I'm giving a reading in Austin, Texas, on a Thursday evening after a day of visiting classes and answering questions about essay writing. The audience in the auditorium is sparse.
My host is embarrassed; she informs me that a popular Latino poet is reading on campus at the same time, so the potential audience is divided. I have a feeling that I am the lesser of the two. This is a city with a high percentage of Mexican-American residents. And poetry is written to be read aloud, unlike nonfiction, which is factual and informative and which, students might assume, can be tedious and boring.
Of course, I am a creative nonfiction writer, "creative" being indicative of the style in which the nonfiction is written so as to make it more dramatic and compelling. We embrace many of the techniques of the fiction writer, including dialogue, description, plot, intimacy and specificity of detail, characterization, point-of-view; except, because it is nonfiction-and this is the difference — it is true.
But writing nonfiction so that it reads like fiction is challenging and extraordinarily difficult-unless, as some critics have pointed out, the author takes certain "liberties" which, then, may corrupt the nonfiction, making it untrue, or partially true, or shading the meaning and misleading readers.
This is the subject we are discussing in the auditorium after my reading: what writers can or can't do, stylistically and in content, while walking that thin, blurred line between fiction and nonfiction. How to be sure you are on safe ground? The questions pile up, one after another; the audience is engaged. "How can you be certain that the dialogue you are remembering and recreating from an incident that occurred months ago is accurate?" asks one audience member. Another demands, "How can you look through the eyes of your characters if you are not inside their heads?"
I am answering as best I can. But the dialogue goes on and on. After a while, I throw up my hands and say, "Listen, I can't answer all of these questions with rules and regulations. I am not," I announce, pausing rather theatrically, "the creative nonfiction police!"
There is a woman in the audience-someone I had noticed earlier during my reading. She is in the front row-hard to miss — older than most of the undergraduates, blonde, attractive, in her late 30s, maybe. She has the alert yet composed look of a nurse, a person only semi-relaxed, always ready to act or react. She has taken her shoes off and propped her feet on the stage; I remember how her toes wiggled as she laughed at the essay I had been reading.
But when I announce, dramatically, "I am not the creative nonfiction police," this woman suddenly jumps to her feet, whips out a badge, and points it in my direction. "Well I am," she announces. "Someone has to be. And you are under arrest."
Then she scoops up her shoes and storms barefooted from the room. The Q and A ends soon after, and I rush into the hallway to find the woman with the badge. I have many questions, beginning with, "Who the hell are you? Why do you have a badge? And how did you know what I was going to say, when I didn't have any idea?" I had never used the term "creative nonfiction police" before that moment. But she is gone. My host says the woman is a stranger. We ask around, students and colleagues. No one knows her. She is a mystery to everyone, especially me..
See Lee Gutkind's INside Interview about writing.
From the introduction to In Fact:The Best Of Creative Nonfiction, an anthology of the first 10 years of the journal, Creative Nonfiction published in 2004 by W.W. Norton.