Annie Dillard, Say It Isn’t So:
Ringing True in Creative Nonfiction
By Joy Fisher
“I used to have a cat, an old fighting tom, who would jump through the open window by my bed in the middle of the night and land on my chest. I'd half-awaken. He'd stick his skull under my nose and purr, stinking of urine and blood. Some nights he kneaded my bare chest with his front paws, powerfully, arching his back, as if sharpening his claws, or pummeling a mother for milk. And some mornings I'd wake in daylight to find my body covered with paw prints in blood; I looked as though I'd been painted with roses.”
--Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
--Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
Maybe it’s because my Catholic upbringing taught me that lying is a sin. Or maybe it’s because an early career in journalism impressed on me the need for accuracy (we were, after all, writing the first draft of history). Or because a later career as an administrative law judge dedicated me to the search for truth from witnesses sworn to tell it. Whatever the reason, when I first discovered that some nonfiction writers lie, I was shocked.
I gasped out loud when I learned that the cat Annie Dillard describes in the opening paragraph of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek was not her cat and the experience described was not her own—even though the passage is written in the first person. I subsequently learned that many people already knew about this lie. An entry posted by writer Chris Clarke on his blog, Coyote Crossing, about Annie Dillard’s lie about the cat generated many pages of passionate responses, some excoriating Dillard for the liberty taken, others defending her. The core question was whether this was deception or poetic license. One correspondent replied that, by passing off a borrowed story as her own, Dillard violated the reader’s trust. Another defended Dillard’s right as an “artist” to bend particular truths in the name of a larger general truth—a right traditionally claimed by fiction writers.
When we consider that Dillard’s book won the 1974 Pulitzer Prize for General Nonfiction, how are we to understand the term “nonfiction?” How distinguish it from fiction?
In an on-line essay, “What is Creative Nonfiction,” excerpted from his book, You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction—from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between, author Lee Gutkind, who is credited with inventing the term “creative nonfiction,” explains: “The word ‘creative’ refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ.” The goal is to make nonfiction read like fiction “so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.” Gutkind cautions that “creative” doesn’t mean:
- Inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: “You can’t make this stuff up.”
While this distinction may have been clear to Gutkind when he helped start the first Master of Fine Arts Program in Creative Nonfiction at the University of Pittsburgh and when he founded the magazine Creative Nonfiction, the line between fiction and nonfiction has blurred in recent years, perhaps in part because of connotations associated with the term “creative.” Writer and columnist Chris Jones, who won two National Magazine Awards for Feature Writing, expressed discomfort with the term “creative” during a roundtable discussion printed in Creative Nonfiction. To Jones, “creative nonfiction” sounds “a little too much like creative financing or creative accounting, which really means ‘cooking the books.’” Jones prefers the term “narrative nonfiction” because that term doesn’t have the same “sleazy connotation.” Others, and I am one, prefer the term “literary nonfiction” because it gives permission to depart from the conventions of journalistic style without demanding adherence to a scene-specific structure.
Some, however, aren’t troubled by the term “creative” but, rather, by the term “nonfiction.” These folks often express the desire to exercise their artistic right to tinker with the facts to make their writing more “interesting.” John D’Agata, as arrogant a fibber as I’ve ever come across, is an unrepentant example of this sort. In The Lifespan of a Fact, published in 2012, D’Agata defended deliberate factual inaccuracies contained in “What Happens There,” a piece he wrote that was ultimately published (albeit with substantial corrections) in an issue of The Believer after being rejected by Harper’s, the magazine that had originally commissioned it.Though the piece reported on the actual suicide of 16-year-old Levi Presley, in Las Vegas,D’Agata insisted that he was not writing “nonfiction”; he was writing an “essay”—a term, in his view, broad enough to allow him to change facts as he saw fit in order to create what he called“ the best possible reading experience.”
One of the problems with this claim is that the form of his “essay” read like journalism. Richard Gilbert, a former journalist who writes about the craft of nonfiction, commented that D’Agata’s book About a Mountain (which includes “What Happens There”) “presents itself as a nonfiction inquiry... He increases the perception that his book is journalistic by dividing it into these chapters: Who, What, When, Where, Why, How, Why, Why, Why.” D’Agata thus exploited the appearance of journalism, Gilbert insisted, and traded on the conventions of that genre for credibility.
