Truth and art
"She was a serious writer, and she wanted her book to be judged for its literary merit and not its heartbreaking content. ...
'It's amazing how you remember everything so clearly,' a woman said ... 'All those conversations, details. Were you ever worried that you might get something wrong?'
'I didn't remember it,' Lucy said pointedly. 'I wrote it. I'm a writer.'
This shocked the audience ... but she made her point: she was making art, not documenting an event. That she chose to tell her own extraordinary story was of secondary importance."
This excerpt is from Ann Patchett's book Truth & Beauty, about her friendship with Lucy Grealy. The above exchange, reported by Patchett as taking place at a live author event, is in reference to Lucy's Autobiography of a Face: her 1994 memoir about surviving a bout with cancer that left her with half a jaw, and how the physical changes to her face affected her. This discussion must have taken place around 1994, and it reflects something I have heard from memoirists and writers of creative nonfiction for years: This is an art. Liberties are taken with details in order to tell a greater truth and make a readable story. The irrelevancies, red herrings, detours, and distractions that clutter up life are smoothed over or omitted in order to showcase the story that the writer is focusing on. Split ends are fused; sequences are adjusted for the sake of flow; the raw story is polished until it shines.
Some nonfiction books point this out explicitly, putting the reader on notice that names and identifying details may have been changed, the sequence of events altered. Some characters may be composites. Dialogue is not necessarily verbatim. Other times, these changes are not spelled out. And different writers have different standards for how much they consider it acceptable to change or emphasize or omit.
In recent years, the "creative" aspect of creative nonfiction has come under more and more fire, especially as the line between journalism/reportage and creative writing has changed. I believe the standard for anything presented as news reporting is still that it must be factual, and quotes must be verbatim--at least, I certainly hope so. Reporters are allowed to mask names with aliases in order to protect sources or witnesses, but the actions, the numbers, the events and their sequence must be correct.
But what of essays, memoirs, and the like? There the line is fuzzier. As a reader who loves such works, it has been clear to me that artistic license is usually taken, but I'm not sure it has been clear to most readers. And that's probably where the greatest problem lies: readers want to know how much is literally true. Whatever license is taken, the audience should be on notice about.
I published one creative essay in my career, and I did not consciously change anything in that essay. This doesn't mean that the piece is necessarily flawless, only that any errors would be an oversight, or a failure of my memory or observation. I did not deliberately change anything for creative effect. I didn't feel comfortable doing so, and frankly I didn't need to, to get across the point of the essay. However, that is only the standard I used for myself as a writer in that instance. I'm not trying to put forth a rule for all writers (not that anyone's asking me to be the arbiter of writerly truth!).
I do think writers should be having this conversation, though: how many liberties can one take with nonfiction before it becomes fiction? And how can writers make clear to readers where they drew the line?