ABCs of Creative Nonfiction: E is for Ethics

Posted by on Jul 10, 2016 in Uncategorized | 0 comments

IMG_1966Writing Sober: The Ethics of CNF the Morning After

For me, writing Creative Nonfiction is like a night of runaway drinking. You know, those lost evenings where the night begins with the innocuous plan of having a couple of beers at the local brewery but somehow degenerates into a basketful of friends rolling down the highway in a grocery cart. During the initial creative burst, memories—like your well-meaning friends—egg you on to tell the story of your life in complete and unadulterated detail. Whether you’re ready to or not. In the heat of the moment, these memories whoop and wheedle you to “go, go, go” like those same friends cheering you on in an Irish Car Bomb drinking contest. These recollections want to get you drunk so you will stream-of-consciously scroll through your life as easily as you’d show your naked baby pictures to a stranger at 2AM. And trust me, the yarns will grow wilder and taller than an Irish oral history as the night goes on. However, with the hard light of morning comes the hard light of the inner critic, the editor, and—like a hammer—that good ole Catholic-quality guilt. As you review your initial creative burst, the memories display themselves in a turbid, disjointed montage. Just like when you call up your drinking buddies the morning after to ask them questions like “Did I really act like—say, do—that?” similar questions will arise as you revisit the first drafts of your memoirs. Questions such as Wow, did I really describe my grandmother that way? Did my aunt really say that, verbatim? Was it truly the greatest moment in my life? Did I “nearly get hit by that car” or was it actually miles away? Huffing on what I like to call the Ethers of Recollection, we tend to go into a trance—finding ourselves at four (ten, twenty, thirty) again, but with very murky memories. So how does one soberly render a moment in time? I’m here to help you bare your soul (without having to bare your ass) by sharing five strategies I personally employ to stay faithful to my truth.

The first draft is always the “drunken draft.”

As they like to say in AA circles, never get into an argument or conversation with a drunk. I like to apply this aphorism to my first drafts of CNF. Drunks, like first drafts, are prone to “circular thinking.” Very often I find my initial draft fraught with instances of beating a metaphor to death (see paragraph above) or dancing around the heart of the piece. Scan your nonfiction drafts with a skeptical eye. Consider overly sentimental or sensationalized narrative as suspect until you are sure you can embrace it as the whole-hearted truth. As a general rule in writing (or life), if it feels bad the morning after, then there is probably something amiss. Something is compromised—either in the integrity of the material or with your willingness to share it.

Be lawyer-like with language.

Words and phrases such as “perhaps,” “maybe,” or the very honest, “I can’t remember exactly, but it sure felt this way” will protect you from misquoting or misremembering. Usually, decades have passed between an actual experience and the retelling. If you are confident in your emotional truth, but under-confident in the specific details, at least you can alert your reader to a tenuous memory. Remember to use this language only with specific facts that cannot be recalled such as verbatim quotes, dates, or descriptive details. WARNING: This technique is not meant to encourage lying, mislead the reader, or function as an umbrella insurance policy for vagueness.

Interview your friends and family.

Just like when you phone a friend after a bender, make sure you do your research. Interview other people who were witnesses to the experience. While memory is very subjective and each person’s experience may not mirror your own, these witnesses’ testimonies may help you gather the correct names, dates, and facts. Explore, but do not exploit, your past. You are trying to excavate your emotional truth, not bulldoze history.

Share your memoirs with the people you portray and get permission to use their names.

There are certainly cases where sharing your CNF would be potentially dangerous, damaging, or at the very least, cause unnecessary tension in your life and loved ones’ lives. In this suggestion I am namely thinking of people you are writing about who may appreciate getting a head’s up before publication. Give them an opportunity to decline the use of their names and/or any extraordinary characteristics or identifying features. If they do decline, then you will have adequate time to revise and re-vision. It may also provide yet another opportunity to get a fresh perspective.

Create Composite Characters When the Answer is “No.”

For situations where it may be unrealistic to contact people from your past or when people decline being featured in your memoir, create composite characters. To protect identities, make sure remarkable features are masked well, job titles are changed, or two or more characters are melded into one. Blurring identifiable geographies and personal histories will make these people unrecognizable to the general reader. Sure, you may be hounded for years by Suspicious Aunt Sally over subtext and subtleties, but your conscience will be a soft pillow.

These are only a handful of ethical situations and suggestions for handling them as a CNF writer. While it is literally our profession to rappel the depths of memory and some times painful experience, we grapple with issues of moral authority. While there are ways to navigate this precarious ledge, it is still tricky terrain if you want to sleep well at night. In fact, it is a downright technical trail for the CNF writer. Fall into the abyss. Probe and delve into the subconscious and subterranean. However, remember to reach out for help the morning after, which is sometimes the darkest hour for the memoirist.


Jenni Nance teaches writing at The University of South Florida in Tampa, Florida. Her work has been published in literary journals such as Necessary Fiction, Sweet: A Literary Confection, and Spry. In 2014, she was nominated for AWP’s Intro Journals Award as well as Sundress Publication’s “Best of the Net Anthology” in 2013.

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