Either that, or, like a bad boy pranking his elders, D’Agata was mocking the whole tradition of accuracy in journalism. Literary journalist Thomas Lake was less measured than Gilbert in his comments. In the same roundtable discussion in which Jones criticized the term “creative nonfiction,” Lake commented: “It’s not cute or clever what John D’Agata did. It’s not cutting edge or advanced. It’s cheap and lazy. To me, there is no debate. It degrades all of us who claim to be telling the truth.”
Although the jacket of The Lifespan of a Fact billed the book as a struggle to “navigate the boundaries of literary nonfiction,” critics subsequently discovered it was as fictionalized as the “essay” about Levi Presley that it purported to examine. Critics made this discovery when D’Agata and his fact-checker, Jim Fingal, came clean in an interview with Weston Cutter. Fingal said, for example, that they created characters--the “Jim” character and the “John” character--and composed the debate they were never able to have during the actual fact-checking process. D’Agata admitted that the two of them “knowingly amped up the hostility of our comments” and added: “I think of the form of the exchange between Jim and me as an exaggerated farce.”
The revelation that The Lifespan of a Fact was fabricated shocked even seasoned reviewers and journalists and created outrage. Reviewer Craig Silverman, for example, accused the publisher, Norton, of a “slippery bit of salesmanship,” while National Public Radio reporter Travis Larchuk said that, when he found out that the correspondence between the author and the fact-checker was largely invented just for the book, he felt “like the rug was pulled out from under me.”
The controversy engendered by The Lifespan of a Fact was neither the first nor the last uproar over the discovery of prevarication in works offered to the public as nonfiction. Other literary “bad boys” whose lying lingers include Stephen Glass, who fabricated stories in The New Republic (and then fabricated evidence in an effort to avoid discovery); James Frey, who admitted to Oprah Winfrey on national television that he had lied in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces; and Greg Mortenson, whose book, Three Cups of Tea was exposed by 60 Minutes as containing numerous fabrications, including a claim that he was kidnapped by the Taliban and held captive for eight days. This is by no means a complete list.
In the introduction to their book, Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, editors Margot Singer and Nicole Walker signal their weariness with the prolonged controversy over lying in creative nonfiction: “As writers and teachers of creative nonfiction, we think it’s time to move beyond the tired arguments over truth-telling...” But how can we just move on when the practice continues?
I’ve recently returned from the 2019 Kaua’i Writers Conference where I attended a workshop on memoir taught by a pair of young women writers. A man from the audience explained he was working on a memoir about his childhood. He wanted to include a scene with his mother that had made a lasting impression on him, but he was so young when it happened and it was so long ago that he couldn’t remember exactly what was said. Was it O.K., he wanted to know, to make up the dialogue? One of the moderators replied: “Why not? Who will ever know?” I could feel my face get hot. That “who will ever know?” struck me as being cavalier, profoundly disrespectful toward this man’s future readers. All around me, writers, perhaps many new to memoir, were dutifully taking notes. I wanted to cry out: “No! Don’t believe her.”
Instead, I settled for raising the issue at a later talk by nonfiction writer Mark Kurlansky, who comes from a journalism background. Kurlansky opined that both fiction and nonfiction have to “ring true,” but that they do so in different ways. He suggested that the man writing about that long-ago scene with his mother could say something like: “It happened so long ago, I can’t remember exactly what was said, but I remember very clearly how it made me feel.” It occurred to me for the first time that writers who come from a journalism background may conceive of “the truth” differently than fiction writers who aspire to “higher truths” by making things up. Perhaps that’s one reason this problem continues to be so pervasive.
For whatever reason, cavalier treatment of truth in nonfiction is an on-going phenomenon that troubles our genre like a chronic illness. Each author has his or her own excuse for engaging in the practice; but in many cases, when it’s detected in its most egregious forms, it results in severe sanctions: authors are fired, books pulled from store shelves and readers or their surrogates (such as Oprah Winfrey) react with outrage at being “duped.” The reason for such sanctions is easy to understand: if the credibility of our genre is brought into disrepute too often, readers might lose trust in our genre altogether.
