As Lori Yeghiayan Friedman wrote in April’s CRAFT post, many nonfiction writers experience a sort of literary existential anxiety when using fiction techniques in essays. I agree wholeheartedly that memory itself is a creative creation. That’s the nature of subjective experiences, after all. I’ll go a step further and invite creative nonfiction writers to incorporate basic fiction-writing techniques to enliven your works of nonfiction. As you’ll see, I don’t recommend whole cloth invention as in fiction, but I do engage in manipulation of the elements of story, which relies heavily on novel and short story structure.
You never see the characters in your favorite sitcoms use the bathroom as much as we use the bathroom. Focusing the authorial lens means that not everything needs to be included in minute detail in order for creative nonfiction to be “true.” Just as leaving out boring parts of the story supports the art of pacing, collapsing timelines can support imposing pace and plot to your essay. What do I mean by this? A good example is when I’m writing about anxiety, panic attacks, or any kind of overwhelming feeling I want to communicate to the reader. I often present vignettes of separate events as one big conglomerate event. Losing my wallet, tripping over a curb, experiencing the dissolution of a relationship – these might have happened over the course of a week, but I often collapse these events and present them together without explicitly saying they all did or didn’t happen on the same day.
Before I found myself in the writing and teaching life, I thought I’d be a lawyer. I have a great ear and memory for what people say around me, often parroting back their exact words in conversation (obnoxious, yes, but not a bad quirk for a writer). But writing isn’t testimony, and while I do rely on emails and texts to reconstruct dialogue, imperfect memory will do just fine here. I often write in the voice of people I know intimately: family members, significant others, close friends. And when I have sent the dialogue to the people in question to look over, many have exclaimed that what I wrote seemed to be exactly what they said even though that’s a farfetched idea years after a casual conversation. There was no camera or recording device in the breakroom at work, or at the mirror in the restroom. And yet reconstructing dialogue in a person’s voice is sometimes the only way to move an essay forward.
This technique works wonders for composite characters when you want to protect certain individuals. Some writers combine multiple family members into one character. I’ve often written about my experiences teaching, and while I’d never expose individual students’ identities, creating a composite student and reconstructing an approximation of dialogue is a good compromise. I feel, as most professors do, that sharing actual student words is highly unethical. My students own their stories, and I own mine.
When I was in graduate school, a close colleague of mine violently objected to my use of these techniques, especially when she found out that five stressful events in my essay actually happened days apart and not on the same day as I implied (but did not state). The world of creative nonfiction is enormous, and my colleague is a journalist. She said she’d rather read a ninety-page manuscript of exactly what was said, exactly as it happened, with all the pee breaks and boring parts transcribed, than to feel manipulated by the more “creative” parts of my nonfiction. I totally get it. And in fact, some of the more exciting, experimental creative nonfiction toes that line. Printing out the internet. Submitting screenshots of text messages. Vlogs about ennui. But I take issue with her judgment that using fiction techniques is somehow “cheating.” We all own our stories, and we all get to decide how to share our stories with the outside world.
Disclaimers as a tool
Although I think of a lot of these techniques as more experimental or pushing boundaries, super popular, mainstream nonfiction books use elements of fiction. One of the most powerful tools in this arena is the disclaimer. Educated by Tara Westover and Maybe You Should Talk to Someone by Lori Gottleib employ artful disclaimers in the foreword of their books, freely admitting that characters are composite, and several details have been changed to protect the privacy of those involved. A disclaimer is not only some vague legal device imposed by a publisher; a good disclaimer invites a reader into the story without hesitation. It can let readers put aside their incredulity and defenses. On the other side of disclaimers, many authors choose to omit information, as does Shona Rhimes in her memoir/self-help book, Year of Yes. She omits information about her family, then states why she’s not interested in sharing the name of the father of her children.
When I was quite young, I was grifted on the streets of Washington, DC. A woman with smeary make-up approached me and asked me for $100. There was a lot of overwhelming information, about a car, a baby, a job interview, and I didn’t really believe any of it, but I found myself handing over the chunk of money, helpless against this woman’s pressing despair. She told me she’d return the money to me four-fold, once she called a tow truck and got her briefcase, which I guess had $400 cash in it. I can laugh about it now, but at the time, it was so upsetting. When I wrote about the incident in an essay, a fiction-writing friend said, “Oh, you should write that you were $100 short on rent that month!” Of course a fiction writer would see some sort of Dickensian plot twist. I lost $100, then it sets into motion a sequence of events that ends with me cooking meth a la Walter White.
But what I love about creative nonfiction is that sometimes there’s meaning, and sometimes there’s nothing. As much as I use fiction techniques in creative nonfiction, I’m never tempted to just make stuff up for the base purpose of a plot twist. There are enough surprises in real life. The use of fiction techniques just helps to clarify the pace, characters, and structure of an essay or memoir or nonfiction novel. Dictionary definitions about truth aside, this territory expansion of creative nonfiction holds great promise and creativity for writers.
Jennifer Chong Schneider studied writing in Iowa and Wyoming. She lives and works in New York City.