What if it's a little white lie?

Your story is worth telling so tell it truthfully

This week, I thought I’d send you a sneak peak of what we talk about in the Creative Nonfiction Academy because the topic we’ve been talking about for the past fortnight is a really important one for us as nonfiction writers:

The ethics of writing about others.

The main part I want to share with you is a small section of what we discussed in the CNF Academy around the importance of getting facts straight.

Here’s your sneak peak. I hope you enjoy it:

In 2002, New York Times Magazine writer Michael Finkel was fired for making up part of a nonfiction story published in the magazine. In his 2006 book True Story: Murder, Mayhem, Mea Culpa he said, “I thought I’d get away with it. I was writing about impoverished, illiterate teenagers in the jungles of West Africa. Who would be able to determine that my main character didn’t exist?” 

Other nonfiction writers around the same time were called out for twisting the facts and the “creative” part of creative nonfiction was questioned.  

As nonfiction writers, we need to be careful not to add something just for the sake of the story.

Leaving things out can also change a story and it’s context. For example, if you’re talking about your divorce and how angry your ex got, but you fail to mention he just found out about your affair, it’s not giving a true picture of the event. We can twist our stories by adding and removing details. 

Readers don’t like being tricked.

They want to trust that if you say it’s true--to the best of your knowledge--it is. It’s our responsibility to be as truthful as possible. 

If the person you’re writing about feels you’ve willfully twisted the truth, you could end up in deep water (legally) too.

Philip Lopate in his essay Facts Have Implications writes about the importance of sticking to the truth as well as you can. 

He says, “The whole plausibility of a nonfiction narrative may be undermined by altering or evading a crucial detail.” 

The bottom line:

“Either something happened, or it didn’t” --Ted Conover

  • If you want to learn more about the ethics of writing about others you can access it in the archives of the Creative Nonfiction Academy when you subscribe. This month we are taking a look at different ways to structure our essays.

Stories from our writing family

It’s been nice to get to know some of the writers here! If you missed the writing prompt and want to give it a go, here’s the link. (Or the friend link if you need it)

I’ve really enjoyed reading your stories this week! Here are two I loved.

Melissa Boles’s story on Medium:

What Chadwick Boseman Teaches Us About Strength and Art

Katrina Paulson’s story in response to the writing prompt:

I Shared a Lap Dance with My 80 Year Old Grandma