Scribes in Conversation

Integrating Creative Nonfiction into Traditional History Writing

Hello again, Jeanette;

Congratulations on stepping back into your manuscript. It takes courage and resolve to beat back the forces of resistance. But you’ve done it—you’ve resuscitated your creative work and will continue breathing life back into it. Perhaps some of these musings about genre will contribute to the process.

As you “test-drive” integrating creative non-fiction into history, I can see how dialogue in particular would set off the alarm bells of the history gatekeepers. You’ve used scenes to bring more vigor to the narrative, but given genre constraints, most are half scenes and don’t pull the weight that full-blown scenes in fiction do.

Read widely and often.

Read widely and often.

I wonder about playing with the idea of scene in terms of context and setting. Can you create rich textured scenes, based on your extensive research and photo references? These scenes would be speculative, but not “fabricated” or “fictional” per se. The image of a colouring book comes to mind.

Your prose brings colour and animation to the static facts and old black and white stills. These become probable, viable and believable “scenes” of typical times and places. You can’t be accused of putting words in people’s mouths or moving your central characters about at your will. Would this approach set off the genre alarm bells? Might these ideas add vigour, immediacy and reader engagement? I think back to words of Jack Hodgins, author and exceptional writing teacher. To paraphrase: You have to give the reader something to look at; something to do with his eyes.

 More About Memoir Writing

I think the “new depth” in memoir has been a response to the spate of titles that stormed the publishing world with tales of high stakes exposures, flagrant betrayals, belaboured grudges, debauchery, criminality and acts of revenge—some of which were totally fabricated. Memoirists are recovering their genre and the respect it deserves.

Vivian Gornick defines memoir: “A memoir is a work of sustained narrative prose controlled by an idea of the self under obligation to lift from the raw material of life a tale that will shape experience, transform event, deliver wisdom.” (The Situation and the Story)

It’s not just about the series of events, but what the writer makes of what happened. How the writer redeems the experience, reawakens the past, and finds its patterns or discovers the explanatory narrative behind them. (Beth Kephart – Handling the Truth).

Both history and memoir writers work from a limited perspective. The memoir author has far more latitude in what she tells and how she tells it. Her work is to give authenticity and truth her best shot. Is she an unreliable narrator?
Yes, but her defense is her mea culpa, her ability to own up to the vagaries of memory and interpretation, to commit to write what she knows, to “first do no harm”, and to own that her perspective is hers alone.

Perhaps memoirists adopted creative nonfiction because it allowed them, and their genre, room to grow.

To view earlier postings of this conversation:

Until next time, Annette Yourk.