Because I was, and am, adamant that my memoir of smallpox and Africa will be as true as I believe possible, the title You Can’t Make This Stuff Up made me grab this book off the shelf.
The author, Lee Gutkind, widely regarded as the father of creative nonfiction, is also founder and editor of a quarterly literary journal, “Creative Nonfiction.” He defines the genre as true stories-well told.
I flagged passages right and left, in both his book and his quarterly. He emphasized that the stories have to be true, and he guided me in all that that meant. (See my discussion of how I used dialogue – November 2 post.)
Today’s post continues with a few of the other complex challenges facing memoirists.
How Did that Make You Feel?
Sensory details of a scene and remembered conversations, Gutkind says, even though no writer can exactly remember them, can be recreated to capture the essence of what happened to the best of the writer’s ability. And these details actually give the scene greater authenticity.
I often pull up one of my photos of our Africa days and contemplate it for a while, putting myself back into that moment to the extent possible across the decades. Film is even more evocative of memories.
I try to remember details of sight, sound and smell. What did the air, or my clothing, or the ground feel like in that place?
What were my emotions? Or what would they have been given the specifics that I do recall or that I wrote in letters home? Any physical reactions? Would I have wrinkled my nose? had a startled expression? held my breath?
I Gotta Be True
Gutkind says that creative nonfiction uses literary craft, techniques used in fiction, with a goal, “to make nonfiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy. But the stories are true.”
Literary techniques must still work within the realm of the truth as closely as the writer can remember or confirm it. Willful fabrication? Do not do it!
My Testimony in My Africa Story
Of course, just as in eyewitness testimony in court, two writers have different perceptions and memories of the same incident. So their stories will not be the same, even when each tells what she saw and remembers as the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.
If my husband were still alive to write about our joint Africa experience, his perspective and mine would differ.
Don’t Tell Everything You Know
Further, two accounts of the same events may have entirely different slants (think politics) because each writer has to decide which parts of a story to include and which to leave out. I have not included every story or every character that was part of our two years in Africa.
After all, did my reader sign on for a thousand-page account of every detail of my remembered experience? Not likely.
Some writers have taken the liberty to create composite characters from two or more real people.
But Vaccines & Bayonets is not a BOTS – “Based on a true story.” It is a true story. A true story of my life in Africa. And no individual character in my memoir is a “based-on” character.
Descriptions of each character, and any conversations with each one, are reported the way I remember my interactions with that person, or as confirmed in my archives. My only use of combined characteristics is in a crowd or background of a scene where my memory is an overall impression of the crowd. I state this in my preface.
Should I Use Real Names?
Much has been written about this issue for creative nonfiction. Sometimes it’s desirable, or even critical, to change names for the sake of privacy or safety. When the writer chooses to do this she is obligated to reveal that fact in a preface or author’s note, or to show it clearly in the text.
Almost all characters from our Africa years are called by their real names in my book. The only exceptions are the Equatorial Guineans who worked for us. I have changed their names in order to protect any who may have survived “the Terror” and to protect their families. I explain this to the reader in the preface.
Sanwal Deen on Unsplash
To Tell the Truth
For Vaccines & Bayonets I had to do a lot of digging. Research is just part of the deal in nonfiction writing. Of course I dug through my drawers of letters, official documents, cassette tape letters and film. When I first started writing I thought that my research would need to go no further than these.
Outside sources were invaluable. They corroborated my own archives. (That delighted me.) In addition, I was sometimes surprised to find “the rest of the story” of an event I had lived through.
More enlightening still was the discovery of the much larger context of international intrigue, a context that I had known nothing about. Even the hints that were there meant nothing at the time to this naive small-town girl.
Some of Gutkind’s Truth-telling Touchstones
–“It’s the responsibility of the nonfiction writer to confirm every fact that can be confirmed.”
–“Some things can only be confirmed by memory and perception but still should be as accurate as you remember.”
–“Making stuff up, no matter how minor or unimportant…endangers the bond between writer and reader.”
But wait! There’s more!
In fact, there’s much, much more. This book lives up to its subtitle: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between.
Smallpox Taking Center Stage in Next Post
The purpose of my blog is to share news about my upcoming historical memoir, Vaccines & Bayonets, and related topics. So far, by popular request, my posts have been on why and how I wrote the book.
It’s time to move on and talk about the content.
Why did I live the African experience revealed in Vaccines & Bayonets? Why did we move to Africa? One reason.
I’m no disease expert. My husband, not I, helped eradicate smallpox. But I hope you’ll learn something about the disease and its history that you didn’t know before.
Thanks for stopping by. I’ll see you next time.