I have recently returned from my first residency as a student in the University of King’s College MFA-Creative Nonfiction program. One of the reasons I chose this program (let’s not speak of the attractions of a program requiring visits to Nova Scotia) is that it was born out of a respected journalism program.
Like journalists, authors of creative nonfiction write true stories. That is the essence of the creative nonfiction contract. The thin line between fact and fiction must not be crossed. And yet, what mortal can reliably distinguish the difference between the two?
In creative nonfiction, we work with the vagaries of memory, the bias of individual perspectives, and the demands of reducing complex events to comprehensible stories. “Writing nonfiction narrative is like viewing a distant butterfly on an old black-and-white TV,” writes Jack Hart in Storycraft. “Reality may exist out there, but capturing it with an imperfect recording device fuzzes the outlines, dims the colors, and neglects everything that takes place outside one narrow field of view.”
A good ally, then, is the Author’s Note or Disclaimer. This is the short section that precedes (my preference) or follows the body of the work, that tells what “narrow field of view” the author reports from, what rules we played by. Here’s where we own the truth of our writing process: Did we contract or rearrange time? Create composite characters? Exaggerate for effect, like David Sedaris who describes his stories as “realish”?
I’ve just re J.D. Vance’s Hillbilly Elegy and I found his conclusion to the introduction a very good example of an honest, informative disclaimer. After reading this, we know exactly where Vance is coming from. We’re ready to be compassionate readers as we turn the page to Chapter 1.
Sometimes in my beginning memoir writing workshops, I ask my students write their disclaimers. I think it’s very helpful to decide the rules you’ll play by before the game gets underway.
Jack Hart writes, “The most important purpose of nonfiction narrative is to help us cope with a challenging world. The closer we come to portraying that world accurately, the more helpful our stories will be.” That, to me, captures why I find memoir–true stories about our lives–so compelling.
© 2017 Sarah White