Creative nonfiction at your library
Ryan Summerlin November 15, 2012
The family is gathered around the Thanksgiving table, reminiscing about past events. You begin recalling the time you fell from the tree in the apple orchard and your sister ran to get your father, when suddenly your sister interjects. “I didn’t go get Dad; Johnny did!” You are shocked. You were so certain it happened the way you remembered it. This presents a dilemma if you are planning on penning a memoir. Your memory of events might be faulty. As Mark Twain said, “It isn’t so astonishing, the number of things that I can remember, as the number of things I can remember that aren’t so.”
Throughout family histories, there are so-called “tall tales.” Passed on from generation to generation, these tales become larger and more convoluted until the truth is so far stretched that no one can recall what really happened. In current popular literature sensationalism seems to be the norm. The crazier the story, the bigger the bestseller – especially if you are a celebrity. It was James Frey’s memoir, “A Million Little Pieces,” that sparked a firestorm among literary scholars, addressing the ethics of penning so-called “truths.” Oprah Winfrey endorsed his memoir and had him as a special guest on her show, but was mortified to find out later that he had fabricated certain key parts of his story to add sensationalism. Frey’s publishers reclassified his biography as a work of fiction. This also birthed the genre of creative nonfiction.
A book is classified as creative nonfiction if the writer takes factual happenings based on true events and pieces them together into a fictionalized account. By calling a book creative nonfiction, the writer is exonerated from any proof of facts; after all, it is only fiction. Some liberties can be taken, and scenarios can be fabricated without penalty. In creative nonfiction memoirs, popular writers such as David Sedaris (“Dress Your Family in Corduroy and Denim”) and Dave Eggers (“Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius”) are able to recall past childhood events with such impossible scenarios that all credibility is foregone. And yet the reader knows he is being taken for a ride. John Krakauer’s “Into Thin Air” is an example of a piece originally considered nonfiction but which possibly needs reclassification as creative nonfiction. Since its publication, “Into Thin Air” has been at the center of controversy surrounding Krakauer’s account of events, particularly in regards to questions over responsibility for tragic errors resulting in deaths on the mountain. Anatoli Boukreev, a Russian climbing guide Krakauer depicted as negligent, has openly confronted Krakauer for creative passages.
The dawning of this new genre has produced some amazing works of literature, most recently, “Matterhorn,” by decorated Marine Karl Marlantes. The book, set in Vietnam in 1969, fictionally recounts the experiences of Marlantes, who commanded a Marine rifle platoon on a fire support base, with the code name Matterhorn, between Laos and the DMZ. The troops not only engage in deadly warfare against the North Vietnamese Army, but also at one point become prey to a tiger that stalks them relentlessly. Marlantes’ real-life perspective and experiences authenticate the situations and create true-to-life terrors.
If you are one of those who used high school history class as a chance to catch up on sleep, you might give some creative nonfiction novels a try. Check them out at your local Summit County library.