How Much Invention is Too Much? Finding Balance in Creative NonFiction

Cana Clark

HELLO! I’m CANA CLARK

Currently I’m serving as a summer intern for Life in 10 Minutes Press. I’m pursuing my bachelor's degree at the College of William and Mary, where I’m part of the editing staff at The William and Mary Review magazine.

While writing essays and research papers is the majority of my work right now, I also write blog posts, short stories, and creative nonfiction. Spending my summer as an intern with the Press and Richmond Young Writers has allowed me to meet and learn with all kinds of writers.

From creative nonfiction experts to kids with a love of Percy Jackson fanfiction, they’ve reminded me that writing is about the love of story and that it comes in all shapes and forms!

As part of my internship, I was invited to contribute to the L10 craft blog. Below you’ll find a topic that’s been interesting me for a long time.

How Much Invention is Too Much? Finding Balance in Creative NonFiction

The first creative writing class I took in college was taught by an author who had already published his first memoir. While he had serious experience in creative nonfiction, I wasn’t even sure what it was. ‘Creative nonfiction’ sounded contradictory. Nonfiction is prose based on true factual information while ‘creative’ implies something is made up. I wondered, How can creative nonfiction exist at all? 

Luckily for me, the syllabus listed ‘creative nonfiction’ as one of the units for the semester. What I learned was that facts and fiction can go well together. Often, the real events of our lives make the most interesting stories. I also discovered that the key to these stories is balance. Balance of emotion and fact and the balance of voice and fact are the basis of creative nonfiction.

Memoir

It sounds simple enough, but I found there is a lot of debate about how much creative license a writer should take when crafting a creative nonfiction piece.

What keeps an author from making up half the story? A story can run away even if it’s based on truth, becoming less creative nonfiction and more fiction. However, without any narrative, there is no story at all. A list of facts about a past event is a summary, not a story. Adding in sensory details such as the smell of a burnt cake or the feeling of an itchy sweater can turn a summary into an engaging story. It’s still okay and necessary for us to use them, even if they aren’t one hundred percent provable. Below I will share two experienced authors I turned to help find the line. Just as their guidance helped me, I hope their words provide guidance for you as well. 

Author and creative writing professor Philip Gerard writes that creative nonfiction, specifically memoir and personal essay should be “truthful to the emotional experience.”

Personally, I like this view as it allows the author to recount an experience as they remember it and as they felt impacted by it. People experience life through feelings and when telling their stories there is always an emotional bias. Emotion is where the ‘creative’ comes in, as people must recall and then creatively describe how they felt during the experience in order to write their story. A recounting of an experience is boring without someone’s reactions and feelings, and a story completely overtaken by emotion ignores the truth. The balance of the two is essential.

Joan Didion

Joan Didion

With more research based creative nonfiction, the balance of fact and creativity is significantly less centered around emotion. At least with a personal story, the reader assumes some sort of bias on the part of the writer. Meanwhile for essays, journals, and some research papers, facts must play a stronger role.

Author Joan Didion describes these pieces as “more like sculpture, a matter of shaping the research into the finished thing.”

But how can research be relayed in an artful manner? I’ve come to think that this is where voice provides balance. A clear voice can carry a story. When facts are the majority of the work, voice is essential in transforming nonfiction into creative nonfiction. Voice can turn research into sculpture as the author uses personal flair to relay their findings. Can you bring in humor? A philosophical tone? A sense of mystery?

Ultimately, balance is tricky.

I had to work to find it in my own writings. In an assignment for my class, I wrote about an experience with a childhood bully. I passionately described his dislike of me and rampant aggression, but also admitted my own aggressive attitude towards him. Though I couldn’t offer the reasonings behind his behavior, I made sure to offer the motivations behind mine, not allowing the truth to be swept away as I told the story. Creative nonfiction is also art and the author’s voice needs to carry the reader along through the facts. In revealing my truthful recollections of my childhood, I recounted an eight year old’s thinking patterns while maintaining my own, more mature voice. This created an authentic (and hopefully engaging) narrative. The author’s voice and emotions must work together with the facts of the matter to form a narrative based on truth. This is the balance of creative nonfiction, and in seeking that balance we reflect on what we’ve experienced, learning to create a better story and a deeper understanding.

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