What Counts as Truth?

In his notes, John D’Agata reveals he conflates time and uses composite characters throughout About a Mountain. How does this deviation from the truth affect the way you view D’Agata’s story (is it a deviation)? Does revealing this information make it “okay” for the text to still be considered CNF? How would you react if D’Agata didn’t attach the Notes section, and you later found out he altered these details?

Creative Nonfiction is obsessed with truth, but truth is subjective. This sometimes causes a bit of a problem within the genre, especially when it comes to composite characters and time conflation. How can CNF be truthful if writers manipulate their experiences to work better in the format of the story?

One of the very first things I learned in my high school creative nonfiction class was what made creative nonfiction creative. Some of the techniques that CNF uses are almost identical to fiction. Pieces can contain flashbacks, metaphors, themes, and unreliable narrators among other techniques; however, CNF uses some writing techniques that are unique to this genre. The main two are composite characters and the conflation of time. These two techniques, while they could possibly be used in fiction, are more specific to CNF, since they deal with manipulating the truth of actual events. Since I learned of these two techniques very early on in my exposure to this genre, I’ve never really thought of them as making the genre less reliable. I just saw them as a way to write.

I think that one of the easiest ways to explain why D’Agata’s use of these writing techniques doesn’t affect my view of the story is look at some paintings. Specifically, let’s look at Picasso’s work. This first painting is called “The Old Fisherman” and was painted in 1895.


This painting clearly shows a person. It’s realistic, and you could almost imagine the old fisherman standing in front of you. This is similar to how I think of characters who are not composite, and time that it not conflated. The truth is very easy to see for what it is. There’s no manipulation done on the part of the author/painter, so it’s easy to define the writing/art as creative nonfiction/ a portrait.

Then you get something like this:


Picasso titled it “Portrait of Donna Maar.” Would you ever contest that this isn’t a portrait? Picasso said that it was, but this painting looks nothing like how a person actually looks. Yet at the same time it is recognizable as a person, and we decide that “Yes. Yes, this is definitely a portrait. It’s a weird portrait, but it’s definitely portrait of a person Picasso knew.” I think this is how we should look at composite characters (and time conflation). Sure, the characters might be blended together into a character that technically doesn’t exist, but the facts and voice of this character existed in two different people. The truth of these statements and people isn’t lost. It’s transformed into something else, just like how this woman, Donna Maar, was transformed into something else for the sake of art.

So, personally, I have no problem with authors using composite characters. Would I ever use them in my writing? I’m not sure. I haven’t yet, because I haven’t found two people I thought were similar enough to combine into one person. However, I have played around with time conflation, because I don’t have a good sense of time perception. If I had to hazard a guess, I’d say that I’ve been writing this post for about ten minutes. However, the clock on my laptop tells me that it’s closer to half an hour. Simliarly, I’ve had certain memories that blur together so thoroughly that I couldn’t sort them into the years that they happened. I’ve gone to The New York State Fair every year except one since moving to New York. So that’s about ten years. But we some years we went to the Fair three times. Other years we only went once. We’ve been over to the train one time, but the Milk building every single visit. One year I won one of those bingo-like games, but we’ve played them every year. My memories are all so jumbled together that if I ever wanted to write about the Fair I would have to conflate time to make it work. I know that this isn’t necessarily the case for D’Agata, but I think that if it works better for his write to conflate everything into one summer, then it’s fine that he did that. I wouldn’t have been perturbed if he hadn’t told us in the Notes that he used these two writing techniques, but I’m glad that he did. I think that shows his honesty as a writer. Within the book he showed us the truth as best as he could, and in the Notes he showed us the parts of the truth that he wasn’t able to in the book, which I appreciated.

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