It's Not You, It's Me: Fiction and/or Nonfiction

We've all seen the notice: this story, play, film is a work of fiction, all characters are imaginary, any relation to living human beings is purely coincidental. And we laugh and say "Right. If they have to say that then surely it's all true." But we are wrong. Only some of it is true.

The most hilarious incidents in writing workshops are when a student blurts out "that part could never happen" and, of course, that is the one true incident around which the story was built. It is possible that it did happen, but for some reason it does not have emotional resonance with the reader.

The most powerful stories often are based on events that were truly felt. Even though the names are changed, the characters may be different genders, ages, or ethnicities, and the setting is elsewhere, the emotional content is the same. Which is where it gets tricky. Someone recognizes herself in the cloak. If it's a kindly portrait, she's flattered and pleased, if not, she's livid, hurt, humiliated.

Excuse me, these are words on a page. You say, "That character is not you. I don't care if you think it is, or if you are suspicious it might be based on you. It isn't you anymore." But, alas, you are a fiction writer, and you are not believed.

In art, if you create a portrait that the portrait sitter does not recognize (or thinks is hideous), she is hurt: "That doesn't look like me," she says. In fiction you are not intending the portrait to be recognizable; in a specific kind of art (nonfictive art?), you are. Expressive art is more akin to fiction: an interpretation, a transformation.

Fiction is a subset of nonfiction. Look, it's even in the word nonfiction, which is the negative, so fiction must be the positive. Fiction is a staging of a lived experience, a reimagining. It is hard to say what nonfiction is. We sometimes confuse it with reality. And the only reality I know right now… is that you are reading this.

Smiled Politely and Left, 2008


My suitcase was the very first on the luggage carousel at the airport last week. Surreal-feeling, but true. Much truth, I am finding, is closer to surreality than "plain truth." Truth isn't plain at all, and there seems to be a very fine line to me between fiction and non!
Elena said…
Fiction and non-fiction? I do believe I live in a fiction world.
Velma said…
*all the stories are true.* i, of course, can't rememeber where i found that quote.