What Happens When You Swap Fiction For Creative Non-Fiction

So far, I have had neither a boring life, nor an extraordinary one. Certainly, there are memorable moments – the good and the bad, that perhaps make an interesting story, but these stories are not solely my own, which is a major realisation I’ve had recently.

In the last month, I’ve been working on a piece of creative non-fiction with an editor from one of Australia’s leading literary magazines. This piece was personal, and written under a pen name, so I won’t go into the details here, but safe to say: it’s been a strange and eye-opening experience.

Creative non-fiction
We explore the ethical questions raised by swapping fiction writing for creative non-fiction… Image Credit: Iryna Yeroshko via Flickr Creative Commons.

With a background in fiction writing, I’ve always believed that in its best form, fiction is a representation of truth – universal truths, about the human condition and what we’re capable of. This has certainly made it hard to grasp the concepts of creative non-fiction, as well as the ethical debates that come with it.

I never thought it was as simple as: fact versus ‘made-up’. For the most part, I believed both genres aimed for the same result – to resonate with people and to tell a story. I jotted this down in an attempt to get my head around it:

Non-fiction: that which chronicles the world and its people, in past or present form.

Fiction: that which the imagination allows.

No matter how much I tried to define and dissect the genre, I still felt uncomfortable with it. It wasn’t until I read Madness: A Memoir by Kate Richards (2013) that I really pinpointed why: Somewhat guiltily, what I enjoyed most about creative non-fiction was becoming immersed in the personal lives of others.

I revelled in learning their secrets, their heartache and their struggles. The knowledge that these words were the ‘truth’ was a humbling reading experience. Would I be able to put my experiences on the line like that, for others to guiltily enjoy? I went on and wrote the piece anyway – there was an opening for creative non-fiction in one of my favourite lit mags, and this was my chance to be published while also still working on my novel.

Writing this non-fiction piece was something completely foreign to me. For someone who is usually so comfortable stringing  sentences together, I was shocked to find myself stumped.

Where do you even start?

I knew almost instantly that I wasn’t okay writing it in first person, nor was I content to use names – even if these were pseudonyms. At this point, I should have questioned ‘why write this piece at all?’ and I did – but it didn’t stop me writing it, and I’m still not sure how I feel about that.

Does it make me one of those stereotype ‘ambitious’ writers, who do anything to better their career no matter who gets hurt? Or was it a form of therapy? My own personal way of trying to explain why certain things happened the way they did. I still couldn’t tell you.

The biggest questions my foray into creative non-fiction raised were those of an ethical nature. Mainly concerning the people in my story, or the loved ones of those people. Could you really draw a line between what was ‘right’ to include and what was ‘wrong’. In short – you can’t.

Everyone will have a different opinion on the  matter, and the same goes for how much you embellish, how much detail you include – even if you weren’t there yourself. I found it incredibly overwhelming having this level of responsibility. I’d never dealt with it before when writing fiction, and it seemed, the more questions I asked, the more questions were raised.

I took inspiration from Truman Capote and Gay Talese, who both use a ‘detached’ style of writing, despite being present at a number of events, or who hold close relationships with some of their subjects. As I was wary of my piece becoming about me and my point of view, as opposed to a well-written representation of actual events and people, these writers and their work comforted me in this very foreign landscape.

When I saw the opening for non-fiction in one of Australia’s most reputable literary magazines, I couldn’t refuse. It wasn’t a guarantee I’d be published anyway, so I chose to submit my story, and deal with the consequences later. An amateur’s mistake perhaps? Probably. I received a positive response to my pitch straightaway, which I already had mixed feelings about – was I doing the right thing? The editor asked to read the whole piece, and I sent it off anyway – it still wasn’t a guarantee of publication.

Since then, I’ve worked with the editor on the piece. As someone who’s very much used to feedback and criticism, it was still a very different experience.

I wasn’t used to someone being so considerate towards my feelings for one thing – this was one of the more immediate differences of being edited as a ‘memoir’ style non-fiction writer as opposed to fiction.

At one point the editor even said “let me know if I’m getting too nosy here!” which at the time was actually quite a nice assurance. However, despite  the sensitive nature of my editor, the process did raise some issues for me.

I realised that, similar to the approach with fiction, a publication still wants more detail. The difference is with non-fiction, for the most part, this is detail you’ve deliberately chosen to leave out – whether it’s because of your fading memory or for privacy reasons… And there’s a limit as to what you can do about this detail. It’s supposed to be real life so you can’t just add things in wherever and however you like… Sometimes, you just simply don’t know the answers. I was asked on a number of occasions what a certain character was thinking within a particular scene – I had no idea!

Another issue with non-fiction, particularly a memoir/personal essay style piece is that: life goes on. Wherever you chose to end your piece, you risk feeling as though you haven’t done it justice – nothing really concludes in real life, and yet, your piece has to. Soon after submitting my first draft, certain events occurred that in an ideal world, would have changed my portrayal of past events. But you have to learn to accept these challenges, and move on to your next piece of writing.

And the final issue that I can foresee (as my piece hasn’t yet been published), is that of promotion. Will I be willing to promote this piece to my friends and family? Something about it just doesn’t seem right. Firstly, by telling friends and family about it – it may reach the hands of those who it’s about, and it may cause tension (to say the least). Secondly, one of my major fears is for people to think I’m exaggerating circumstances, and doing wrong by those who the story involves. The publication of my non-fiction piece, I have also realised, will not be cause for celebration – which is a hard thing to come to terms with as a writer who is starting out.

Though I was lucky enough to have worked with a skilled and sensitive editor, the ethical questions raised, the self-doubt I experienced, and the final consequences aren’t quite for me. Writing is a complicated enough business as it is. Despite how much I admire Capote, Talese and their aspiring contemporaries – I think from now on, I’ll stick to fiction.

Helen Scheuerer

Helen Scheuerer is a novelist from Sydney, and the Founding Editor of Writer's Edit. She has a Bachelor of Creative Arts from the University of Wollongong and a Masters in Publishing from The University of Sydney. Her #1 bestselling YA fantasy novel, Heart of Mist is available now. You can grab your copy here. She also chronicles her writing process and current work over at www.helenscheuerer.com.

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