Not too long ago I was having an email conversation with a fellow writer on the subject of the “New Journalists.” My colleague held some strong opinions. “I was grossed out by (Norman) Mailer’s Armies of the Night,” he wrote, “which, like a few of Tom Wolfe’s books, employed ‘creative nonfiction,’ which was a fancy way of saying you get to make up facts and present it as nonfiction.”
This caused my blood pressure to surge momentarily. Not only were the New Journalists — Mailer, Wolfe, Joan Didion, Gay Talese, and Hunter S. Thompson — my literary heroes, I had actually spent over three years earning a Master’s degree in creative nonfiction: the very genre my friend had so blithely maligned. I began typing what I intended would be a stinging rebuttal.
But then I took a few deep breaths and thought about what he had said. Ultimately, instead of my planned defensive rant, I sent an honest response: “My MFA is in creative nonfiction. Your summary is apt. I am, of course, an avid practitioner of the form.”
It’s all true. We creative nonfiction authors do make stuff up. We routinely get away with embellishments that would get just about any newspaper reporter fired. These embellishments, or, as we like to call them, techniques, include: consolidation of multiple events into one, rearranging the chronological sequence of events, crafting interior monologues for characters other than the writer/narrator, and, most controversially, creating “composite” characters — merging several actual people into one made-up person.
It is probably not surprising that there has always been some tension between traditional journalists and those writers of creative nonfiction, such as myself, who come from English Lit or fiction writing backgrounds. I watched this dynamic play out firsthand in my MFA program at the University of North Carolina Wilmington. My classmate Matt Tullis, now an accomplished sportswriter and tenured journalism professor at Ashland University in Ohio, stood firmly on the “no embellishments” side of the argument. At one point during our time in the program, Matt nearly came to blows (or at least it felt like it) with a visiting writer named Daniel Robb over Robb’s use of a composite character in his memoir Crossing the Water. The book detailed Robb’s experiences teaching high-risk teenagers, and Matt had grown rather attached to the character in question — a hard-luck kid who harbored a yearning for redemption — and felt violated upon learning that this character wasn’t actually real.
Me, I didn’t care so much. In my brief stint as a high school teacher I had taught similar kids to the ones Robb was describing, and to my way of thinking the book succeeded admirably in conveying that experience. The use of composite characters furthered that aim — better, perhaps, than a large and messy menagerie of competing voices might have done, even thought the latter scenario would have hewed closer to the literal truth.
Ultimately, journalists and creative nonfiction authors have competing goals. It is the journalist’s imperative to report events as accurately as possible. With the exception of the works of the New Journalists, that imperative takes primacy over any concurrent desire to shape an artistically pleasing narrative. Had Henry David Thoreau been a journalist, he would have reported the truth about his stay at Walden Pond: he would have admitted that he actually stayed on and off for two years (rather than the one continuous year depicted in his famous memoir Walden), and that he had his mother do his laundry, spent many nights in town, and often popped in on his friends Ralph Waldo and Lidian Emerson (the actual owners of the Walden property) for food and companionship. He enjoyed quite a few of Mrs. Emerson’s casseroles during those two years.
In other words, he was hardly roughing it.
And yet, if we dismiss Walden for these transgressions, we miss out on the book’s more important truths: Thoreau’s trenchant observations on the dark side of rapid technological advancement, his musings on the value of solitude, his reverence for the natural world, and his decisive stand against conformity. These are the real concerns of Walden. Descriptions of his off-topic indulgences — such as the casseroles — might have satisfied a journalist’s desire for factual accuracy, but such details would also have, in my view, seriously blunted the powerful messages of the book.
He did actually build that shack though.
I can just about picture my dear friend Matt Tullis’s brow furrowing as he reads this. But I must be honest about my own stance on this issue. My feelings go beyond a mere philosophy of writing; this is how I orient myself to the world, and to stories. Had I been formally trained as a journalist rather than a creative writer, I might feel differently.
This brings us to Bill Steigerwald’s recent takedown of John Steinbeck in his book Dogging Steinbeck: Discovering America and Exposing the Truth about ‘Travels With Charley. Steigerwald, an accomplished journalist of a decidedly libertarian bent, set out a few years ago to retrace the cross-country trip Steinbeck had made famous in his beloved memoir Travels With Charley. But a funny thing happened on the way to Bill’s fluffy travel piece: he discovered that the celebrated author had fabricated large chunks of his trip, creating events, people, and sometimes even places out of whole cloth.
The premise of Travels With Charley is as follows: aging author Steinbeck sets out “in search of America,” traveling back roads in a custom-built truck/camper van called Rocinante with only his French poodle Charley for company. He spends many nights roughing it under the stars, meets lots of interesting characters, and takes the measure of his native land.
As noted, that’s not quite how it played out in real life.