What is creative nonfiction? Lee Gutkind, editor of Creative Nonfiction magazine, sums it up best: “This is perhaps creative nonfiction’s greatest asset: It offers flexibility and freedom while adhering to the basic tenets of reportage. In creative nonfiction, writers can be poetic and journalistic simultaneously.”
Creative nonfiction is a genre that holds great creative possibilities. It involves the use of factual events or characters to create dramatic nonfiction using techniques such as dialogue, scenery, and point of view.
It combines the fact-finding of journalism with the literary techniques of the fiction writer to create a dramatic story that just happens to be true. This is also called literary journalism, and, like journalism, it is a genre based on truth.
Suppose an author has written her memoir under the guise of creative nonfiction, but she has spiced things up with a near-death experience and perhaps a rape scene—things that never actually happened in her life. Ethically, this author must redefine her piece as fiction. The basic facts must be true in creative nonfiction.
If the same author wrote a biography about her great-grandfather, she has some license to fill in the blanks, as long as it doesn’t affect the outcome of the story. She most likely doesn’t know what her great-grandfather’s farmhouse looked like on the inside or what he liked in his coffee—ethically, the author has the right to create dialogue and other “facts” that make up the creative element of creative nonfiction. Some authors use disclaimers to make sure their readers don’t feel duped if names or minor details are changed.
Learn more about short prose genres, including mixed genre writing.
Readers must assume that they are reading a biased interpretation of events as they view them through the author’s eyes. The basic facts are there, but the author is reporting his or her own version of those facts. The implied pact between writer and reader is this: I am telling you the truth, but the truth as it is filtered through my eyes.
While the people and places mentioned in creative nonfiction pieces are still around, writers often change the names of characters in their work to avoid conflict. As long as it doesn’t impact the story, changing Linda, the waitress at the Burger Barn, to Cynthia from the Hamburger Hut might save Linda some awkwardness.
And if you’ve fudged the facts about her, changing Linda’s name just might save you from a lawsuit, but there is no guarantee. Linda can still sue you for defamation if she is obviously defamed, regardless of the name you give her in the book. Changing a person’s name is not a guarantee of protection, but it might help.
Other ways to stay out of trouble:
Stick to the truth. In a defamation of character suit, an offending statement must be false for a plaintiff to prevail against you or your publisher. Untrue facts that negatively affect a person’s reputation or credibility are considered defamatory.
Be careful not to report facts that may cause damage to another person’s physical being or business. Revealing that Johnny from the bank is actually a mob snitch, even when the facts are true enough, can lead to physical harm to Johnny and legal hot water for you. And be prepared for an invasion of privacy lawsuit if you are exposing embarrassing or private facts about a person, even if they are truthful.
Protect yourself by getting written permission from people you wish to write about. And if they are no longer living, make sure you aren’t setting yourself up for a lawsuit from their family. (Obviously, you are fairly safe in writing about people who died long ago.) If the person is a public figure whose actions or background are a matter of public record, then you do not need permission, but be judicious about the facts you report.
Senator Mucky-Muck may have an obsession with women’s feet, but leave his foot fetish out of your story, especially if it’s merely something you’ve thrown in to add some excitement to your story.
This article is for informational purposes only. For expert legal advice about your own publishing questions, always consult an attorney.
At Writer’s Relief, we work with writers of personal essays and memoirs. If you’ve got a true story but don’t know where to submit it, Writer’s Relief can help.