While deliberate liars are in the minority, few of us remain untouched by the firestorms of controversy kindled into existence when we try to employ fictional techniques to “enliven” our nonfiction. Writer Richard Gilbert notes that Zinsser’s On Writing Well, considered the gold standard for mainstream magazine journalism, declares that composite days are standard practice and recommended.
How about composite characters, then? Michael Finkel was denied further assignments at The New York Times Magazine after it was discovered he had created a composite character. Can we reconstruct long-forgotten conversations from our childhood? Can we invent a scene when we don’t know the facts? Must we verify our own memories through research and reporting just as we would fact-check the statements in a news story? Opinions conflict and the conflict leads to confusion. How far can we go? What techniques can we use, we wonder? Or are these techniques just a bag of essay tricks that themselves grow hackneyed? “There is a difference,” writing teacher Mary Cappello asserts, “between cultivating a sensibility and leaving a creative writing workshop with a bag of tricks.” Where should we draw the line?
While the D’Agata controversy was at peak boil, the Association of Writers and Writing Programs included a panel at its annual convention called “What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth?” As reported in Brevity, four panelists examined the use of fictional techniques in nonfiction and drew their own lines. Susan Kushner Resnick, who spent 25 years as a journalist before going to teach at Brown University, pronounced composite characters and compression (such as composite days) “betrayals” rather than tools. Philip Gerard, UNC-Wilmington’s writing program director, delineated the differences between “documented creative nonfiction” and a “fact-bending narrative.” For Pitt University’s Peter Trachtenberg, the most odious violation was “twisting someone else’s life,” a reminder that we owe a duty to our sources as well as to our readers. And Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, discouraged reconstructed scenes and dialogue, even in memoir: “You get into trouble where scenes don’t naturally exist.”
I can offer one memorable example of confusion from my own writing life. Once, when I was a young journalist, the police reporter at the paper where I worked scored some LSD before that drug was illegal to possess. He offered me a tab and I took it as an experiment. At one point during the ensuing “trip,” I found myself deep into a hallucination of the old parable about the blind men and the elephant. You may recall that, in that parable, each person touches a differentpart of the elephant and describes it to the others. Because the parts of an elephant—the legs, the trunk, the tail--are so dissimilar, no one’s experience agrees with anyone else’s. This can be very frightening. How can we know what’s “true” when our experiences are all so different? The answer, of course, is that by pooling our experiences as accurately as we can, sharing the evidence as we each understand it, we can, over time, piece together a picture of the whole—not just of the elephant, but of human experience and even of the physical universe itself.
Experiential understanding runs deeper than mere intellectual comprehension. In my drug-induced state and even after, I was deeply moved by my sensory experience of this parable about the blind men and the elephant. It felt mind-altering, a profound truth, and I wanted to share it with the readers of our paper.
I was at that time the editor of the paper’s Sunday magazine, so I could publish the story on my own authority. It didn’t seem “journalistic,” though, to write it as a first-person account, even as a feature story. (This incident occurred before I’d heard of the “New Journalism.”) In addition, some innate sense of survival warned me that, even though LSD wasn’t yet illegal to possess, disclosing that our police reporter had obtained it and that I had taken it might lead to some unpleasant repercussions. So the police reporter and I recruited the paper’s sportswriter to pose for a picture with only the back of his head showing. I wrote the story in the third person, and attributed it to an unnamed source whose existence was established by the back of the sportswriter’s head.
At the time, I didn’t consider what I had done to be lying—just a technique I employed out of prudence. After all, the story was true, I hadn’t made it up; it just wasn’t his story: it was mine. Reflecting on it now, as I think through this essay half a century later, I realize that, in a way, what I did was the opposite of what Annie Dillard did, but no less blameworthy: she told the story of the cat as if it were her own when it wasn’t; I told the story of the acid trip as if it weren’t mine when it was. We both fabricated a source and lied to our readers.
