exploring art and writing

Lies, all Lies! (or the problem with trying to write non-fiction).

In fiction, narrative, non fiction, storytelling, Writing on September 21, 2012 at 1:32 pm

‘Saint Jerome Writing’ by Caravaggio, c. 1605-1606, oil on canvas, 112cm x 157cm, Galleria Borghese.
Maybe I should get a skull for my desk…

I can’t really write a blog about how non-fiction is really, really hard to write. This is because I am sure that fiction is also really, really hard to write and I don’t want to turn this into a competition.

So I’ve decided to make this blog about whether or not non-fiction actually exists.

Bear with me. Yes, non-fiction is an expansive genre that you can physically witness by stumbling into any old Waterstones. It encompasses biography, science, politics, self-help, travel, art, how-to books. There is lots and lots of non-fiction around.

Now let me offer even less clarity on the matter: when I am questioning whether or not non-fiction actually exists, I’m referring to narrative non-fiction. Think Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood or Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. These books use techniques associated with fiction writing – scenes, dialogue, action, suspense – to tell emotive and exciting true stories built from memories and various, more tangible sources.

But memories are dubious and biased. Writing narrative non-fiction feels the same as making autobiographical art: you pick the best bits and then make them look even better. Or, if you’re not that kind of person, you siphon the nice bits and make it gritty and dark instead.

Even journalism has fallen prey to this occasionally. Just look at Luke Harding’s article about Polish journalist Ryszard Kapuściński and his apparent tendency towards fiction in his war reports. I’m not saying that these claims are true. I’m merely questioning whether or not it is possible to write non-fiction without taking advantage of creative license.

For instance, in the book that I’m cobbling together like a perplexed ‘newb’ I have a conversation with my mother. She’s cleaning, I’m not, it’s all very domestic and pleasant. We have a conversation and it gets emotional, we laugh, we cry, etc.

That conversation definitely took place, but it was a year ago. I can’t remember what we said! I remember the gist of it and knowing that I would probably look upon that moment as significant, in that mother/daughter kind of way.

So I guess this is an apology. If my book ever gets published and any of you happen to read it: I’m sorry for lying to you.

At least I think I’m lying. I’m not quite sure.

  1. Reblogged this on ReadReal: thoughts on Non-Fiction literature and commented:

    This is a post from my first blog The Art Monster. It seems appropriate that I use it as my opener here at ReadReal. It introduces me as a (semi) intrepid newcomer to the world of non-fiction.

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