On Fiction Vs. Nonfiction, Briefly

A friend and colleague writes:

I have a question for you. I have a former student, a good writer, who’s applying to _______. She’s applying in fiction, but she’s writing memoir.

In my class, I said it didn’t matter as long as she was okay with having her work discussed in the same way we’d discuss fiction. (Referring to “the narrator” instead of “you,” etc.) I don’t have a problem with being restricted to certain story lines or characters because things happened a certain way. In fiction I often treat the story lines and characters as something that exist in their own right, apart from the story, because that’s how writers often feel about them. (E.g., No, I can’t change it and make these characters get married because that wouldn’t be true to the story–that kind of thing.) So it doesn’t seem very different to me. That’s my standard response when someone brings nonfiction to a fiction class I’m teaching.

But I’m proofreading her application manuscript today, and suddenly it occurred to me that you can’t really apply to the fiction program with a nonfiction ms–in fact it says so in the application guidelines.

But what’s the difference, really? How much do you have to change something to call it fiction? (And the related question: How much are you allowed to change something and have it qualify as nonfiction?) I realize I have no idea. It seemed like something you might have an answer to.

A: I suppose the question is always, how would they know? And if something is well-structured and well-dramatized, isn’t that all that matters? Those are the surface issues. To the extent that events are staged in nonfiction by the memory and imagination, some try to say there’s no difference, but I think great nonfiction uses the limits of the world as a frame, or a foil, or both, and more–it can, if it’s willing to go wherever the world leads the discoveries. Some writers change things because they are sure a better essay waits for them if they just invent this one thing, they say it ‘makes the story better’, but, for me, that is actually when the writer turns away from the world–and from their task. When I feel this, I know that is my ego acting on the essay, aspiring to something that doesn’t actually belong to me or the essay. The result of that strikes me as being neither fiction or nonfiction, but a carnival of your ambition, with a truth only for you in it–about what it is in you that made you do that. And I think the same is true in fiction–when you push into the story’s rules, rules you set up, to make something happen that does not belong there, it’s a betrayal of yourself. You’re not letting the story be the editor.

There’s a certain ruthlessness I can admire to the student who is willing to submit the work to either program and go wherever she is admitted–it’s a writerly ruthlessness. But I don’t know that it’s best for her in this instance. Ideally, she’d consider her career past this story, and what the impact would be. Some stories we write have the potential to lay waste to all of our personal connections, for example, and the ruthless confessional memoirist often reaches their 30s with fewer friends willing to be the next subject and the wrong kind putting themselves forward. But perhaps she’s at the edge of a felix culpa–perhaps she’ll throw her cards to the wind and it won’t matter and we’ll see where she ends up, and what kind of writer she becomes.

It’s worth noting that most of my favorite writers wrote both fiction and nonfiction, and that their training was not what decided their fate. Having said that, graduate school is more than a sort of bus stop to the rest of life–it’s the place a student is tested as to whether they can become a peer, really–thus the ‘defense’ of a thesis–and their cohort professionally becomes their peer group for the rest of their life. A lot of the important issues in the decision are not about what’s in this manuscript, in other words.

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Underneath, to address the related issues: I think you could change one thing and reasonably call it fiction. But the question is, what is the thing, and why? And what is the right reason? Autobiographical fiction is interesting–it’s where things get fuzziest, I think. There are strange double standards that run all over the place–fiction is supposed to be entirely invented! And the yet there is an industry of snooping into what was ‘true’ and what was not, the one question every fiction writer faces relentlessly on tour. And it is asked with a gleam in the eye–an “I caught you I bet” look.

Lorrie Moore has a quote I love about fiction, where she calls it “the consolations of the mask”, but the relationship between the writer and the story isn’t the relationship between a face and a mask. The story is something the mask calls into being once the writer puts it on.

