Attacking the Truth – The Art of Creative Nonfiction

I love writing creative nonfiction – that is, using the tools and techniques of fiction to discover truth. I love the creative nonfiction of writers like Tom Wolfe, Gay Talese, and Richard Selzer. I’ve had a few essays published in major venues and one book, a memoir, in the catalog of The University of Iowa Press, and I write a bit every day.

One thing I think about as I write is “truth.” And if you intend to follow the trail of creative nonfiction, you’ll also be challenged by the concept of what is true and what is not. Too many casual readers think the word “creative” gives a writer license to make up things to enhance a creative nonfiction piece. That’s not true.

For example, in my memoir, Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio, there are snatches of dialog. Granted, no one can remember conversations which occurred decades in the past, but a good writer tries to relay “the truth” of a conversation. A good writer might even consult the other person involved to assess the accuracy of memory.

Recently, in the midst of reviewing Where Did I Leave My Glasses? for The Internet Review of Books, I stumbled upon a neurological star chart which might be useful for writers exploring the edge of the universe between truth and reality. Here is a sample:

” … computer remembers all or nothing. No in-between. Whereas the brain is filled with in-between. Think of it this way: What you put into the computer is an abstraction of your experience. Retrieve it, and it’s unchanged. What you remember is an abstraction of that experience, then a reconstruction of the abstraction, then a reconstruction of the reconstruction of the abstraction, and so on and on and on—every time you retrieve it. And of course, the more time that passes, the truer this becomes.”

I think regularly about the muddy mixture of objective fact and subjective truth. While I know a writer has the obligation to quote correctly and describe accurately, I also know that when we set out to explore the swamp of self, we often get tangled up in the jungle of emotions. It takes courage and a measure of humility to ask ourselves to tell our readers what we know, or think we know.

Lear tackled the subject of memory, and its accuracy, by consulting scientists, and she finally came to the conclusion our writing comes from the place where memory lives, which in Lear’s description is “palimpsest,” a tablet of layered text, each preceding layer imperfectly erased. Lear’s work reinforces both my skepticism and my faith that there is an “objective” truth, but it may not be completely accurate. We should be prepared – without lying – to search for our own truths.

And, in truth, the more I think about it, the more I have moved away from the idea of “truths” to the point where I believe that “truths” are merely opinions about truths.

Gary Presley‘s <> work has appeared in Brevity,, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and assorted other venues. His book (Seven Wheelchairs: A Life beyond Polio) is available from The University of Iowa Press and online retailers.