Okay, so I made up the word fictionating. We have to have some license as nonfiction writers, to occasionally make stuff up, right? Maybe. As creative nonfiction writers? Absolutely. This doesn’t mean we get to fudge on the facts, or mislead readers, just to make the story more interesting. We’re not liars. However, we aren’t news reporters either. That’s where the creative part comes in.
The heart of creative nonfiction writing lies in presenting your stories with scenes, imagery, rounded characters, and dramatic elements. Well-written scenes have sensory details, so you have to know, for instance, what the room smelled like, or what sounds were heard at the time. Was it stuffy or hot? Were clothes strewn about, or was the sofa rubbed pale on the armrests?
One of the trickier elements is dialogue. We may forget what exactly was said, or maybe we can’t recreate the entire conversation. One intense line of dialogue, which focuses the tension of the scene, or caps off the conversation, is all you need. But the line has to be accurate and true to what was said. You can’t make it up. You can’t make up entire conversations and scenes like Martin Sixsmith did in his book, Philomena: A Mother, Her Son, and a Fifty-Year Search. Sixsmith takes the liberty on several occasions to present conversations that are difficult for a reader to accept as true or realistic. Please keep in mind that Philomena’s son, Mike Hess, passed away in 1995. Sixsmith never interviewed him. With that in mind, how does a writer recreate a scene in which Mike’s feelings are described most intuitively? In one particular scene, it’s Thanksgiving in 1956 (on page 114), and Mike and his adopted sister, Mary, are in bed. Mike was four years old, and Mary was still three. Sixsmith writes things like:
When he thought of the old world now, it came to him as a faded image of high windows, whispered talk, and femininity.
In the darkness, Mike sensed that Mary was crying.
Mary was working herself into a state and Mike knew it was time to drop the subject.
Without ever interviewing Mike Hess, how would Sixsmith know what he thought, what he sensed, and what he knew? These are huge flags for the reader. Not only does the exposition here seem fictionalized, check out the dialogue. Sixsmith has them saying things like:
“So what I think is this: they gave us away because they saw we were very bad inside, and that’s why they never loved us. And now no one ever can love us because of what we are.”
Mary questions why “this mommy” took them if they were bad.
“She took us because she didn’t know what we are like—because we managed to disguise our badness. So that’s why we must never argue or misbehave now. We must always do what they say—what Pop says and what the boys say—because if we don’t, they will send us away again, just like our own mammies did…”
Then the three-year-old says:
“You know I can’t always be good like you. When I’m a bad girl, when I argue and cry, does that mean they will send us away? I can’t bear it if they do, Mikey!”
According to Sixsmith, when Mary gets upset, Mike puts his arm around his sister’s shoulder and pulls her close to him. Then he squeezes his sister’s hand. A very tender scene, I must say, except that I don’t believe it for a minute. For one, it just doesn’t sound like the actions and dialogue of small children. Second, Sixsmith never interviewed Michael Hess. He did interview Mary, but I highly doubt that she would recollect this conversation to the actions and dialogue that it was written. Lastly, this isn’t the only fudged conversation in the book.
Susan Kavanagh, who worked with Michael Hess in Washington, D.C., was interviewed by Sixsmith for two hours. She never heard back from him, but after reading the book, she needed to write a public review of it (here) on Goodreads.com. In her review, she says this:
I cringed when I read my “character” engaging in fictional dialogue with Michael. Things only went downhill from there. The dialogue that Sixsmith invented for the conversations Michael and I supposedly had were not quotes from the interview I gave, and I did not agree to my interview being turned into scenes with made-up dialogue. Michael is dead and cannot verify these conversations or, for that matter, any of the conversations he is purported to have had throughout the book.
If you want your creative nonfiction book to get great reviews, don’t pull a Sixsmith. Don’t make up scenes and dialogue, then try to pass it off as truth. Otherwise you’ll get a review like this:
While I can only speak definitively to the information that I gave Sixsmith and my knowledge of Michael, the book contains other conversations that can’t possibly be sourced because the people are dead. If you plan to read the book, be aware that you will be reading fiction and, not very well-written fiction, at that.
Ouch. I was not surprised to find that the movie, Philomena, is a different story: about the journey of finding her son. (The book is mostly about Hess, his political career, and hiding his homosexuality from the Republican Party. There is some background on what Philomena Lee went through until her child was taken from her. Any comments about research or the actual journey are dumped into the epilogue at the end.) The screenplay, thankfully, was not written by Sixsmith.
Other writers have been called out too. Their mistakes were to combine several people into one character; to change the timing of an event from February to say, summer, so their characters could wear shorts instead of jackets; or to exaggerate numbers in some way. It is okay to approximate, if you are transparent and you say so in your writing.
Don’t let writers like Sixsmith fool you into believing that writing the truth needs to be doctored to be exciting. If you’re being creative in your writing, you don’t have to change the facts, but you do have to go beyond just the facts. That’s what makes our writing stand out from reporting. We get to use our imaginations, as long as we say so.
In the book, Safekeeping: Some True Stories from a Life, Abigail Thomas imagines an entire chapter, “She Imagines His Side,” to give the reader a scene and imagery that she did not have access to. In the previous chapter, Thomas has visited her psychiatrist and let on that she believes her husband is having an affair. Her therapist suggested for her to simply tell him, “Listen. If you don’t get yourself some help pronto I’m going to have an affair.” In the next scene, she barges into the bathroom while he’s in the bathtub, lays this line on him, and then walks out. Then she makes him dinner. No words are spoken. This is all her truth as she told it in nonfiction writing. The facts of the moment have been reported. Now, as readers, we’re left hanging, wondering, what the heck? What was his reaction? Where’s the drama of it all? This is where Thomas goes beyond just the facts. Flip the page, and her next chapter gives us exactly his reaction—imagined.
She imagines him lying in the tub… Suddenly she comes clomping upstairs, bursts into the bathroom, and lays this line on him. She stands there with her coat on! Then she stomps out again. What the hell is he to make of that? He frowns, shifts his weight in the tub. Did she really say what he thinks she said? He is stunned into a deeper stupor from which he is roused by the uncomfortable sensation of cooled water.
(The author continues to imagine the scene from his point of view, thinking about how she’s inconsistent in cooking chicken.)
He trusts her implicitly… He doesn’t know what she wants… He hates it when she tries to please him… He wants an independent woman… Then he remembers what she said. He stands abruptly, water sluicing off him like a giant… He calls her name once or twice as he sees no bath towel on the rack. No answer. Is the music louder now? He is angry. He hates to get angry, which makes him angrier. She forces him to be angry. He shouldn’t have to ask her for a towel. Things should go smoothly in a well-run household… She has no concept of what it means to be a wife.
But don’t forget, this is how she imagines it. (pp. 72-73)
In creative writing, we can make stuff up too, but we must be transparent. Thomas tells us from the very title of the chapter, “She Imagines His Side,” and then frames the passage with statements like, “She imagines him…” and “But don’t forget, this is how she imagines it.” This is transparency. By adding this chapter, Thomas places the reader inside a scene and inside his head. She gives us images and emotion and the drama of human interaction. In doing so, Thomas gives us the creative in creative nonfiction.