on writing

CNF Writers Are a Bunch of Dirty Liars (If They’re Doing it Right)

lying writers The current news cycle folds over upon itself like a Möbius strip: a news cycle about the news. One Brian Williams, who played the role of Suity McHaircut on the popular sitcom The NBC Nightly News, is in the soup for stretching the details of a story.

You probably know the story: Williams claimed that he was a passenger in a military helicopter forced down by enemy fire during Iraq War 2: Electric Boogaloo, and while a helicopter took some damage that day, it wasn’t the helicopter carrying Williams. When the shit hit the rotor blades, Williams went on a brief “sorry I misremembered” tour before promising to go away for a few months while our short attention spans move on to Bruce Jenner’s private life or Kim Kardashian’s Ass News of the Week.

I don’t know what happened in the Brian Williams case, whether an NBC Nightly News writer stuck a “factual error” into his teleprompter that night or he’s a goddammed dirty liar, but I’m willing to speculate for my own selfish purposes. For the sake of conversation, let’s explore a third possibility: Brian Williams told a fish story.

Perhaps what occurred is that many years ago Bri-Bri caught himself six inches of bluegill, and over a decade of repeating the story that little guy became six feet of blue marlin. Each of us has that one relative who tells the same story at every gathering, and nobody seems to tire of it because each telling is new. Uncle Bert adds details, embellishes, invents dialogue, moves the inflection around, adds characters, removes characters, sinks the boat, triggers a massive thunderstorm, and introduces the voice of God. Brian Williams is a storyteller–why not assume he’s capable of the same?

The rub is that while Williams may be an engaging storyteller he is by profession a newsman, and journalistic integrity depends upon truth, upon events being reported as they actually happened. Uncle Bert doesn’t suffer such scrutiny because he is just a silly drunk at the family reunion with a little bit of ambrosia salad clinging to the corner of his mouth.

What style of writing you’re doing decides whether you get to be an Uncle Bert or a Suity McHaircut. Non-fiction is the realm of real world, evidence-based facts, while in fiction the characters and story reign supreme. In the overlapping space connecting these two rests my favorite genre, creative non-fiction, or CNF.

Creative non-fiction blends the best of fiction and non-fiction. Where non-fiction’s emphasis is hard truths, CNF concerns itself with emotional truth. Like a fiction author, the CNF writer enjoys the freedom to compress time, assemble characters from real people like human Legos, shift the point of view around, and generally tell Uncle Bert-sized fish tales, provided there’s an actual fish to tell a story about. A creative non-fiction author is free to focus on the thrill of catching that bluegill rather than dwelling on the details of the fish.

We walk a very fine line, though. No self-respecting CNF writer would launch a missile into his helicopter if no such assault ever occurred. That would be too big of a whopper, and such things violate the unwritten contract between CNF writer and reader: I promise to tell you a good story that may be a little polished for entertainment purposes, but I won’t flat out lie to you. Once that trust has been violated, readers have every right to reject your work.

And so a CNF writer may have his Chinook shudder when the trailing aircraft is hit, or have a crew member shout, “Number two has been hit! We’re toast, man!” Whether such a declaration actually occurred doesn’t materially change the facts, and from a storytelling point of view it puts the reader in the middle of the chaos. Remember: The author’s job here is emotional truth. He or she wants the reader to feel the fear, chaos, and anxiety of the moment. Inventing a piece of business where a toolbox slides out of the open cargo hatch conveys much better the attitude of the aircraft than does “our helicopter tilted when Number 2 exploded.”

So what’s a CNF writer to do if he or she really wants to be on the helicopter that took fire? Well, we have to move out of the space where fiction and non-fiction overlap. One option is to write a straight non-fiction piece detailing what happened on Number 2. There’s plenty of room for story here: One can include eyewitness accounts, details of the attack, socio-political background, all of that colorful stuff. Another option is to write a work of fiction using the actual event as an armature: Invent a battle, characters, the whole bit. Go ahead and fire upon your new protagonist; after all, he’s yours.

You have permission as a CNF author to invent dialogue, turn three girlfriends into one Optimus Prime representing three girlfriends, change the weather, leave out irrelevant details–the same sorts of things you would do while writing fiction–but you have a duty to keep the important stuff intact. Your mandate isn’t as strict as that of a journalist–everybody knows writers are a bunch of Uncle Bert-style dirty liars, after all–but you can’t kill Hitler, travel to Mars, or Forrest Gump your way through American history and still call your work creative non-fiction.

If you’re writing CNF, go ahead and lie to tell the emotional truth, but please do it honestly.

photo public domain / Wikimedia Commons

Categories: on writing

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