My mother was one of the most significant adults in my childhood, as mothers are for many people. Yet when I tried to write about her, my writing fell flat. I was unable to capture her complexity or the complexity of my feelings for her, and she came across as annoying and the narrator (me) as annoyed.

I was a graduate student at the time, and my advisor recommended I read Edward Albee’s Three Tall Women. In this play, the three female characters are a mother at different stages of her life – as a self-assured 26-year-old, a begrudging 52-year-old, and a cantankerous 90-year-old that her 52-year-old self takes care of. The selves converse, bicker, and generally disagree. The brilliant dialogue in this “imagined” situation – “imagined” in the sense that three versions of the self conversing is a fictional conceit – nudged open a door that helped me access a more complex picture of my mother.

Imagining is different from “perhapsing,” where the writer whose memory is hazy or who is writing about events she or he did not witness, speculates as to what might have occurred. With imagining, the nonfiction writer explores that which never actually happened.

After reading Albee’s play, I began to write conversations I wished I’d had, but never had, with my overbearing mother when she was alive. Ironically, in these fictional conversations I was able to capture my mother’s real-life complexity – her wishes, regrets, and frustrations. In one conversation she talks to me about her contentious relationship with my brother, a painful topic she and I never discussed:

“He’d tap his foot. I couldn’t get him to stop. I’d say, ‘Sit still for God’s sake,’ and he’d say, ‘Give me some meat.’ I’d tell him, ‘Please pass the meat’ and he’d reach across the table and grab a piece. I’d say, ‘Hold the fork in your right hand, not the left,’ so he’d hold tight with his left until his knuckles turned white . . . ‘Calm down’ your father would say. But I couldn’t calm down. I wasn’t Mrs. Perfect.”

If, as Philip Lopate says, a goal of creative nonfiction is “to get to the bottom of the matter at hand,” then using fiction within nonfiction is a tool the CNF writer can use to inch (or even stride) toward that goal.

 Using Imagining to Express Unexpressed Emotion

The fight-that-never-happened materializes in Janet Burroway’s Embalming Mom,” an essay constructed of fictitious scenes and conversations in the non-fictitious setting of Burroway’s childhood Arizona home. The opening sentence sets the conceit that will drive the essay: “Apparently I want to put you in a story,” the 45-year-old narrator whose marriage has just fallen apart tells her 35-year-old mother. Since one’s 45-year-old self cannot speak with one’s 35-year-old mother, it is clear the interactions and conversations in “Embalming Mom” are imagined.

The mother is a prototypical 1950s housewife, obsessed with housewife tasks like ironing and sewing, but who is emotionally disengaged. In one imagined scene, suppressed anger that may have been difficult, if not impossible, to express during childhood erupts on the page:

So it turns out to be me who says brightly, “Okay, why don’t I do you up as ‘The Most Unforgettable Character I’ve Met’?”

To which, against my will, try as I might, she [the mother] replies, “Why me? Hah, hah, there are plenty of fish in the sea.”

“No!” I slam the bowl down dangerously, but it doesn’t break. How could it, when it houses the goldfish next to the calendar on the windowsill? Dangerously shrill, I say, “That’s exactly what I don’t want you to say!”

In another fictitious interaction, Burroway provokes her cliché-ridden mother into a verbal confrontation that exposes the tension that lay beneath the surface pleasantries of Burroway’s childhood:

“Mama, look at me.”

“Sissy, let me tell you, there are so many people in the world worse off than we are.”

“Oh Jesus, Mama, the starving in China and the man who had no feet.”

“Don’t take the name of the Lord in vain.”

“It’s the way I talk for God’s sake.”

“No child of mine ever talked that way!”

“Don’t be an ass, Mama, it’s only words.”

“I’ll wash your mouth out for you!”

“Will you, will you?”

“It kills me to hear you that way.”

“Does it? Then let me give you something to wash out of my mouth.  Daddy’s remarried. He’s married again.”

Her eyes have been fluttering and slit, but now they open. I have got her now . . . “There are plenty of fish in the sea, haw, haw,” I say.

She says, eyes averted, “Your daddy gets sweeter every day.”

