I’ve worked as a political/investigative reporter and a fiction writer through my writing career. Some of the people who I caught acting in unethical ways and didn’t like how they looked in print often accused me of confusing the former with the latter. In each case, I said show me where the facts are wrong and I’ll print a retraction on the front page. I never had to print a retraction.
The reason is that I never confused the two and I never made facts up to get to a better story. I know, quite clearly, that in order to drill down to the truth I had to get the facts right. This meant doing my homework and not stopping until I had absolute confidence that what I wrote and submitted for the next day’s paper was not just true—truth in journalism isn’t enough—but it was accurate.
The line between fiction and forms of nonfiction such as memoir and narrative nonfiction seems too often be blurred by writers seeking to enhance truth by altering fact. But how is that a writer can create a piece of memoir or narrative nonfiction and use the tools of fiction such as dialogue, scene and setting?
They make it up, kind of.
When you do your homework in nonfiction to the point where you are able to use your well-honed empathy and sympathy muscles you can leverage dialogue, for example, in a way that is true to the experience and perception of what happened, even if it isn’t one-hundred percent accurate.
For example, Lillian Ross was one of the greatest profile writers for the New Yorker, ever. In one story she wrote about meeting Hemingway in his hotel room and relayed their conversation, the look of the room, the expressions of Hemingway and his wife, and so on. All of the tools of fiction were present, but she didn’t bring a recorder and was not taking dictation. She took notes that captured the tone and tenor and subject, if not the words.
She also printed few if any retractions because she took the time to do her homework beyond the event of the conversation and interview.
The same is true of Mary Karr. She writes dialogue and scene and setting and all of it, and she does her homework. In particular, she lets people read what she write about them and makes changes—even if they lessen the impact of the scene—to reflect their comments and thoughts.
And then there are people who just make shit up and pass it off as accurate and true. Yes it is true that drug addiction is hell, but don’t create fictitious scenes to show that truth. Another example, a Holocaust survivor ran into partisans as she hid from the Germans, but they cast her off knowing she would likely die. By doing your homework to know the survivor and the history of the partisans and the issues that drove them, you can do a good job with your empathy and sympathy muscles to imagine the conversations between the characters.
However, if that scene never happened, don’t write it and say it did or that you had to include it to get to a larger truth.
Aminatta Forna lays this out pretty well:
“Each time a writer begins a book they make a contract with the reader. If the book is a work of fiction the contract is pretty vague, essentially saying: “Commit your time and patience to me and I will tell you a story.” There may be a sub-clause about entertaining the reader, or some such. In the contract for my novels I promise to try to show my readers a way of seeing the world in a way I hope they have not seen before. A contract for a work of nonfiction is a more precise affair. The writer says, I am telling you, and to the best of my ability, what I believe to be true. This is a contract that should not be broken lightly and why I have disagreed with writers of memoir (in particular) who happily alter facts to suit their narrative purposes. Break the contract and readers no longer know who to trust.”
Tell true stories so they accurately match to the very best of your ability the reality of the person’s experience, emotions, and interpretation of what happened to them, or to you.