Nonfiction vs. Fiction – Seeking Truth in Squaw Valley

God, I love the Community of Writers at Squaw Valley. Spending a week with 150 other people who are as connected to writing as emphysema patients are to their oxygen tanks is nothing short of nirvana. When I attended Squaw, I focused solely on fiction writing. No big surprise given my MFA. But during the conference, I was so busy critiquing manuscripts, scribbling notes during panel discussions, and confessing my darkest secrets in Gill Dennis’s “Finding the Story” workshop, that I had little time to sleep, let alone write.

So I re-visioned Squaw as my own writing retreat, where I wrote in the morning, attended panels and readings in the afternoon and evening and then returned to the laptop until I fell asleep…or took an epic hike.

You can hear the rush of water, can’t you?

And I also broadened my genre perspective to incorporate nonfiction, because I want to expand my creative potential by telling the truth.

Then came the breaking news from Squaw’s “Fiction vs. Nonfiction: Narrative Strategies” panel: There’s no difference between fiction and nonfiction! Who knew?

Perhaps I’m oversimplifying. Perhaps I’m showing my Jekyll and Hyde tendencies, a symptom of those who write in both genres.

Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde poster edit2

So I must share a few notes from the panel to give my schizophrenic self a chance for integration.

Both fiction and nonfiction require:

  • a story arc
  • a sense of tension to drive the narrative forward
  • sensory details to keep the reader anchored in the world
  • words that convince readers of the specifics of the moment, not of its meaning (i.e. toss the didactic prose)
  • strong, well-defined characters
  • a writer who feels the weight of responsibility for telling the story

I could go on ad infinitum, but I think the point is this: writers use the same narrative techniques to write stories whether they are fictional or not. We’ve all grown old reading the work of nonfiction writers who forget this. As a child, I called them textbooks, and they left me feeling dessicated.

The panel, moderated by Jason Roberts, appeared to be in agreement:

  • Steve Almond – Fiction is jury-rigged for maximum psychological effect while nonfiction is research-based then given an author’s spin
  • Michelle Latiolais – Facts are chosen to fit the purpose of the piece
  • Al Young – Poetry, fiction, nonfiction—it’s all fiction, because writers select details to fashion the story they want to tell

Echoes of Mark Twain? There are three kinds of lies whose purpose is to disclose the truth: poetry, fiction, and nonfiction. Would you agree?

Apparently, the real difference between the two genres has nothing to do with how they’re written. To paraphrase John Glusman (VP and Editor-in-chief at Norton) from the Book Editors Panel: With literary fiction, editors tend to fall in love with a manuscript and hope there’s a market for it. With nonfiction, editors expect the manuscript to reach a known market.

So there you have it. The difference between fiction and nonfiction lies in the selling, not in the telling.

Who knew?

I wrote this post for the Write On Mamas website a few years ago, and I just stumbled across it again. Wanted to share it here. Cheers!

4 thoughts on “Nonfiction vs. Fiction – Seeking Truth in Squaw Valley

  1. FictionFan says:

    Excluding heavyweight history/science etc., which perhaps falls under factual rather than non-fiction, I do agree with this. The best non-fiction writers can create suspense and tension just as much as a thriller writer if they manage to remember that entertainment is the primary objective. In fact, I agree so much that my Book of the Year award has gone to non-fcition books twice in the last five years (somewhat belying my nom-de-plume!) – a fabulous biography of Stonewall Jackson, Rebel Yell, which had me engrossed in the outcome of battles I’d never heard of, and the wonderful story of Shackleton’s disatrous voyage to the South Pole, Endurance, which had me sobbing like that waterfall. Both were more exciting than any of the fiction I read in their respective years, and both would almost have read like fiction if the reader didn’t know they weren’t.

    • Jilanne Hoffmann says:

      I do hope that heavyweight U.S. historians are getting better at portraying events in an even-handed way and not white-washing events. Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States” is far different than the history I learned in school. We have Rebel Yell somewhere on the shelves….will have to find it. And Shackleton, ugh, it’s like trying to imagine what it was like to be a member of the Donner Party, a location we pass every time we drive to Tahoe.

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