As philosophers have told us for centuries, passing the truth of immediate experience into some form that can be handed on to others is difficult. Troubled with levels and degrees, mixed with fact, memory and interpretation, truth in storytelling is rarely black and white. We have come to accept that in fiction, truth emerges at a level higher than fact. Characters and events are imagined, but that doesn’t mean the story isn’t true on a higher or deeper level. Fiction explores the human heart and the emotional truth of human experience. As Picasso said, “Art is the lie that makes us realize the truth.”
That may be, but creative nonfiction writing—though certainly an art—adheres to a slightly different standard. Consider Janet Cooke’s experience. On Sept. 29, 1980, she published an article in The Washington Post about the life of an 8-year-old heroin addict living on the street. “Jimmy’s World” elicited a powerful emotional response from editors and readers. On April 13, 1981, Cooke was awarded the Pulitzer Prize. But she didn’t keep it for very long.
The problem? The story was fabricated. Cooke tried to explain that her sources had hinted at the existence of a boy like Jimmy but she had never met him. Writing the story, she decided to create a character that represented the experience of a child drug addict. The emotional truth of her story was real, but the literal facts of the story were false, and that made all the difference. Cooke was forced to resign her position at the newspaper and return the prize. For the nonfiction writer, manipulating facts and events in order to enhance narrative drive—that is, obfuscating or exaggerating literal or objective truth for dramatic effect—undermines the authority of the writer and destroys the trust of the reader. The writer cannot embellish, condense or otherwise manipulate characters or events in order to make a more compelling story. If readers expect factual accuracy and they don’t get it, they can easily feel betrayed and duped.
Readers of nonfiction (creative or otherwise) enter the text with an understanding that the story is linked directly not to the world of the possible but to the world of lived experience. It often reads like fiction and may involve the use of figurative language and literary techniques commonly found in fiction, and like fiction, it strives for the timeless emotional truths of human experience that bring us closer to a greater understanding of ourselves and each other. But creative nonfiction also explicitly engages the concept of the truth, both emotional and literal, and thus the writer of creative nonfiction is bound, by an implicit and sometimes explicit contract with the reader, to make sure the architecture of his story is based on authentic and reasonably verifiable experience.