Truth V. Nontruth

I am driven to write nonfiction because I have stories to tell, and in those tellings I am figuring my life out. I am also deeply afraid of personal nonfiction, because I fear I will never actually be able to share it outside of a classroom.

Creative nonfiction is defined by what it isn’t: not fiction. But I have learned to define fiction by what it isn’t: not truth. I know, of course, that there are always truths within fiction, but for me they find a home within nonfiction. Truth versus nontruth. When I write, I am either choosing to write about myself and my experiences, or I am actively choosing to delay these truths. My own, personal truths.

Fiction has become it’s own form of pseudonym, so that one day if I ever publish anything I will say it’s not truth, and my family is spared. And if one of them reads something I write and asks, “Why did you write about me?” I will point to the cover and say, “It’s fiction! Not the truth!” If I call my writing fiction, change some names, do people still have to get hurt? Do they have to know I’m writing at all?

I do not know who I am outside of my experiences. My childhood shaped me, encouraged me to pursue writing. What else do I know? What else do I have to say? I will never know a subject as well as I know my home, my mother, my siblings. But how can I write about them without losing them?

I posed this question to my boyfriend recently: “What are my experiences if I can’t write about them?”

He asked: “Since I don’t write about my experiences, do they not mean anything?”

I know, outside of my writing, my experiences are still true and real. But without writing about them they lose their significance in my life, as I lose the ability to make sense of them. I write to understand my family, and to understand who I am and where I am.

So I write about my life in the short term. I focus only on the story I’m writing or the next story I want to write. I don’t consider what would happen if one of my family members discovered my writing; I don’t plan where my experiences with nonfiction will lead me. I am trying to understand my own life’s past and hopefully I’ll figure the rest out later.

One thought on “Truth V. Nontruth

  1. Stephen J. West

    Thank you for sharing this lovely meditation on your personal connection to the genre, Sarah. The ethical dilemma of writing about real people is something every writer of CNF confronts–and it can even dictate how they approach the genre. I am personally reluctant to delve too much into personal relationships in my writing, so I tend to write about my curiosities and observations, and the ideas that spin out of them. Read Lia Purpura; read Ander Monson; read Elena Passarello. Their essays are relentless in their pursuit of truth-in-experience, but rarely reveal dangerous details about people in their lives. There are many ways to get at truth in writing, and delving into personal relationships is only one of those!


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