In writing creative nonfiction, it is impossible to accurately remember every detail of a scenario that you wish to write about. As creative writers, it is our duty to our readers to fill in the gaps when they need to be filled and to make a comprehensive story out of the details that we do remember.
That leads to a bigger question, how much can we rely on our memory? I often wonder if my sister actually dared me to stand on a tree limb when I was eight years old pretending to be Tarzan then pushed me, or if somehow over time my memories have been warped and that’s the only sense I can make of the situation. How do we know we are being honest with ourselves, and is it an injustice to our writing if we are not, or cannot?
I don’t think so. I think the creative part of creative nonfiction comes from bending the truth a little bit. Now, that’s not to say that we can intentionally falsify elements of the past to make the story fit our authorial desires, but I think it’s necessary in some instances to find ways to creatively recreate the past and make meaning of it. I don’t think that it’s ingenuous to bend the genre a little bit to create the best story possible while maintaining the important truths which create the topic and purpose for discussion.
When I think about this, I often think of a song titled “Tiny Glowing Screens Pt. 2” by Watsky. It opens:
“There’s 7 billion 46 million people on the planet
And most of us have the audacity to think we matter
Hey, you hear the one about the comedian who croaked?
Someone stabbed him in the heart, just a little poke
But he keeled over ‘cause he went into battle wearing chain mail made of jokes
Hey, you hear the one about the screenwriter who passed away?
He was giving elevator pitches and the elevator got stuck halfway
He ended up eating smushed sandwiches they pushed through a crack in the door
And repeating the same crappy screenplay idea about talking dogs ’til his last day
Hey, you hear the one about the fisherman who passed?
He didn’t jump off that ledge
He just stepped out into the air and pulled the ground up towards him really fast
Like he was pitching a line and went fishing for concrete”
This, to me, is a perfect example of using the creative form and being imaginative to bend the truth to make it more captivating. It’s our responsibility as creative nonfiction writers not only to tell the truth, but to present it in an interesting way. Rather than just stating fact, we are artists that must compose it into masterpieces. We, as authors, choose the angle from which our readers get to view us, and it is our burden to make sure that we select the best kind of light… and sometimes, that requires a bit of shifting.