The sharp dialogue in this imagined conversation captures the tension between the prim mother and sassy daughter, and the sad fact that the mother, despite confrontation, will not engage. In the mother’s heartbreaking response to her daughter’s fury lies the honey-coated reality the mother clung to throughout her life.

These imagined scenes convey with great believability the mother’s vacuity, the daughter’s anger and frustration, and their interpersonal dynamic.

Using a Fictitious Self to Explore Self

In An Argument for the Existence of Free Will and/or Pat Boone’s Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame,” Sue William Silverman assumes the fictitious persona of GIRL-REPORTER who teams up with Clark Kent and Lois Lane at the Daily Planet. The three are tasked with uncovering why Pat Boone, Silverman’s childhood idol and wished-for father substitute, will not, in 2014, be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Assuming a fictitious persona enabled Silverman to explore aspects of Pat Boone that her younger self did not know, or care to know, existed when she was a teenager and Pat Boone was, for her, a symbol of purity:

“Would you care to comment on the future Rock and Roll of Fame induction snub that’s going to piss you off in a couple of decades or so?”

“Well, I would never say the word ‘piss’ in front of a girl. But you better believe it.”

SUE NOT-PULLING-ANY-PUNCHES GIRL REPORTER asks, “How would you respond to this statement: African-American musicians feel as if you ripped off their music with your hits such as ‘Tutti Frutti’ and ‘Ain’t That a Shame’?”

Using a fictional conceit enabled Silverman to gain perspective on her younger self’s attachment to her childhood idol in light of more current events, like his support of certain right- wing politicos and his “ripping off” African-American musicians, sensitive topics that imagining allowed her to address with humor rather than moralism.

Using Fiction to Convey Confusion, Multiple Realities, Mental Breakdown

An effective way of saying “I felt crazy” is one reason Nick Flynn inserted a fictional play into his memoir Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. Flynn’s father abandoned Flynn when he was a toddler. The delusional father reenters his son’s life when Flynn, age 27, is working as a caseworker at a shelter where his father, drunk and homeless, seeks refuge. The father conflates fact and fiction, bragging about exploits that may or may not have happened, including a novel he claims to have written. The father’s reappearance in this odd and improbable way is disjunctive and frightening for Flynn, who fears becoming a replica of his father.

Flynn conveys his escalating distress and confusion in a passage that precedes the play, in which reality morphs into fiction, as it did for Flynn at the time:

Each night, like another night in a long-running play. I wander the empty streets, check every sprawled man until I find him, tension built into each blanket.  Each has has a role – one will be the lunatic king, one will be the fool. One will offer dire warnings, one will plot against us, one will try to help us. I am forced to play the son . . . The stage is done up like the outdoor space of an anonymous American city – broken neon, billboards of happy products, vast, empty.

The play features five Santa Clauses, all homeless men temporarily employed by the Salvation Army. Each Santa is, and together collectively are, Flynn’s delusional father. In addition to expressing a break with reality, the artifice of a play allowed Flynn’s self-absorbed father to pontificate. Following is one of Santa Two’s monologues:

The whole enterprise – the hoo-hoo, the ha-ha, the goo-goo, the ga-ga, my idea, my brainchild. Those other morons did what I told them. Dippy-do Doyle? I made millions, kid, millions. Lived well, drank in Joe Kennedy’s hangout in Palm Beach. I walk in, bartender throws me a Jonnie Walker Black, asks, What’re you writing these days? Mostly checks, I tell him, ha-ha.

This monologue paints a riveting portrait of Flynn’s father, capturing his scorn and bravado, and the utter nonsense that poured from his mouth, all of which unnerved Flynn.

Imagined Scenes Are Inherently Metaphoric

In Presentimiento: A Life in Dreams, Harrison Candaleria Fletcher’s memoir about his mother, the writer leads his deceased grandparents into the New Mexico badlands. Since one cannot lead one’s dead grandparents anywhere, it is clear this scene is imagined:

I lead my deceased grandparents along a washboard road into the Rio Puerco badlands. Carlos shuffles through the dust in construction boots and a gray fedora. Desolina picks her way beside him, shiny black pumps, matching handbag, gripping his elbow, for balance. Late summer. Early evening. The sky an orange flame. I hurry ahead, anxious to show them the resting place I have found.

