Lessons from the Writing Workshop #16 — A Continuum from the Imagined to the Real

Some people talk about fiction and creative nonfiction as if those were different and separate categories, the former encompassing works of pure imagination, the latter the whole truth and nothing but.

I don’t find this construct to be that useful. I view writing that is primarily invented and writing that is primarily drawn from lived experience as existing, not as polar opposites, but on a continuum. Something that is entirely invented and does not in some way reference familiar life would be almost impossible to write and likely disorienting to read. Something that is utterly documentary and includes no element of imagination would not seem like a story at all.

We might be making up a story, but set it in a real place and time period. Belinda Vidaurri’s novel is set in Paris in 1968 and on the island of New Caledonia in 1988. Even though the characters are invented, she’s had to research those times and places to make sure she is describing them accurately. When Matt Knight was working on a speculative thriller about genetic engineering, he had to draw from existing real science in order to project where the technology would be in the near future. A writer might invent a character, but endow her with the qualities or habits of his favorite aunt. The fiction writer is always investing their imaginative work with true elements.

Dawn Akemi uses the tension between real and imagined as the premise for her novel set in Hawaii, where she grew up. Part of the story reflects realism, but she is also weaving in myths from traditional culture to give her protagonist entrée into a fantastical spirit world, parallel to the human world.

It’s no different for those who start from lived experience. Kathleen Brady is writing a novel that is primarily drawn from an experience she had when she was younger; she went to study the Chinese language in Beijing and fell in love. But life doesn’t always follow the dictates of plot. In order to shape the meaning of the story, she’s found she has to alter some details, heighten conflicts, accentuate some events and leave out others altogether. She now sees her work as fiction.

Angela Brinskele started her book as a work of non-fiction, but found the material was “too close” and hard to write. When she began adding elements of fiction, she found it much easier to tell the story, because she felt she had more distance, and therefore more control of the material.

Sometimes we want to tell a story from our lives, but don’t want to expose our friends and family to readers’ scrutiny. This is the case with Pat Alderete, who has shaped stories of her growing up in East L.A. into a form she calls “Authentic Fiction.”

When I sat down to write Embers, a novel in poems based on the life of my grandmother, she was already deceased, as were her children. There was no way to verify details about her life, and she was known to have lied about some of those details. I had to speculate about some things, and therefore called it fiction.

When we write memoir, we may not remember every detail. Do we recall the exact words someone said, or just the feeling they conveyed? Do we remember the color of the drapes? And does it matter?

There’s been a lot of controversy over the veracity of memoir, based on a few authors blatantly making up stuff that was not remotely like their lives but calling it memoir because they thought it would sell better. This breaking of trust with the reader has resulted in a kind of fundamentalism that asserts that everything in a memoir has to be 100% “true.”

Wendy Fontaine, a journalist I worked with in the Antioch University MFA program, conducted research into brain science and discovered that memory is never 100% accurate, because every time we recall a memory, it changes. Memoir is not documentary; the term “creative nonfiction” implies that some degree of selection and emphasis, as well as imagination, is at work. Yes, memoirists have to keep faith with readers that the experiences we are asking them to invest in emotionally are true, but readers need to understand that we are presenting an interpretation of those experiences.

What we are ultimately after is emotional truth, the careful rendering of experience in a way that resonates with our readers and helps reflect their own lives and feelings. It is often said, the facts are not the truth. Whether we start in invention or draw from lived experience, whether our characters are from the future or the past, it is the emotional veracity that readers seek. It’s what keeps them reading.


Text by Terry Wolverton
Photo by Yvonne M. Estrada

Thinking about joining a writing workshop? Writers At Work offers weekly, ongoing opportunities for writers of fiction, poetry and creative nonfiction, as well as creative counseling and manuscript review. Learn more at http://writersatwork.com/education.html. In 2017, we’re celebrating our 20th anniversary of inspiring, encouraging and empowering writers.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s