Fiction and nonfiction form poles at either end of a long continuum, and our work can slide fluidly along it.
Here’s how it feels.
A voice begins to speak inside your head. Sometimes it talks about things that have actually happened to you; sometimes it conjures imagined creatures uttering strange things. Sometimes it sounds like your own voice; sometimes it’s the voice of a stranger. The compulsion to pick up a pen is equal in both cases.
I do fairly extensive research for both genres, and the political claims I stake about the world, whether in fiction or nonfiction, are often largely similar. The processes of writing and revising—seeking the most accurate language to depict what is seen in the mind (whether memory or invention); shaping the narrative for impact, drama and silence; listening for and enhancing the sonic effects of each line—are similar for me whether I write fiction or nonfiction.
Only the final texts bear different ontological weights, different epistemological weights. One, published as nonfiction, must demonstrate careful fidelity to the known and socially sharable facts (yet we know too well the slipperiness of those). One, published as fiction, enjoys the perfect freedom of invention—but if I get the details wrong (about when to plant wheat or what kind of guns were used in World War II), then I lose credibility—and readers.
I see fiction and nonfiction slow-dancing, inseparable, holding each other close.
Back when I began to write, I didn’t yet know that creative nonfiction was permitted. My first published piece, which came out long ago in a special Latinx issue of Mid-American Review, was called a short story—yet everything in it was true, except the names and the gender of one character. Everyone who knew me knew it was true; one friend called to apologize (but hers was the gender that had been switched, and it was a different person who’d done the thing over which she worried). My then-mother-in-law called, crying and angry, because I’d written that I’d had no family for hundreds of miles when my son was born, which I didn’t. No real family. I was like, “What? It’s fiction,” because I was a coward, afraid of arguing with her or hurting her further with the way I felt (which is to say, alone). But it wasn’t fiction. We all knew that. Fiction was just the generic scrim I’d hidden behind, and clearly not very well.
My second short story, which came out the following year, was fabricated. In it, a young Jewish mother dreams of self-annihilation while trying not to recollect her father’s suicide. I am not Jewish, and my own father’s suicide lay a full ten years in the future. But the core of the story—the young mother’s explosive, transformative, obliterating love for her young child—was utterly true, rooted in my own explosive, transfiguring, obliterating love for my son. This is the story-truth Tim O’Brien writes about, the emotional truth Sandra Cisneros claims for her fiction.
Both fiction and nonfiction can weave history, myth and legend into their narratives; both can investigate the limits of form. Both, at their best, are rooted in risk. My creative nonfiction is highly shaped and always already subjective, necessarily reliant on my faulty memory, idiosyncratic perceptions, evolving interpretations, and changeable feelings. My fiction, on the other hand, includes a great deal of accurate research, statistics, real places, the actual price of half a muffaletta at Central Grocery in New Orleans. A recently published short story is factually accurate in almost every respect, but its mood is entirely different from the way I felt when it all was happening. During the events, I felt bliss, but the story is sad. In the most intimate and important sense, then, the text falsifies what happened. Yet a neutral observer could testify to its truth.
When it comes to labeling something fiction or nonfiction, though, I play fair. If I’ve invented something and haven’t clearly signaled that invention within the text, then the piece gets published as fiction. I lean more toward Philip Gerard’s clear, strict philosophy about these matters than John D’Agata’s. Many do, but I think my own views on this are particularly stringent because I come from the working class, from a world where no one was college-educated, so when I say I respect the reader, that includes even the unsophisticated reader, the kind that sometimes makes my clever and highly educated graduate students impatient. If that reader buys a text thinking it’s a true story, then, as far as I’m concerned, that reader deserves not to be betrayed. I feel tender toward her. Protective.
As a Latina writer, I’m grateful for and influenced by the Latin American tradition of testimonio, of giving personal voice to atrocity and injustice. Yet testimonio exacts its toll. I publish my work as nonfiction only when I am willing to be the voice at the front of the room, willing to be the body publicly that has experienced the things the text records, to perform the persona made flesh. I do so to enact a form of agency, to say, Yes, this really did happen. It happened to me. There are times when this matters, as, for example, when one writes about child abuse, or poverty, or rape or suicide. To be able to say, Yes, that happened, and I can show you the newspaper accounts if you’d like to see them. The photographs. The maps.
What I cannot document with evidence, what I cannot prove in a court of law, is what it did to me inside. That is why I write.
Genre is complicated, as identity and experience are complicated. It’s a truism now to point out that ethnicity intersects with class intersects with gender intersects with religion, and so on. A host of structures shapes us as social subjects, and then wildly varied experiences—comfort, pleasure, trauma—mold what we believe the world to be.
too, is simply a shape, a vessel for presence. The important thing is what’s
Joy Castro is the author of the memoir The Truth Book, the essay collection Island of Bones, two novels, Hell or High Water and Nearer Home, and the collection of short stories How Winter Began. Her stories and essays have appeared in such journals as Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, Indiana Review and Ploughshares, and her literary and film criticism has appeared in journals including Salon, Women’s Review of Books and Senses of Cinema. The editor of Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family and the Machete series in creative nonfiction at the Ohio State University Press, she teaches creative writing, literature and Latinx studies at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.