Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Don't Be Too Creative When Writing Creative Nonfiction

News anchor, Brian Williams, embellished a story that caught up with hm years later. His NBC bosses have suspended him for 6 months without pay. My first thought, when reading that yesterday, was Do they actually think people will forget tht he lied in a mere 6 months? I think that a newsperson of lesser stature than Brian Williams would have been fired without a backward glance.

All this has made me think about the creative nonfiction stories many of us write. Truth is important in our writing. Yes, the term we use is creative nonfiction but that doesn't mean we can make up the stories we write. Nor does it mean that we can stretch the truth until we find we have a more exciting story. The term creative nonfiction is the one we use for true stories written with fiction techniques.

What if Writer A submits a true story to an anthology, one about an event that occurred on an overseas trip? She wrote it exactly as it happened.

Then Writer B submits a story of something that occurred when she was teaching in an inner city school? She adds a little here, a little there. The additions are a part of what she thinks would make the story better. She keeps enlarging on the facts until she has a story that she thinks will be a cinch to be accepted.

Bot stories might get accepted. If an editor decides to fact check, Writer A has no worries but Writer B had better start preparing a defense. She didn't make up the entire story but she did add little things that never happened. A good editor is going to figure it out after some questioning or some checking with the school.

What if both stories end up being published? Writer A still has nothing to be concerned about. Writer B might have to field questions from readers. There will be a few who were familiar with the situation and will know that certain parts of the story never happened. Writer B loses credibility with the editor and those readers who knew she was adding to the story.

The editor will be happy to look at more stories from Writer A but he will most likely not ever consider work from Writer B again.

Yes, these are totally made-up scenarios but each could possibly occur. Even though you're tempted to add, embellish, embroider the facts, or out and out prevaricate, don't do it. Sure, you might get away with it once, twice or even more times. Eventually, you'll get caught.

I had an aunt who was a great storyteller. She never wrote her stories, only told them to others. She used the facts of the story but added so many things she thought would make it a better story, make it more fun to hear, make it one her listeners would remember. She'd tell the story so many times that she began to believe those made-up parts were actually true. We all loved her but learned to take her stories with that proverbial 'grain of salt.' Occasionally, someone would question her story but she'd persist with whatever version she'd settled on. She didn't have an editor who would scratch her story from a newspaper or magazine. All she had were listeners who could walk away not believing what she'd said.

Tempting as it might be to add to your true story, think long and hard before doing so. If you tell only the true parts, you'll never have to defend yourself to an editor or to a reader. And maybe to yourself.

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