January 8, 2016

One advantage of being a veteran writer is this experience: You will receive a message from a reader who has just read something you wrote long ago. Sometimes it is to correct your spelling or grammar. But, most of the time, the reader liked it or learned something from it and has reached out to let you know.

That rush I get now and then from a single reader was multiplied recently by the news from the journal Creative Nonfiction that an essay of mine ranked #3 among the most read pieces on their website for 2015. What made this news amazing and delightful is that the essay was first published in 2001.

Most of the top essays were of more recent vintage. Number 1 was a delightful, well-illustrated essay by Tim Bascom titled “Picturing the Personal Essay: A Visual Guide.” To help us remember the structural requirements of the personal essay, he turns them into spirals, staircases, and funky circles. It’s the kind of essay – useful and interesting – that a writer would pass on to a friend.

My essay, #3 on the list, had considerably more gravitas, as revealed in its title: “The Line Between Fact and Fiction.” I wrote the essay in the year 2000 based on research I did at the Poynter Institute with Tom Rosentstiel, and in response to an invitation from the editor of Creative Nonfiction, Lee Gutkind.

The arguments over the standards and practices of memoir and the personal essay can be as passionate as the infighting at a Republican Party presidential primary debate. Some writers, teachers, and critics think it is in bounds to make things up. Others cry foul. It can get very nasty.

Vivian Gornick, who writes memoirs and writes about memoirs, has long been associated with the loose standards camp. Years ago, she was a speaker at a Goucher College summer workshop in which she discussed some of the liberties she took in the creation of certain scenes involving conversations with her mother. Two rigorous journalists were there – Walt Harrington and Tom French – and challenged Gornick’s standards for nonfiction.

In a recent interview with The Believer magazine, Gornick admitted that in order to turn memories into interesting stories she includes things that did not happen: “I lie. I mean, essentially – others would think I’m lying. But you understand. It’s irresistible to tell the story. And I don’t owe anybody the actuality. What is the actuality? I mean, whose business is it?”

In a new book The Art of the Memoir, a well-known practitioner of the form, Mary Karr, quotes Gornick and then takes her to task:

“Well if I forked over a cover price for nonfiction, I consider it my business,” she writes. “While it’s great she owned up to her deceits, it’s hard to lend credence to any after-the-fact confession, especially one as vague or self-justifying as this one. It’s as if after lunch the deli guy quipped, ‘I put just a teaspoon of catshit in your sandwich, but you didn’t notice it at all.’ To my mind, a small bit of catshit equals a catshit sandwich, unless I know where the catshit is and can eat around it.”

Let me say for the record, that I would trade the thousands and thousands of words I’ve written on the line between fact and fiction for the honor of having written that last sentence. It trumps (how strange it is to use that word these days) a dozen manifestos on the implied contract between the reader and the writer.

My essay in Creative Nonfiction endorses two overarching standards for work that claims to be nonfiction: Do not add. Do not deceive.

Here’s how they work:

Do not add: This means that writers of nonfiction should not add to a report things that did not happen. To make news clear and comprehensible, it is often necessary to subtract or condense. Done without care or responsibility, even such subtraction can distort. We cross a more definite line into fiction, however when we invent or add facts or images or sounds that were not there.

Do not deceive: This means that journalists should never mislead the public in reproducing events. The implied contract of all nonfiction is binding: the way it is represented here is, to the best of our knowledge, the way it happened. Anything that intentionally or unintentionally fools the audience violates that contract and the core purpose of journalism – to get at the truth. Thus, any exception to the implied contract – even a work of humor or satire – should be transparent or disclosed.

If those standards seem pedantic – stuff delivered to creative people by the nerdy hall monitor – replace them and take a nice big bite of Mary Karr’s metaphorical sandwich.

In the original issue of Creative Nonfiction in which my essay was published – Number 16, 2001 – editor Lee Gutkind wrote in an introduction: “The issue Roy Peter Clark deals with in our lead essay – the line between fact and fiction – has been given increasing attention. Clark’s comments set a standard that we wish writers would follow when they submit to our journal or to any other legitimate and serious publication.”   That is a generous endorsement, one that has helped keep the essay viable for his readers for fifteen years.

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Roy Peter Clark has taught writing at Poynter to students of all ages since 1979. He has served the Institute as its first full-time faculty…
Roy Peter Clark

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