“Almost there,” I say over my shoulder. “Not much farther.”

Desolina smiles a crooked smile and whispers in Spanish to Carlos, who nods, frowns, wipes his forehead with his khaki shirt sleeve. They pause to watch me, unsure if I know the way.

This passage is figurative, expressing one thing in terms of another. Is the “resting place” the grandparents’ graves where, metaphorically, the narrator’s history can be found? Or is “resting place” where the narrator comes to the end of his personal journey, finally able to reconstruct the past from memories and relics that remain? Or both? Can the narrator put the past to rest by discovering it? The outcome is uncertain.

This imagined scene, which segues into the body of the memoir, expresses the narrator’s trepidations about the journey he is embarking upon, inviting the reader to accompany him down an uncertain path to a destination that, as close by as it may be, may never be fully found.

 Imagining and Interiority

Imagining what you, the writer, might have wanted to happen is an alternative to “perhapsing” that can access, even more so than “perhapsing,” the writer’s interiority. In All Those Fathers That Night,” Lee Martin freely admits he fictionalized certain facts:

The state trooper, Arky Cessna, comes into the barbershop . . . He’s looking for the drunk man . . .

I have to admit that I don’t even know if [Arky] was the state trooper who came looking for the drunk man . . . I just know that it was a trooper, and, whenever I go over the story in my head . . . I always imagine Ark in that role. I never knew him, never knew the drunk man. They’re mysterious figures to me, characters who are just out of my reach, disappearing, as they did, right before I came upon the scene. Two men I can’t get out of my head, and for that reason alone I set their paths together on that summer day . . . one of them looking for the other for some reason I’ve never known.

By fictionalizing with such extraordinary grace and openness, Martin creates an intimacy between himself and his reader, and a vulnerable narrator whom the reader can trust.

Imagined interactions, whether with the deceased or the living, are fraught with metaphor and emotional gravitas. They can unearth complexities the writer is struggling to articulate.  Imagining is a tool, but it also births form. If “getting to the bottom” is key, the inventiveness of these five writers blending fiction into nonfiction – and alerting the reader to the technique – reminds us that structure and genre are ours to play with.


Imagining Prompts:

  1. Write the conversation you always wanted to have but never had with a relative, friend, lover.
  2. Assume a fictitious persona, becoming a character in your favorite TV series or comic book, and examine a puzzling event or memory.
  3. Put your parent, friend, lover on an “imaginary” soapbox, and have them speak about themselves, or a topic important to you or them.
  4. Inject a deceased (or absent) relative, friend, lover into a scene or entire essay.
  5. Examine a piece of your writing where you feel stuck because your memory is hazy, or where you have speculated because you did not witness an event, and write the scene as you would have liked it to unfold, revealing as you do why that is so, and to the reader that you are imagining.


Works Cited

Burroway, Janet. “Embalming Mom.” Embalming Mom Essays in Life. Iowa City: U of Iowa, 34-48.

Fletcher, Harrison Candaleria.  Presentimiento: A Life in Dreams. Pittsburgh: Autumn House, 2016.

Flynn, Nick. Another Bullshit Night in Suck City. New York, W.W. Norton, 2004.

Lopate, Philip. “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story.” Fourth Genre Spring 2005. <>

Martin, Lee. “All Those Fathers That Night.” Such a Life. Lincoln, U of Nebraska, 2012. 203-214.

Silverman, Sue William. “An Argument for the Existence of Free Will and/or Pat Boone’s Induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.” The Pat Boone Fan Club. My Life as a White Anglo Saxon Jew. Lincoln, U of Nebraska, 2004. 214-231.


Judith I. Padow received an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts in July 2016. Her work has appeared in SLAB Sound & Literary Art Book; she was a finalist in Epiphany Magazine’s 2017 nonfiction contest and semi-finalist in the Tucson Book Festival’s nonfiction essay contest. Also an attorney, she practices union-side labor law in New York City where she lives.