In an earlier post I referred to narrative nonfiction as an act of making art out of real experience. It could also be said that literary or narrative nonfiction, sometimes called “creative nonfiction,” expresses real experience artfully. Basically, it uses fictional techniques in the composition of nonfiction. But it eschews fiction. The first person essayist does not make up facts.
Yes, the boundaries often seem indistinct. Students question how much they can embellish facts to make their *stories more interesting. If the writer is calling it nonfiction, my advice has always been--not at all. If the facts are—for example—troublesome, awkward, or inconvenient, write about that trouble, awkwardness or inconvenience; make it part of the narrative if necessary. Otherwise, nonfiction writers need to inform readers of their intentions and methods.
Today's New York Times Book Review deals with this challenge head-on in a review of The Lifespan of a Fact by John D’Agata and Jim Fingal. Lifespan, reproduces D’Agata and Fingal’s correspondence over nearly half a decade during the submission process D’Agata underwent to get a fifteen-page essay published when Fingal was an intern for the literary magazine The Believer. Here’s reviewer Jennifer B. McDonald:
The essay, finally published in 2010…tells the story of a boy named Levi Presley who in 2002 jumped to his death from the observation deck of the Stratosphere Hotel in Las Vegas. D”Agata used that episode to meditate on ideas about, among other things, suicide and Las Vegas, the stories Vegas tells about itself, the stories visitors tell themselves about Vegas, and what a city built on artifice tells us about the human condition.
That D’Agata “used that episode to meditate on ideas about [a distinct subject, place, time]…” places his writing firmly in what narrative essay writing does—grounds the writing in a subject about which the writer reflects and makes meaning.
However, Fingal discovered multiple errors of fact beginning with D’Agata’s first sentence and expresses outrage and accusation while citing massive evidence. McDonald reports Lifespan as a “knock-down, drag-out fight between two tenacious combatants, over questions of truth, belief, history, myth, memory and forgetting.” D’Agata, a writing instructor at the University of Iwoa, defends himself by calling his tweaking and spinning of facts “art.” D’Agata is convinced, McDonald reports, that “fact and art are mutually exclusive.”
The question is: can factual nonfiction be written artfully? Can we report facts accurately and make personal truth of them? McDonald closes her review:
No text is sacred. The best writers know this. Fiction or nonfiction, poetry or reportage, it can all be endlessly tinkered with, buffed, polished, reshaped, rearranged. To create art out of fact, to be flexible and canny enough to elicit something sublime from an inconvenient detail, is itself an art. For D’Agata to argue otherwise—to insist that fact impeded the possibilities of literature, and that anyone who thinks otherwise is “unsophisticated”—betrays his limitations as a researcher and a writer, not our limitations as readers.
Consider this as you compose the truth of experience.
*I’m using the word story here as a journalist sometimes does a news article, as a narrative with a story sense. The first-person narrative—however much of it is based on memoir or personal experience—is an essay. An essay is by definition nonfiction.