An obligation to your readers and an obligation to yourself, that’s how Philip Gerard put his feelings about writing truth in creative nonfiction as part of a panel on the subject yesterday. His argument swayed me to take a position, a position I wasn’t quite ready to take on Monday when I wrote about this topic.
Here’s what he and Rebecca Skloot and others on the panel argued. That because a story is labelled as true (by publishers and bookstores), and because the weight of that statement is heavy and does a great deal of work in convincing a reader to pick up our book, we have a responsibility to be sure we honor that label, like it or not.
Gerard also argued that not only to be have that obligation to our readers but also to ourselves as artists. We have to write what is factual and true because we need to honor our artistic integrity and do the hard work. I found this quite persuasive.
But the point that pushed me fully to this position that we can’t create “facts” to further the art of the story was when Gerard discussed how the Daughters of the Confederacy had worked on the facts of the Civil War to paint a glorified picture of slavery and the cause of the South, just through their adjustment of some key details, and how that “adjustment” has left a legacy of misinformation and dishonesty in the fabric of the South’s history. Since I run up against that argument every day – “The War was about States’ rights” or “Slaves didn’t have it so bad – if they did, why did so many of them stay on the plantations after the War?” – I was struck dead in my chest with how crucial it is for creative nonfiction writers to stay entirely attached to the facts of the story.
So while I never had any intention of doing anything but that with my book, I am even more fervently committed to the need to be diligent about research, representation and fact-checking in all my writing. I feel good about that.
What do you think the changing of facts or the creation of facts does to reader trust, author integrity, and historical legacy? How does that affect how you think about creative nonfiction?