The Draft

How to Tell the Truth

In creative nonfiction, how much of your life can you embellish?

Eileen Pollack
Human Parts
Published in
5 min readOct 16, 2019

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Illustration: Lulu Jiang

Welcome to The Draft, an advice column about writing and life from Eileen Pollack, former director of the University of Michigan MFA Program. We’re here to answer your questions about storycraft, writing, and telling the truth in words.

Have a question? Share it with us.

Dear Draft,

What is the “creative” part of creative nonfiction? Are you allowed to make stuff up? When a memoirist describes what they said or did when they were seven years old, am I supposed to believe they remember those exact details and lines of dialogue? Don’t a lot of contemporary writers blur the lines between genres?

Signed,
Not Sure What to Believe

Dear Not Sure,

When I write nonfiction, I never make anything up. In fact, most of the writers I know are outraged when other writers lie. The reason we label our work “nonfiction” is we want readers to know this shit actually happened; this is the truth about what people do to each other; this is what rarely gets said; this is what it means to be a human being. If not for the Ripley’s Believe-It-Or-Not factor, we would have turned the same material into fiction, which would have allowed us to shape its jagged edges, embellish and invent, and change identifying characteristics to protect the innocent.

Sure, some writers play with the line between fiction and fact, but how can anyone blur a line that doesn’t exist? After witnessing the devastation wrought by our current president and his propensity to dismiss the truth as “fake news” and pass off fiction as fact, how can we not double down on our commitment to observing the distinction?

What’s creative about creative nonfiction is the writer’s determination to speak in a natural voice rather than hide behind the manufactured doublespeak of the military-industrial-governmental-academic complex. What’s creative is the choice to structure one’s meditations according to a natural, organic form — a narrative, a journey, an experiment, a day spent with an expert violin-maker or embalmer — rather than jam that same experience into a prefabricated container — the…

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Eileen Pollack
Human Parts

Eileen is the author, most recently, of Maybe It's Me: On Being the Wrong Kind of Woman