As a Writers’ Program advisor, students will sometimes ask me if the story they are working on should be labeled fiction or creative nonfiction. If they take a few names and change them, or if they end up re-arranging the order of events, or if they have to make up a portion of the story for continuity’s sake, is it still nonfiction? In order to help me advise students on this controversial topic, I turned to Deb Everson Borofka. Deb teaches online creative nonfiction courses with the Writers’ Program, and she shed some light on this topic and several others as well.
Writers’ Program: At what point is a work a piece of fiction rather than nonfiction?
Deb Everson Borofka: This is a line everyone has to find for themselves…disclaimers have become the norm since James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. When a person sets out to write memoir, they are entering into to a kind of implied contract with the reader, a contract that implies they will recreate/represent the events to the best of their ability. Sometimes protecting a particular person’s privacy by changing their name is more important and doesn’t ultimately hurt the story. But, if a writer finds they have to not only change names, but rearrange many events, compress or combine places in the story, perhaps memoir is not the best choice for what they are trying to do. Memoir implies the author is a real person with a verifiable history. One thing I constantly have to remind students is that no matter how hard they try to “stick to the facts” of an event, they must remember it is their personal version…if the same story were to be recounted by other individuals involved, they would no doubt emphasize a different set of “facts.”
WP: On that topic, what do you think about Three Cups of Tea author Greg Mortenson?
DEB: Sadly, it now sounds as if disclaimers should have been made at the outset. Now, Mortenson has a lot of explaining to do. Unfortunately, it’s not just the story of Three Cups of Tea that’s in question, but all the donations that poured in to support the vision of schools for young girls in Afghanistan.
WP: This summer you’ll teach Memory, Muses, Memoir: A Workshop in Contemporary Life Writing (Online). How are the three M’s–memory, muses, and memoir–connected?
DEB: I love Greek mythology. Goddess Memory was actually one of the 12 Titans and the mother of the Nine Muses. Since Memory is what holds our personal stories, I like to imagine that each one of her daughters still offers a particular ‘way into’ shaping our narratives. For example, Erato inspires love stories, Melpomne helps us tell stories of grief, and Clio is the Muse who shows up when we are trying to get the facts in order. My summer course presents each Muse as a kind of template for both the inspiration and structuring of our stories.
WP: What tips do you have for beginning nonfiction writers struggling to come up with a topic?
DEB: I like to start with the idea of Clio, the Muse of History. Listing key moments in your life is a great way to begin. Some people like to make lists based on chronologies, starting with their earliest memories. Once you have a page or two of events, you can go back and see which ones have the most juice at that moment. Start with that one and see where it takes you. Once you begin you will be surprised at the other things that unspool. The more you write, the more you remember, and the more items you can add to your list. Keeping the list handy is a great way to get yourself going on new projects. Another way to get started is to write a few six-word memoirs…NPR did a great segment a few years ago which highlighted a number of these. The idea began with Hemingway’s famous “Baby shoes for sale. Never worn.” Writing a six-word memoir can be a way to get your engine revved; what is it you most want to say?
WP: Do you have a daily writing routine? If so, how long do you write every day?
DEB: When my kids were small, it was always late at night, usually 10 pm to midnight. These days I fit it in around the edges of my teaching schedule. Mornings are great, two hours in a block if I can get them.
WP: Who are some of your favorite nonfiction authors?
DEB: I am an eclectic reader: I am always interested in the people who are fearless in their self-exploration. Some of my favorite memoirists include Bernard Cooper, Patricia Hampl, Natalie Goldberg, Mark Doty, Alice Walker, and Nora Ephron. I am also a big fan of anything by Oliver Sacks.
Sara Bond is the Program Assistant for Creative Writing (Online) and Events.