Creative Nonfiction

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Our writers group started a discussion about creative nonfiction that I want to continue.  We all know CNF is grounded in “truth” – but what kind of liberties can the CNF writer take?  In a memoir, for example, how accurate must conversations from decades ago be?  Jump in with your thoughts.

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My day job is teaching English. Since 2002 I have served on the English faculty at Nashville State Community College, where I have taught courses in composition, literature, and creative writing. I am editor of the literary magazine, Tetrahedra. I earned my B.S. in Education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and received my M.A. in English from Austin Peay State University, Clarksville, Tennessee, where the graduate program offered both creative thesis and scholarly thesis options. I submitted a creative thesis, a 90-page collection of stories entitled Listen to Me. Most of the stories have been published in literary journals and/or have received awards. My writing career spans three decades. My history of publication includes both fiction and nonfiction. I have published two novels and more than thirty stories and articles in literary journals, anthologies, and magazines. It was an honor for me when one of my stories appeared in HomeWorks in 1996. The anthology was a collection of works by Tennessee writers living at that time, including Alex Haley, Robert Penn Warren, and Peter Taylor. The highlight of my writing career occurred when I received the Tennessee Arts Commission’s Individual Artist Award in Fiction for 2006. Other writing achievements include the Leslie Garrett Fiction Prize awarded by the Knoxville Writers Guild, Tennessee Writers Alliance Short Story First Place Award, and the North Carolina Writers’ Workshop First Place Award in Creative Nonfiction. In 2005, I received a Pushcart nomination for my story, “Primates,” which was published in Bellevue Literary Review. My most recent award came from the Knoxville Writers’ Guild, the 2008 Creative Nonfiction First Place Award for my essay, “In the Car with Mother on Christmas Eve.” I am a founding member of the Tennessee Writers Alliance and served on its Board of Directors for ten years, including two terms as president and one as chair of the Board.

9 thoughts on “Creative Nonfiction

  1. Amy

    Joseph Taylor wrote an essay on memoir: “When Memories Differ,” (The Writer, Nov. 2008). In it he poses the question: “Do we have any obligation to be true to anything but our own memory?” In his view, “the world of the memoir writer…exists somewhere between fact and fiction.” He agrees with Tobias Wolf that your memory is going to be different from the story that someone else’s memory tells them. “Writers cannot be ‘coerced’ into writing what others want them to say.”

    Evidently, at least in some writers’ minds, Memoirs are more flexible than Creative Nonfiction. One’s memory of an event is not chiseled in stone.

    David Vann writes about the truth issue: “The Real Deal,” (Writers Digest, Oct. 2006). He suggests “A memoir, unlike an autobiography, needs to offer a story. You can skip over…entire decades, but whatever’s left needs to read like a novel….No true story, once told is true. It loses its truth in the process of telling, and it becomes far lovelier….As long as you don’t make up characters and events, you can call your work a memoir and…a true story–but don’t be fooled. you’re not recreating your experience and recording it faithfully: You’re shaping a story more cohesive than experience, something worth reading.”

    My memoirs are true–as I remember them. Another’s memory of the same events might differ. The bottem line on memoir writing, in my opinion, has yet to be written.

  2. This is what Renee Rivers said when I posed this question on Dinty W. Moore’s Facebook Wall: “Memory’s imperfect. But it’s all we have. Stay true to the memory and spirit of the moment / people involved. Time unconsciously creates its version of reality in conversations. But it’s still a reality. Whether or not an Eskimo in my memoir told me about an ancient volcano near our village 25 years ago or I read about it, I can still find a way to… See More use that info if it’s important to the story. The truth of its source isn’t relevant to the story. However, I DO recall my father’s exact words about sex, because there were only seven of them in my lifetime. This says volumes.”

    I think her third sentence is just perfect.

