The human genome is about 50% identical the genome of a banana. I’ve been told this fact since before I knew what a genome actually was, and I always thought “How could that be? Humans are not like bananas at all.” And we aren’t really. Bananas don’t have societies or governments or reality television. We don’t grow in bunches on a tree. So what makes us similar to bananas?
A quick Google search showed that most of the genes that we share with bananas are sort of like “building block” genes. The ones that code for how cells break down sugar, put together proteins, and so on.
In a way, I think different writing genres are sort of like this human-banana relationship. (Except these genres have so much in common that it might be more accurate to compare them to humans and chimpanzees, whom we share about 96% of our genome with.) There’s relatively small part of the genome differentiates humans from chimpanzees, but it’s an incredibly important part.
Fiction and creative nonfiction share many more similarities than differences. They’re both prose styles that focus on the construction of language to tell a story and/or make a point. They have the same letters and words to use just like how chimpanzees and humans have the same nitrogenous bases that create DNA. Both fiction and creative nonfiction use the literary devices such as metaphor and cliff hangers and characterization.
So where do the differences lie between the two genres? I think that the intentions behind these two genres is what differentiates them more so than anything else. In fiction the writer intends to craft a story that may be based in their life but ultimately is about characters who interact and react with their environments. These characters are not meant to be seen as real, but as a writer’s impression of them. This same concept holds true for historical fiction. A writer could do as much research as he or she could possibly do on Harriet Tubman, but, at the end of the day, Harriet Tubman is still abstract. A writer cannot write her without fictionalizing her, because they don’t know her thoughts or her mannerisms. They must invent nearly everything about her.
In creative nonfiction, the intention of the writer is different. These writers are grounded in fact, and if they wanted to write about Harriet Tubman, then they’d research her. But they’d research in the way you might run tests in a biology lab. They look for truths both concrete and abstract, and they would work to create their own perspective of her. A creative nonfiction piece about Harriet Tubman would likely have just as much truth about the author as it does about the historical figure, herself. The authorial intent is the most important part of creative nonfiction, because it influences every aspect of a writing piece.
This line of intention is incredibly thin, and Lauren Slater dances on it in Lying. However, I think that she stays firmly on the side of creative nonfiction during her novel. She tells a truth that was emotional and metaphoric in nature. Her memory and her writing cannot be trusted to be accurate to what her life really was like. Instead, her writing is used to create feeling for her and for her readers, and that feeling is about the truth of her life. The difficulties and sadness in it. The positives and excitement of it. The variable nature of growing up.
And this is how fiction and nonfiction differ: the intention of the author in creative nonfiction is to tell a truth about the world, be it an emotional or physical one, through facts and authorial presence, and fiction doesn’t have the authorial presence to do that.