Like to Write?  Nonfiction Writing Workshop for Beginners  back to opening page

 Fiction vs Nonfiction

Nonfiction means true, not made up, not a bit of it.  When you start getting clever and making up dialogue, inventing objects, changing chronologies, and monkeying with memories, you are heading toward trouble. 

"Creative nonfiction" does not mean altering the facts.  Anyone who says that it does, is probably a writer who alters the facts.  There is a word for altering the facts, and it is not "creative."

So why then do I suggest you may fictionalize the proper name of a person you are profiling?

1.  When you write about a living person, you expose yourself to certain risks, not the least of which is the loss of friendship and trust.   If you think some people are sensitive about having their pictures taken, wait until you see what happens when they encounter themselves on a printed page.

2.  There are laws that protect people's privacy.  If you plan to market an essay that profiles another human being, you would do well to obtain a release from that person, just as a photographer would seek a release from a person whose photograph he wishes to market.

3.  These privacy laws do not apply to a genuine news article, nor do they apply to a "public" person.  You can pretty much say what you want to about Sylvester Stallone just so long as you don't tell lies about him.  

4.  Since this is a class and I am suggesting these assignments, I don't want any part of the responsibility for what you write.  You've been advised not to libel, slander, or damage another person's privacy or reputation..  So don't do it.

5.  Therefore, I suggest fictionalizing names to protect the innocent.  It is done all the time.  The point is, when you do it, you say you are doing it.  You tell the reader right up front, "I'm changing names and a few details here in order to disguise the identity of the person or persons I am writing about."  Even this is not 100% risk free, (and will be judged on a case by case basis) but at least your readers and your editor will know you are playing square with them.

6.  With all this said, however, there is an even more important reason for keeping fiction and nonfiction from getting mixed up.   True, law suits are expensive and hard to win and most people avoid them.  True, duels are no longer being fought.  But readers, ah, readers.  When you lose the reader's trust you lose everything.

7.  If you have ever read any of these nonfiction essays and nonfiction books in which long passages of conversation are "recreated" verbatim you will know what I mean. "How can she remember all that?"  you will ask.  Indeed, how can she.

 Recently I read several chapters of an as yet unpublished memoir in which the author included numerous page-long passages of dialogue, complete with gestures.  People snarled and spit and hissed at each other: they never said anything without reaching for something, picking up an object, or setting it back down.  No one could read passages like these without knowing the author was fictionalizing.  The effect of this is to focus our attention on the author, not the piece.  

8.  The best solution for the dialogue problem is to come right out and say. "I don't remember his exact words but he sounded angry."  You can make this strategy work for you.  Example: I don't remember exactly what he said, but "sonofabitch" was part of it.  The use of dialogue is so critical in writing a personal profile, you don't want to avoid it entirely.  Example: Whenever my mother got the best of the argument, which was often, my father would end it by saying "Nobody's perfect."  I know he said that.  I heard him say it a thousand times. (And of course, that "thousand times" is hyperbole but readers, seeing that precise round number, will understand.)

9.  The fictionalizing of imagery is another matter.  The chances are you are not going to remember what color dress mother was wearing that day, or what the name of her bowling team was, or how late she stayed out that night.  Should you cheat a little?  We all do.  But don't get in the habit. Certainly if you were fortunate enough to get an interview with Michael Jordan, you had better remember the color of his shirt, or keep shut about it. 

10.  Fictionalizing a nonfiction piece is always the easy way out.  The other easy way out is to avoid saying anything at all on the grounds of faulty memory.  Remember, everything you write does come out of your memory.  Even fiction, and I'll prove that someday, but not now.

In Summary.  For this exercise, you may fictionalize your person in order to conceal his or her true identity (but tell the reader you are doing it).  The important thing in this exercise really is that you learn how to do certain things..   A writer, after all, does have to practice.

Finally, you can always write about mom.  Or Gramps.  Or that mysterious stranger you met on Clark  Street last month. 

Or you can even take your chances and go for the jugular.  Just so it's on record that I warned you.

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