Fiction and Creative Nonfiction are similar in a lot of ways. They both use literary devices to characterize characters, show a setting, and prompt the reader to think more deeply about the text. They both use metaphor at times. They both have a strong voices that propel the piece forward through a narrator. They are both prose. But the difference get more blurred the further you delve into the genre. The line between fiction and nonfiction isn’t clear, but it exists.
As readers we can’t approach creative nonfiction as we approach fiction. As writers it would be ludicrous to approach these two genres in the same way, because the two genres are separate beings entirely. Then, by this line of thinking, we can’t edit creative nonfiction in the same way that we edit fiction. Fiction and Creative Nonfiction are apples and oranges, the two genres, while they overlap some, can’t be prepared. And in that way, people have to take the genre into mind while editing a piece. They can’t see it as some extension of fiction, they can’t force an orange to be an apple.
Just as there is an ethics to writing in creative nonfiction, there’s an ethics to workshopping creative nonfiction essays. In our creative nonfiction workshop, sometimes, as editors, we got too fixated on one person or event. We wanted more details. We wanted to know why the narrator’s mom did this or that. We wanted explanations that the narrator might not be able to give.
In fiction, it’s easy to question characters. The narrator makes them up and can control all of their actions. This isn’t the case in creative nonfiction. Sometimes editors would almost overreact to certain character dynamics and scenes. They would get very opinionated about certain characters and start critiquing their actions. They’d focus on what the mom did, let’s say. They’d critique her parenting style, and question how someone could possibly act like that; however, these are the wrong aspects to focus on in a creative nonfiction essay.
The editors have to trust that whatever the narrator says, however unbelievable it seems, is true, which means that whatever the mom did in the essay is what the narrator experienced. In creative nonfiction it isn’t the editor’s place to question the mother’s motives, as it would be in fiction. A lot of times, the narrator doesn’t know the full story behind a character’s action. The narrator doesn’t know, couldn’t possibly know, the reasons for every character’s actions or thoughts, because these aren’t characters. They’re people, and the narrator has no control over them or their actions. It’s not the editor’s place to critique anything but the craft of writing in creative nonfiction. We can ask for more characterization on people in essays, but it’s dangerous to develop opinions on the characters as an editor, because we don’t know the full story. The narrator, themselves, might not even know the full story of a person they’re writing about, and it’s something creative nonfiction editors must keep in mind.