Can a storyteller make stuff up?

Truman Capote making stuff up

Truman Capote making stuff up

The book manuscript that I’ve just sent off to my editor at Riverhead happens to fall into the genre of “creative non-fiction.” It is a story built on actual lives–ancient ones and modern ones–that illustrate various themes around the great mystery of success and failure in life, including yours and mine.

The job of creative non-fiction, as Ira Glass would agree, is to make true stories riveting and small stories grand. It is, in short, simply good story-telling.

Still, you would have to lack all sense of irony not to smirk at that phrase. Creative non-fiction. Say what?

Creative means making stuff up. Non-fiction means not making stuff up. The very notion would seem to be an oxymoron. Or perhaps not?

Herodotus and Thucydides walk into a bar….

This particular question happens to be the oldest controversy in non-fiction writing. Recall that Herodotus believed in embellishing history to make it more palatable and (ironically) realistic, whereas Thucydides took him to task for telling lies and promised to stick to just the facts, ma’am. But even Thucydides then found that he had to “make stuff up” to get at the actual truth, because if he had used only, for instance, dialogue that he himself had actually overheard (while taking notes), he would have painted the wrong picture of the Peloponnesian War altogether.

By the time, we get to the era in which my main characters–Hannibal, Fabius and Scipio–lived, Polybius is the one who tries to stick to just the facts (but again doesn’t quite manage), whereas Livy is the one who says ‘Oh Heck’ and just tells a good yarn. By the time we get to Plutarch, we essentially throw out the rule book and just enjoy–even as we, paradoxically, come away with the impression that we have finally gotten closer to the truth of the characters involved. And so the controversy bubbles on, down the ages.

… and Truman Capote serves them a drink

Jean Ku, a friend of ours, just passed on a fascinating essay on the topic by her writing teacher, David Schweidel, the author of two books. Schweidel begins his history of creative non-fiction more recently. One strand, which Schweidel calls reportage, started with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and continued with Tom Wolfe and The New Journalism. The other is memoir.

So what makes reportage creative non-fiction? Schweidel thinks that

Creative nonfiction, I’d say, attempts to convey the feeling as well as the facts. Clearly, Truman Capote does a lot of work to convey feeling.

It does this by using the techniques of fiction, which are

  • dramatized action
  • dialogue
  • the point of view of a participant
  • the presentation of specific details, … such as gestures, habits, manners, customs, styles of furniture, clothing, decoration, styles of traveling, eating, keeping house, ….

And what makes memoirs creative non-fiction? Well, the fact that they

are works of memory. Memory is selective, self-serving, often mistaken. People lie to make themselves look better. Sometimes people lie to make themselves look worse… Or simply misremember. Most readers understand that story-tellers, especially when they’re telling stories about themselves, take such liberties. In the words of Grace Paley: “Any story told twice is fiction.”

And so, concludes Schweidel,

In theory, creative nonfiction has to be an oxymoron. Creative means made up, and nonfiction means not made up. Hence, oxymoron. In practice, though, creative nonfiction is a redundancy. Why? Because virtually every work of nonfiction is creative.

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5 thoughts on “Can a storyteller make stuff up?

  1. Andreas,

    A nice, concise look at that oxymoron, creative non-fiction. I hadn’t run across Schweidel,and he sounds thought-provoking.

    btw, Collingwood, the great British historian, credits Herodotus with inventing history and was, indeed, in one sense the creator of scientific inquiry. Collingwood argues that history-as-science has four criteria: 1) it begins by asking questions (thus is scientific, as opposed to Homer, who told us something he ‘knew’); 2) it is humanistic, asking questions about actual events involving actual humans within known timeframes; 3) is rational, basing its answers using evidence gathered; 4) it is self-revelatory — it “exists in order to tell man what man is by telling him what man has done.”

    The criteria Herodotus did not meet was number three, basing his answers on evidence. Evidence was what Thucydides added to the mix of history, the Greek word meaning “to investigate” or “make inquiry.”


  2. It’s what gets me all the time, that as author who writes “case studies” for an INGO, am I distorting the facts or merely advertising about the organization. I take creative liberties, where I can, not make up stuffs but, write in ways that makes it more interesting to read.

    I believe that writers don’t really make stuffs up all the time, they just take a chunk of life and write and then rewrite it, making it more palatable. And, yes, I think we can call that making stuffs up, not in ways that suggest a bad meaning though.

    • Just by writing one of your case studies, you are presumably forced to 1) simplify and 2) exaggerate, in order to narrate anything interesting at all. Thus by imposing order on a chaotic world, you are forcing a storyline onto it. Then you make it comprehensible and entertaining, and before you know it, instantlynoodles has written …. “creative non-fiction”.


    • Hahaha. You know, the instance I hit the send button and saw my comment awaiting moderation, I remember a thought striking my head. Instantlynoodles, know that name might not give my ‘writing’ a serious tone, coming from an author noodling around with a funny name.

      But, yup, the end result, after simplifying and making it interesting, is in fact, a creative non-fiction 😀

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