) my 32 month old daughter. Yes, she was there, but her attendance didn't help the story at all, so whish- she was gone. Helped the story, and it was still a true account of what happened. Of course, now I've changed it into a fiction piece. Still, no daughter though.


Nita

rich
04-09-2005, 06:38 PM
Yep, new writer folks do have a tendency to include all their loves in a story. If the story's written just for those loves, all well and good. But most stories ain't.

betjam
04-28-2005, 11:48 PM
If you write the truth you could be sued, right. Some issued were so bad there is no way to get permission from that person. However the story is of value to help others who have went through the same thing see an end to their pain. Can you just write it as a fiction based on some true events and not get sued. Or just a fiction and let people think it might have happen. You know the old events and names have been changed to protect the innocents.

triceretops
04-29-2005, 01:41 AM
Betjam--I just went through this very thing with my historical discovery account of a huge collection of fossils/megafauna dug up in my city. It was a massive discovery of ice age animals that rivaled the finds at Rancho La Brea tar pits. I wrote it in a documentary/narrative style, having researched it and accumulated all of the information, reports, and photos, etc. Five agents gave me glowing comments, telling me it was truly an amazing discovery that deserved to be chronicled in paleontology. However, they all asked me to write it in full narrative account from the POV of the actual paleontologists. Well, those scientists did NOT want to cooporate with me, so I had no firsthand knowledge of their experiences. So how the heck could I write a story about the discovery without having the witnesses assist me? I refused to rewrite the manuscript per the agent's directions for fear of eventually being sued. The county museum thought that I was spaming their scientists! After six months of hard work, I dropped the project. I can't fake a world-wide discovery for the sake of entertainment.

Tri