Even the act of concealing an identity typically unleashes something. You could call it that you’re more free to say things, but it’s more than that–when you do this, you access the part of you that is larger than what you agree to be by daylight to friends and family. A more chaotic, unruly self. Consider the story of Ingeborg Day, the author of Nine and a Half Weeks, one of the more interesting stories I’ve read this year. Sarah Weinman looked into the anonymous posture she struck to write the book, and it’s a fascinating portrait of a writer who wrote two very different confessional books–one way to look at them is, what she was willing to say if she was masked, and what she was willing to say if she was hidden. The mask she put on was over her name, and what she wrote is called a memoir. But that is where it is fuzziest–it is most likely the memoir of whoever she was behind the mask that was Ingeborg Day. The fictions then are more likely in the memoir she wrote, Ghost Waltz. But this is why people try to say the differences don’t matter, and I think they still do.

As someone who writes both fiction and nonfiction, who studied to write both, and teaches the writing of both, the difference to me, approximately, begins in the epistemological pleasures of each, which is often dismissed as an unserious claim–the dismissal rolls over this distinction (it doesn’t like distinctions perhaps?), to say if the pleasure is what matters then the distinctions don’t matter. But this happens out of a disregard for the importance of pleasure and its types, I think, as well as its sources. Pleasure is one of the most important forces of all. It’s why everyone lies about their own.

As Elizabeth Bowen said, Fiction is the lie that tells the truth–a poetic truth that justifies the lie, or at least, it must justify the lie–if it does not, it’s only a lie. Fiction contains a truth that perhaps can only be approached through invention. So, for example, people ask of my first novel why it wasn’t a memoir, since aspects of it were autobiograpical, and the answer is that describing only my life would not have described what I learned from living my life, and so I made something to fit the shape of what I knew. And this is true in all of my fiction.

Nonfiction is a moral exercise, an attempt to struggle with the world and its contents ethically and imaginatively, within the limits the writer can perceive and then push against. But it is a struggle with ‘what is’. Creative nonfiction is about using the self as an instrument, for speaking of and with the world, an exercise in a kind of rearrangement of the facts that gets at poetic truths of the world by inventing new connections between what is known. Your work functions like a photograph conducted in X-Ray, or ultraviolet, or infrared–you try to show something you can see that hasn’t been described but is there.

With fiction, even the photograph is invented, as well as the spectrum, if you look hard enough, but you don’t have to, because it is a con, in service of the good. Fiction is a trickster God. Nonfiction is archeology.

The pleasures of reading each—in fiction, you trust the writer is presumably the inventor of all the reader sees, and that it is all to one end. He or she can pursue whatever they need imaginatively to tell their story, but they are bound by the terms of their invention all the same, and the reader keeps the tally–a false moment, ironically, will harm, even though it is, at another angle, all false moments. It is a paradox from start to finish, a moral test of the liar’s sincerity.

In reading creative nonfiction, the writer is bound by the world, much like in the Hanged Man card of the Tarot–but it is this world, and the parts we can’t change, how we live them, well, within those limits is transcendance, and the art of it all. When we read creative nonfiction we are watching a kind of moral highwire act, an attempt to use compassion and imagination along those limits, here in the world.

In the end, I think of it as like a tree–the root system is like a mirror of what is above, but sunk into the earth, or vice versa–the branches mirror the roots, but reach through the air. So, fiction is the tree above ground. Nonfiction is the root. Fiction can reach into the air, is free to play with whatever blows by. Nonfiction is in the earth, bound by it, but connected to it in a way that is intimate and direct. There is a continuum, yes, but the root is the root, and the branch, the branch–and each cannot do the work of the other.

I hope that helps! My views of the difference are not in vogue. But I am glad I had specific and different teaching for each.


  1. I like your tree metaphor almost as much as the “dragon outside the window” metaphor of the novel lying in wait for you. As an author, when I write fiction, I dance; with non-fiction I feel I’m wading through mud. As a reader, with fiction I sometimes indulge the fantasy “it’s really me!” Non-fiction offers no such possibility.

  2. This topic is absolutely fascinating to me. Sometimes I sit in my small local library where I write, and stare at the two big signs, “Fiction”, and “Nonfiction”, and think, is all writing really defined by this great dividing line?

    I love your tree metaphor!

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