One of the distinguishing conventions of creative nonfiction is an intimate, reflective narrative voice, what writer Margot Singer calls the “Naked I.” As readers of creative nonfiction, we have come to trust that “Naked I.” When we discover that a narrator not only wasn’t “naked” but was clothed in the hooded cloak of deliberate deception, it comes as a shock. Upon reflection, I think it was this habit of trusting the narrator that caused me to feel shock when I discovered that some nonfiction writers lie. It was discovering that an author I trusted didn’t respect me enough to tell me the truth. Annie Dillard violated my trust, and it hurt my feelings; I will never trust her again. And now that I understand how humiliating it feels to be fooled like that, I will never do that to my readers again. That’s where I draw the line.
Despite the fact that Annie Dillard won the Pulitzer for “nonfiction,” one of her defenders argued, disingenuously, I think, that her copy of Pilgrim at Tinker Creek bore the category tag “literature” on the back and insisted that “literature lies all the time.” Historically, this is not strictly true. In Our Essays, Ourselves: In Defense of the Big Idea, writer Cristina Nehring reminds her readers that, “[i]n the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries a good prose narrative was a true prose narrative,” and that, “for most of Western literary history, ‘truth’ was more highly esteemed than fiction.” While fiction claimed the crown in popularity for a time in the twentieth century, in today’s literary market, the path has come full circle and creative nonfiction sits on the literary throne. James Frey, we must acknowledge, originally sought to sell his work as fiction, but was persuaded by his publisher that it could be marketed more profitably as nonfiction.
Why do today’s readers persistently privilege nonfiction over fiction? A survey on the website LibraryThing asked its readers. Here are some of their answers:
- “I read non-fiction because I enjoy hearing about real people, doing real things in real places.”
- “Why waste my time with something that isn't real when I could be learning about awesome things that are?”
- “Truth empowers non-fiction.”
Several respondents mentioned that their preference for nonfiction has increased as they have grown older. As I grow older, I find myself drawn, in particular, to the personal essay. For me, reading a personal essay is like having a heart-to-heart talk with a dear friend, where intimacies are shared and insights gleaned. The author and I are on a treasure hunt for clues to the mysteries of the universe and ourselves. Like the proverbial blind men, we grope toward understanding. It’s a bigger task than either of us can accomplish alone. If we are ever to know the whole truth, we must each be willing to share the bit of truth that we can feel.
And, oh, how we yearn to know the whole truth, we humans! On the tallest mountain in Hawaii, we are trying to build a thirty-metre telescope to look all the way back to the origins of the visible universe and the beginning of time; 175 metres below the surface of the earth near Geneva, Switzerland, we have built the largest single machine in the world, the Large Hadron Collider, in order to answer questions about how the tiniest particles in the world gained mass so that they could stick together and–eventually—form us.
Dedicating their lives to research is characteristic of scientists, but for some writers, too, research is not just something that they do, but something that they live, what writer and teacher Christopher Cokinos calls “organized curiosity.” That, too, is part of groping toward the truth. Why do they do it? Cokinos quotes a passage from Bertrand Russell’s essay, “Useless Knowledge” in which Russell tells the reader about the agricultural origins, political history and etymology of apricots and then says: “All this makes the fruit taste sweeter.”
In “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story,” scholar and teacher Phillip Lopate ponders the difficulties he has getting his creative nonfiction writing students to engage in reflection and retrospection, the very qualities that attract me to the personal essay. Here is the advice he gives his students:
- I want you to figure out something on your own, some question to which you don’t already have the answer when you start. Then you can truly engage the reader in the adventure of following you, as you try to come up with the deepest and most unexpected insights, without censoring. You must surprise yourself, and when you do, it will make you elated and your prose elevated. What I want, in short, is honesty—honesty that will cut through the pious orthodoxies of the moment and ring true.
Lopate insists there is nothing more exciting than following a live, candid mind thinking on the page, exploring uncharted waters. I agree. Honesty and candidness are the inherent strengths that enliven creative nonfiction (or whatever name you prefer for our genre). They are the qualities that–more than all the “techniques” of fiction—most engage our readers and enrich both them and us.
About Joy Fisher:
Joy Fisher studied creative writing at the University of Victoria in Canada where she specialized in creative nonfiction and playwriting. She graduated with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2013. Joy returned to the United States in 2016, where she soon found the Hawaii Writers Guild.