Tell All the Truth But Tell It Slant

by Christine Stewart

It's time to give some love to the creative nonfiction writers, who have just as many cool tools to use as fiction writers (including the tools fiction writers use).

Per the quote from an Emily Dickinson poem that's my title for this piece, let's get one thing straight: there is no such thing as a true story. Even newspaper articles have a slant and a shape to the article. Even if you're telling a story about something that actually happened, you're telling a story. It's your version of events shaped and paced in a certain way. You’re telling it slant.

Facts are the only truth, but how one interprets them and which ones you share or leave out is the realm of story.

What is creative nonfiction? It's the reporter-like communication of information shaped like fiction using literary technique and style.

What falls under this heading: biography, autobiography, memoir, personal essay, travel essay, food essays, diary writing, history, which is the relaying of history in the form of a novel for example, from the point of view of the person or people involved. The same is true for literary journalism—the story is told as a story, with setting of scene, a narrator (character), the use of conflicts and tension, etc.

These are often short pieces—articles for magazines, for example. Book length pieces that aren't biography or autobiography are usually called narrative nonfiction (or personal narrative), because the book reads like a novel—it follows a story arc. It uses fiction and poetic techniques and "combines portraiture and self-reflection with reportage and critical analysis." (Steinberg & Root, Fourth Genre). Books like: Into Thin Air, In Cold Blood, The Perfect Storm, Black Hawk Down.

On the other hand, nonfiction sticks to the facts and is communicating with the reader about real people in real places experiencing real events. Before you say, "but that's what creative nonfiction does too," note that nothing is made up or changed or left out. If it didn't happen, it's not in the piece. In nonfiction, everything can be checked out and proven.

Creative nonfiction has now become as popular as fiction, if not more popular. The British novelist Doris Lessing says that society has a "reluctance of imagination," which literary agent Peter Rubie calls instead, "a cultural fatigue of imagination."

Fiction grows predictable and familiar; readers want the possible and extraordinary. They want real-life examples of people who have pushed the envelope of human experience.

What are some techniques? You'll recognize some of these from fiction.

Creating a composite person: taking several people and combining them into one person who has the personality and traits they need for the story. Conflating time: changing the length of time during which events happened. For example, if the events took place over a year or a month, writing them as if they happened in one week or a day.

Interior monologue: we all know this literary device from fiction. The writer shows the thoughts in the protagonist's(s') minds. This could be done through free association, analysis, reflection, impressions, and dramatized inner conflicts.

Literary realism: Showing everyday life in all its banality, rather than a romanticized version.

Reflection and analysis: pausing during the story to reflect back on past experience, feelings, lessons learned, and/or analyze the material in the context of present knowledge and experience (what the narrator thinks was really going on, felt, said and unsaid, etc.)

Narrative frames: telling one or more parallel narratives chronologically, starting in media res (in the middle of the action), or framing the story with an opening and ending chapter in the present where events/people in the end chapter are influenced/changed by the story told in between the opening and ending chapters.

Segmentation/collage: Usually used in the personal essay but novels have been written as well. It’s the breaking of the essay into pieces (or segments) that allow the reader to make associative leaps, and can be an effective way of drawing forth memories. It’s a non-linear approach to writing, hence the term collage. The main element is the space between segments, which becomes an element of composition. The segments are like micro fiction pieces strung together.

The poet in me really loves this device so let me go on about it for a moment. The spaces become intervals of silence like those between pieces of music or stanzas in poetry. Within them the reader can consider what they've just heard and/or prepare themselves to hear something different or new from what's come before. The reader can consider the segments/parts read in the context of the whole—the juxtapositions, contradictions, uncertainties, and speculation created. The spaces create borders and frames for the scenes, dialogues, portraits, images.

We learn, know, experience, and remember in fragments, disjunctions, epiphanies, and disruptions. "Truth" comes in bursts. We have an epiphany, then there's a pause while we examine and assimilate it into what we know and understand and believe so far.

Extra literary design: choose an organizing element from the material itself—rooms in a house, hours in a day, types of foods, sections of a newspaper—and tell the story through the chosen metaphor, structuring the book around the parts.

Memoir is a hugely popular form of creative nonfiction, so I'll save that for another article. In the meantime, try writing a "true" story or a fictitious one using the segmented essay/collage format.

This is especially good for writer's block or if you're struggling with a piece right now. It will be very liberating, as well as possibly frustrating and scary because you're writing without a net.

Don't let that stop you. To tweak a famous quote by American Naturalist John Burroughs, "Write and the net will appear."

Christine Stewart is program director for arts in education, literary arts, and children's events with the Maryland State Arts Council and director of Maryland's Poetry Out Loud program. A former artist-in-residence with Creative Alliance in Baltimore, she is the founding director of the wildly successful Write Here, Write Now workshops. She has a M.A. and M.F.A. in creative writing and poetry, is the recipient of a Ruth Lilly Fellowship, a Pushcart Prize nominee, and has been published in Poetry, Ploughshares, Blackbird, The Cortland Review, and other literary magazines. Check out her Facebook

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