Creative Nonfiction: Using Techniques of Fiction or Incorporating Fiction?

Sara stopped by two weeks ago to comment on the post about nonfiction versus fiction, where she asked for further discussion of creative nonfiction in children’s books. I thought exploring an example might be a good way to start a dialogue.

Creative nonfiction is still a relatively new genre. The most common definition for the term is nonfiction that takes advantage of fictional storytelling techniques. Does that mean creative nonfiction incorporates fictional details, scenes, dialogue and characterization? Let’s take a look at one example where it seemed to me that creative nonfiction crossed the line into outright fiction. (I’m not picking on this particular example for any reason other than I knew enough about the subject to realize it was not fact.)girls-who-looked-under-rocks

A few years ago, I was excited to finally get my copy the book Girls Who Looked Under Rocks: The Lives of Six Pioneering Naturalists by Jeannine Atkins and illustrated by Paula Conner (Dawn Publications 2000). I had been researching the life of Anna Botsford Comstock for a children’s biography and I had been told by an editor there was no market for it. Here in my hands was a book that offered a short biography of Anna – along with five other women naturalists- that was a NSTA-CBC Outstanding Science Trade Book for 2001.

Turning to page 16, I read:

“Leaves fluttered. Branches swayed. Balancing carefully, Anna Botsford looked down at her students. A tree was an unusual perch for a teacher, but after all, Anna was just fourteen when she was asked to fill in while the regular teacher took a few months off.”

Sounds lovely doesn’t it? There is even a two-page spread illustration showing a young girl sitting on a low tree branch, calmly reading to some younger children.

fact-or-fiction

It is very nice, except the scene never happened that way. If you read Anna Botsford Comstock’s biography/autobiography The Comstocks of Cornell:  John Henry and Anna Botsford Comstock (Comstock Publishing Assoc. 1953), on page 67:

During recess I climbed a tree, one of my favorite diversions. I was coming down peacefully when the teacher exclaimed sharply:  “Anna, come out of that tree immediately. Recess is over.”

At this, I stayed my downward course and announced that I would recite my lessons from there, and I did. A few years later when I was a teacher at the same school and we were having school in the woods, one of the older girls said, “What would you do if one of us climbed a tree like you did when Susan Lee taught?” At this an older boy said, “We’d better not try it; Anna would climb right up after us.”

What do you think?

To me, the first version transforms a feisty girl who was willing to disobey her teacher into a demure nature lover, a very different character. Because of the change, I began to question the biographies of all the other women in the book. What is fact and what is made up to tell a nice story? To me, changing the facts lessened the value of the entire book without adding anything significant. After all, Anna’s own words seemed to be compelling enough to me. Or am I being too harsh? Is the scene close enough to what actually happened that it counts as factual?

Perhaps the changes to the scene was simply an error in writing down research notes. However, Glenn Hovemann, an editor at the publisher Dawn Publications, writes in his essay “The ‘Creative Non-Fiction’ Conundrum (and Opportunity)” that  books that use creative nonfiction fall between nonfiction and fiction and “encompass the best of both fiction and non-fiction worlds.” In his view, creative nonfiction is something between the two, and seems to imply that making things up is acceptable to tell a good story.

In contrast Lee Gutkind of Creative Nonfiction Magazine (for adults, not children) says creative nonfiction uses literary techniques, but does not involve making things up, exaggerating or otherwise lying. Then he says something that really resonates with me:  you can be honest, tell the facts, and still write in a highly creative way.

What do you think? Do you agree?

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Comments

Creative Nonfiction: Using Techniques of Fiction or Incorporating Fiction? — 2 Comments

  1. I would just take a passage like that as fact. If you don’t check primary sources you would never know. Food for thought.

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