Truth in Nonfiction

I wanted to continue discussing truth in writing because I find it a very interesting topic and think there are so many opinions and ideas about it that the conversation could be endless. While I consider myself a poetry and fiction writer and very rarely venture into nonfiction essays, I find truth in nonfiction the most fascinating and slippery of slopes.

Nonfiction by its definition is supposed to be the truth. It is based on true events about real people doing real things. At least that’s how I was always taught in grade school at least. Non-fiction is true (aka boring to my 10-year old brain) and fiction was make-believe. That was something I could count on, and could follow through the library.

It wasn’t until I was put into a nonfiction/poetry combined class (against my will I might add) that I really started to see the complexities of nonfiction and that it wasn’t just boring essays.

I started reading my classmate’s nonfiction essays, started hearing them describe essays they were reading, how they twisted the truth to fit into what they were doing. It was about keeping to the emotional truth rather than the actual truth. Who cares if there is video of him running through the roses without a scratch on him. If he felt like he was being torn to fluttering ribbons of skin who am I to contradict it?

Non-fiction is such a personal place, it does invite the reader into the speaker’s life and promises to tell the truth. What happens when that trust is breached?

I’m not saying that instances where ‘diaries’ have been published as ‘true life accounts from a drug addicted teen’ and then discovered to be liars are good necessarily. There needs to be a truth still there, more than in fiction and poetry, I feel non-fiction promises a shred of truth. What do you think?

On Monday I put up a snippet (snippet is one of my favorite words by the way) of a non-fiction essay I have been working on about a visit I took to the museum of Erotic Art in Paris. Did that woman’s statue really come to life and talk to me? No. Did it feel like it? Maybe.

What is the line between telling the truth and telling it slant? When does it become a lie in nonfiction especially. If you can twist and bend the truth to make your whim then what is the difference between fiction and nonfiction? What do you think?



  1. I think there’s a commonality between fiction and non-fiction as far as ‘artistic license’ is concerned.

    Every story benefits from being well-told. The most blasé event can be told interestingly, true or not. Obversely, the most intriguing story can be derailed with dull descriptions.

    I think of it as a balancing act between Fiction and Truth.

    We enhance Truth with a bit of Fiction, like adding a bit of spice for flavor to make it more interesting and tasty.

    Likewise, we add a bit of Truth to Fiction, enhancing it and giving it emotional depth and believability.

    Now, let’s go visit that erotic museum together! 😉 LOL!

    • Judy Black Said:

      Lol, the erotic art museum was one of the most interesting museums I visited in Paris. The top floor was horrifying, I still have nightmares about it.

      I agree with adding a little truth and a little fiction to everything we do, it keeps things interesting.

  2. Laura Said:

    Nonfiction is story-telling just as much as fiction is. You’re just telling a story that actually happened. But at the same time, nonfiction is more than a list of dates and facts—if that’s all it is, it’s just a timeline. “Narrative nonfiction,” a description I really like, is making that timeline into a story. 🙂 Sometimes nonfiction is easier to write than fiction b/c you don’t have to worry about making the “plot” “believable.”

    • Judy Black Said:

      True, but with nonfiction it still turns into something unbelievable with that whole ‘truth is stranger than fiction.’ Sometimes I think people expect more from nonfiction, but I do agree that it can be easier because you already have the story, you know what happens.

  3. randallweiss Said:

    I think you bring up a good point about talking about how we feel when writing nonfiction. Bad nonfiction is just a summary of events, but exploring those events with more depth makes it better.
    Another interesting thing about nonfiction is perspective. Many writers deny that their views have bias. We all see the world through a certain lens and that comes out in how we talk about our experiences.

    • Judy Black Said:

      Bias is a huge part of nonfiction. It’s very much like police and eye witnesses, each person that saw the event saw it differently. There is no 100% true version exists.

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