© 2009 Tracy Crump
“So it’s ok to lie, huh?” My son shot me an impish grin.
I had just explained that I was adding dialogue and other details to flesh out a story I intended to submit to a Chicken Soup for the Soul book. The incident I wrote about took place over sixty years ago—before I was born. Not even my eighty-two-year-old father, who experienced the event firsthand, remembered the particulars.
Chicken Soup wants true stories about ordinary people. They also want stories with action and dialogue, “filled with emotion and drama” as well as “vivid images created by using the five senses.” But what if you weren’t there, and others’ memories have grown fuzzy. My son’s ribbing raised a good question: How true is “true”?
Whether writing for anthologies or penning our memoirs, the technique we often use is creative nonfiction. Lee Gutkind, author of The Best Creative Nonfiction, says, “Ultimately, the primary goal of the creative nonfiction writer is to communicate information, just like a reporter, but to shape it in a way that reads like fiction.” In discussing memoirs, veteran writing professor William Zinsser writes, “You must become the editor of your own life, imposing on an untidy sprawl of half-remembered events a narrative shape and an organizing idea. Memoir is the art of inventing the truth.”
I don’t believe Zinsser gives us license to lie, but we can employ the fiction techniques of characterization, plot, setting, dialogue and narrative while keeping our stories within the bounds of truth. Below are suggestions for doing so:
- Research and interview primary sources to get all the facts you can.
- Remain true to what really happened—leave known details intact.
- Create a setting consistent with the facts but ripe with sensations. If it’s fall, paint the trees with color and let us feel the crisp air, even if you don’t remember those details.
- Write dialogue true to your characters’ personalities, what they most likely would have said.
- Omit unnecessary details and repetitions. Zinsser says we can “alter a time sequence” or “collapse several events into one event” without violating the truth.
- Don’t fabricate characters, but you can create composite characters or “heighten a personality trait” (Zinsser).
Take care. Some writers have gotten themselves into hot water by inventing “reality” (see Wikipedia web link below). Writing creative nonfiction can be challenging, but remembering Jesus’ oft-repeated words, I tell you the truth, will keep us on track.
Gutkind, Lee. The Best Creative Nonfiction, Vol. 1. New York: W. W. Norton, 2007, pp. xi.
Zinsser, William. On Writing Well. New York: Collins, 2006, p. 136.
Zinsser, William. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir and
Tracy Crump has published more than 100 articles, devotionals, and short stories in publications such as Focus on the Family, Today’s Christian, Journey, Pray!, ParentLife, and CBN.com. Thirteen of her stories have appeared in anthologies, including Chicken Soup for the Soul and Cup of Comfort. Crump serves as conference faculty for American Christian Writers, Kentucky Christian Writers, and Southeast Christian Writers and moderates an online critique group. She is a 2008 C.L.A.S.S. graduate and was named 2009 Writer of the Year at the Memphis ACW Conference.