  3. This is what Renee Rivers said when I posed this question on Dinty W. Moore’s Facebook Wall: “Memory’s imperfect. But it’s all we have. Stay true to the memory and spirit of the moment / people involved. Time unconsciously creates its version of reality in conversations. But it’s still a reality. Whether or not an Eskimo in my memoir told me about an ancient volcano near our village 25 years ago or I read about it, I can still find a way to… See More use that info if it’s important to the story. The truth of its source isn’t relevant to the story. However, I DO recall my father’s exact words about sex, because there were only seven of them in my lifetime. This says volumes.”

    I think her third sentence is just perfect.

  4. From Dinty w. Moore, editor of Brevity at creativenonfiction.org:

    “In my view, any reader smart enough to pick up a book knows that we don’t remember conversations precisely after ten days or ten years. That’s a given. The pact that I think a nonfiction memoirist has with the reader is to assure that reader that we have done our very best to recall. We have tried to coax out the memories. We have fact-checked where possible, and heart-checked where facts are not available. This is my best effort to remember accurately, we tell our readers. Of course it is not perfect, and memory is flawed, but I’ve done my darndest to get it right. “

  5. Dinty

    In my view, any reader smart enough to pick up a book knows that we don’t remember conversations precisely after ten days or ten years. That’s a given. The pact that I think a nonfiction memoirist has with the reader is to assure that reader that we have done our very best to recall. We have tried to coax out the memories. We have fact-checked where possible, and heart-checked where facts are not available. This is my best effort to remember accurately, we tell our readers. Of course it is not perfect, and memory is flawed, but I’ve done my darndest to get it right.

  6. This is what Renee Rivers said when I posed this question on Dinty W. Moore’s Facebook Wall: “Memory’s imperfect. But it’s all we have. Stay true to the memory and spirit of the moment / people involved. Time unconsciously creates its version of reality in conversations. But it’s still a reality. Whether or not an Eskimo in my memoir told me about an ancient volcano near our village 25 years ago or I read about it, I can still find a way to… See More use that info if it’s important to the story. The truth of its source isn’t relevant to the story. However, I DO recall my father’s exact words about sex, because there were only seven of them in my lifetime. This says volumes.”

    I think her third sentence is just perfect.

  7. My memory gives me snapshots from the past. I remember the gist of conversations that took place during the snapshot and moments surrounding it, I remember some exact words, I remember the mood and my feelings. I obviously do not remember entire conversations. No one does. I remember enough to be true to the memory and to the people. This is all that can be expected in memoir — presenting it as true to my memory. My sister remembers nothing, or something else perhaps. But I can still see and feel myself in that time, in that moment, feet planted on the floor, with words echoing through my head, and that’s what I write. I cannot swear that they come out in the right order, but they are true to memory.

  8. Rick Romfh

    Joseph Taylor wrote an essay on memoir: “When Memories Differ,” (The Writer, Nov. 2008). In it he poses the question: “Do we have any obligation to be true to anything but our own memory?” In his view, “the world of the memoir writer…exists somewhere between fact and fiction.” He agrees with Tobias Wolf that your memory is going to be different from the story that someone else’s memory tells them. “Writers cannot be ‘coerced’ into writing what others want them to say.”

    Evidently, at least in some writers’ minds, Memoirs are more flexible than Creative Nonfiction. One’s memory of an event is not chiseled in stone.

    David Vann writes about the truth issue: “The Real Deal,” (Writers Digest, Oct. 2006). He suggests “A memoir, unlike an autobiography, needs to offer a story. You can skip over…entire decades, but whatever’s left needs to read like a novel….No true story, once told is true. It loses its truth in the process of telling, and it becomes far lovelier….As long as you don’t make up characters and events, you can call your work a memoir and…a true story–but don’t be fooled. you’re not recreating your experience and recording it faithfully: You’re shaping a story more cohesive than experience, something worth reading.”

    My memoirs are true–as I remember them. Another’s memory of the same events might differ. The bottem line on memoir writing, in my opinion, has yet to be written.

  9. Most creative nonfiction writers and teachers agree that conversations from years ago only need to remain true to MEMORY. That’s what I work from in writing memoir. Others’ thoughts?

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