Genre Jumping: Writing Both Nonfiction and Fiction
I write both fiction and nonfiction, and with the latter I have an admitted preference for narrative. No matter the genre, then, I see myself as a storyteller. I like to tell stories, and sometimes I like to tell them about invented characters, and sometimes I like to tell them about real people.
When I have material that I believe is important to announce and claim as my own—and that’s usually because there’s something I need to explore about myself and my experience, something I need to investigate that only the particulars of my own world will make possible—I turn to nonfiction.
Most of the stories in my first book, The Least You Need to Know, were about fathers and sons in difficult relationships, and those stories were satisfying to me for what I was able to do with structure, character, and dramatic irony. The intersection of imagination and experience allowed me to do with my real-life material what I wouldn’t have been able to do in nonfiction. I was able to stylize the material in a way that, because I was free from the strictures of what really happened, deepened character, complicated situation, and more aesthetically shaped the dramatic potential that first brought me to the page. Working from autobiography to fiction also allowed me to trick myself into writing about personal experience. Because I was free to hide behind the scrim of invented characters and situations, no matter how closely aligned with myself and my history, I was also more willing to come to dramatic truths that were important to the stories and also important to me.
But I’m not sure that I was aware of the latter while I was writing these stories. Fiction brings me to truths that are personally relevant, but it doesn’t bring me to the same sort of truths that my work in nonfiction does. In that genre—and my work there began with my second book, my memoir, From Our House—I’m hoping for a different truth from the narratives. In that book, which directly took on the autobiographical material that had informed so much of my fiction, I was still interested in structure, character, and dramatic irony, but because I was dealing with factual material I couldn’t freely arrange episodes, create dimensions of characters that didn’t exist in the real people about whom I was writing, or engineer ironies that never occurred. I could still shape, but I couldn’t invent. Imagination was less at play, but I could still use the tools of fiction to claim my own experience, to face it directly, and, in shaping it, to question, to explore, and finally to discover truths that were personally significant.
Perhaps there’s an honesty and integrity in this kind of work that holds the writer close to the bone. Perhaps aesthetic restraints open the writer more to the act of discovery, though I believe that when the fiction writer is working to the best of his or her ability, the same thing happens. To dissolve some of the boundaries between the two genres, I recently came up with a writing activity that encourages lying in nonfiction:
- Open a piece of cnf by telling a lie about yourself. Don’t stop to think. Just go with the first thing that comes to you. Be as outrageous as you’d like.
2. Admit the lie, using this prompt: “That’s not true at all. The truth is. . .”
3. Embrace the lie, using this prompt: “Oh, but how I wish it were true, for if it were. . .”
4. Let the lie bring material to the surface that you might be hesitant to explore otherwise by using this prompt: “Why would I spin a lie like that? When I think of that lie, I also think of. . .”
The objective is to let fiction provide a doorway into truths about your life that you might not otherwise notice. A blend of fiction and nonfiction can sometimes open our material to us in profound ways.
Thank you for that. I like that approach and definitely going to try it out.
Thanks for the comment, Norah. I hope the writing exercise works out for you.
Lee, thank you so much for another great prompt! I use yours all the time (along with From Our House and Such a Life as texts) and they are solid gold.
Hi, Richard! Thanks so much for the good words. I hope this is a particularly fruitful time for you right now.
Thanks for this post, Lee. I love this prompt. Well, I love all your prompts, but especially this one. It reminds me a bit of your ““I can’t tell you. . . . but instead, let me tell you about. . . .” prompt from a couple of months ago, which I have used often. There is something about these opposing statements/ questions that forces us to explore the subject from all sides. The meat, as it were.
Hi, Sarah. Any old prompt like this will do to get us to look at something from all sides so we can see as completely as we can. I believe that writers can work on improving their field of vision so they can see what’s contained in a situation or a character that might otherwise go unnoticed. All best to you!
Lee, Thanks so much for keeping up this wonderful blog and for this prompt. It helped me to get to something I hadn’t seen even though the “lie” had nothing to do with what I’m working on. I was introduced to Such a Life and From Our House, both of which I love, by my instructor in Iowa last summer, Sandra Scofield. Many thanks for your work.
Hi, Susan! Thanks so much for reading my blog and for taking the time to leave a comment. In all honesty, it gets a bit challenging to come up with different posts from week to week, so it’s always encouraging to hear that something I’ve said has been of use to a writer. We’re all in this together! Thanks for the kind words about FOH and SAL. I hope you’ll come back to the blog and keep engaging in the conversation. All best wishes for you and your work.
I’m writing a truthful fiction memoir. That is, to make a more coherent story, to create an arc that makes sense, to protect the guilty, the innocent and the private from exposure and the author from lawsuits… it’s fiction. But everything happened. Every conversation, every act and every person is real.
I decided on this approach after studying “Fear Of Flying.” It’s fiction but universally recognized as based on real events and, more important, recognized for attaining “truth,” which is not the same as true.
My goal is to use the craft of fiction to tell good stories and reach universal truth and also to let the reader know it’s real, it’s my “true” and “truth.”
Hi, Jean. Thanks so much for your comment. Your goal of using the craft of fiction to create a good narrative, one that will help you explore your material, is a good one.