Truth in Narrative Nonfiction

There is great debate today about truth-versus-fiction in works of creative nonfiction. Some writers feel that getting at the emotional truth of a story is enough – and that they should have license to invent dialogue, rearrange chronology and create composite characters. After all, they claim, it’s “their” story.

Others believe that literal truth is just as, if not more, important. All writers have to decide for themselves where they fall on this spectrum.

That said, there are several good reasons for doing the hard work of uncovering both the emotional and literal truth in a story:

1. Legally, truth is an absolute defense in this country. If you are writing about events involving real people, and you make up a scenario that defames another person, you have no legal leg to stand on. But if you tell a story accurately, and someone merely disagrees with your portrayal, you are in much safer legal territory.

2. Ethically, when you label a work “non-fiction,” you have a responsibility to your publisher and your readers to stick with the truth. One need only look to the James Frey (“A Million Little Pieces”) debacle to see what can happen when writers play fast and loose with the truth.

3. Your credibility can suffer, when you don’t do the due diligence to make sure your work is completely accurate. If a reader catches an error or fabrication in one part of your work, they will begin to question the rest of it.

4. Artistically, the challenge of writing creative nonfiction is the challenge of making art while also dealing with the inconvenience of facts.

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