The other day I was having the obligatory discussion about creative non-fiction in my Intro to Creative Writing class. It is always a strange conversation to start, especially with people who are new the the matters of writing and literature, and most students in an introductory course like this are not well-versed in these kinds of ideas. I have to say that I don't blame them, and I completely recognize that this is what they are taking college level English classes for.
The big question that creative non-fiction asks a person to think about is regarding truth. We get at it by dealing with the difference in what one is going to have to do to produce a short story versus what one is going to have to do to produce a personal essay, or memoir piece.
The technical definition of creative non-fiction (CNF) that you'll see all around the place is that CNF uses the conventions of fiction to tell a story in which the events are presented as having happened instead of presenting the events as invented. This gets immediately sticky because of what I teach about fiction and the fact that there is no creation ex nihilo. One creates by construction of new patterns from existing materials, which we gather through experience. So, in my view, even fiction is a form of non-fiction, but the source materials are a little more processed. The word I use for that in class is "granular."
Things aren't "falser" in fiction; the truth is not as immediately identifiable.
On the flip side, I point out that the notion of a true story is fraught with problems. My buddies over in the criminal justice department make it abundantly clear that eye witnesses are notoriously unreliable. Our senses do not constitute a security camera that records everything. The combination of our attention, the accuracy of our senses, and the faults of our memories create a dragnet of inaccuracies that we present as "our take" on what happened, with no more claim on the truth and anyone else's take.
Which invariably brings us to Mr. James Frey and his book A Million Little Pieces and that very, very tired controversy. In order to make this part of things a bit more interesting, I brought in this YouTube video of the very important response from the erudite pundits on the View.
I was so interested in the mob mentality here, and their complete lack of understanding of even the least shred of the most basic part of this argument from a literary perspective. What struck me was Barbara Walters perspective here. She is so quick to dismiss the memoir as a concept, then she packpaddles so quickly. The entire discussion makes the memoir seem like something Al-Qaeda whipped up to undermine Western civilization. But why was Walters so bold and why did she edit herself so quickly.
Well, take a look at the title of her new book. Will wonders never cease?