AWP2015: Do You Believe In Magic? Truth and Illusion in Creative Nonfiction

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMIt seems like every nonfiction class I’ve taken has included explorations of truth. One of my professors, John T. Price, put it nicely during my undergrad, saying that this ethical dimension is arguably the factor that most distinguishes fiction from nonfiction.

See what I did there? Paraphrased it, because I’m not sure anymore exactly how he said it. If I was back home in Omaha, I could probably find the notebook that I used for that course, and I wouldn’t be surprised to find the exact quote, but here in Minneapolis I am SOL.

I’m not here to nitpick, and I don’t think this panel was either. It focused more on honesty than truth. “Be honest with yourself.”

It’s a total cliché, but like most clichés, these four words mean more than we immediately recognize. It seems easy, a cliché, and I’ve always loved and resisted them because of this. It sounds like something that a person should be able to just… do. Maybe this is why I write—ever since I was young, I haven’t been able to stop myself from asking, “Yes, well, but, how?”

I don’t believe that people purposefully deceive themselves, and that’s what makes this sort of honesty—self-awareness—so difficult. We don’t necessarily recognize when we’re deceiving ourselves, and we’ll never be perfectly aware of our biases. As Stephen Elliott said during this presentation, we can never be perfectly honest because that would require perfect self-knowledge, which is impossible for a growing changing human.

I’ve been reflecting on this conundrum since the panel, and have returned again and again to a few of these ideas. If I’m being honest with myself on the page, I won’t be able to be anything but honest about other characters, about situations, and about my story. If I’m being honest with myself on the page, readers will feel it and they will continue to read. If I’m being honest with myself on the page, well, how can I be sure?

Total objectivity is an unrealistic goal, and the essayist in me resists concluding by answering my own question, anyway. However, it seems to me that in attempting to take on the perspective of another character, I can get at some of my self-deception. If I cannot get a bird’s eye view, then at least I can get the opposite angle. It’s biased, to be sure, but still seems more honest than to reach for total objectivity. For complexity and depth, I’m thinking the non-perspective won’t work as well as an opposing view.

I’ll leave you with another idea that all of the panelists touched before listing my favorite (paraphrased) lines from each.

Krista Bremer: Don’t think of creativity as altering facts or making something up. Think of it as generating new insights from fixed experience.

Sy Safransky: Bring the same reverence to your work that you would to an intimate conversation.

Stephen Elliott: In order to write something readable and interesting, you may need to accept that two incompatible truths are both equally true.

Patricia Foster: Three questions: What have I come to tell? Why do I need to tell it? What lies in the way? If I can’t answer these questions, I write falsely.

Lee Martin: Either memoir convinces a reader or it doesn’t. If it’s not convincing, it doesn’t really matter whether or not it’s true.   

Leslie Sears is a graduate teaching assistant at the University of Nebraska at Omaha, and has received several publications and awards through her university. Her blog–though barely up and running–explores spirituality and single momhood, and she’d be totally stoked if you read it ( She loves tattoos, Gatorade, and the LEGO movie.

Visit Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies to browse our recent issues (Fall 2014 and Spring 2015), explore our classroom resources, and to subscribe to the journal (it’s free!).


  1. My first thought is as long as you have an individual’s life experiences, perceptions, level of self-awareness which determines at what level of awareness being used to gather opinions about another person’s autobiographical material (written or spoken), it is impossible to have objectivity. You know the saying: A monkey looking into a mirror only sees another monkey looking back at him. Example: John writes about his experience of love and marriage. Eric reads John’s non-fiction, not with John’s-eyes, not with the collective eyes of his culture or humanity but with Eric’s-eyes, or way of looking at the world. His opinions of John’s material are based on his own window of awareness (how open it is or how draped it is) and that also reflects Eric’s self-awareness and ability to tolerate, allow, realize other people have other perceptions and experiences. Human beings beyond stating fact, can only be relative.


  2. Another thought…… People writing their own story can decide they are being perfectly honest. They can be honest about the content of their perceptions of internal and external experiences related to his feelings, thoughts, intentions, choices and actions and the consequence of all the above. The content changes by how shallow or how deep one goes in their life reflections. Self-knowledge is for the eye of the beholder. It isn’t fair for someone to decide that one’s autobiographical material isn’t honest because the one judging wasn’t there in that person’s shoes. The opinion is always related to how far the reader would go if imagining being in that person’s shoes and writing about their experiences and then deciding whether or not the autobiographer is relating feeling and events, reactions in a way they would relate or react to the experience. Each person believes unconsciously, subconsciously, or with half-awareness that if people do not think, feel, react, or choose the way they would or the way they believe they would then there is something “wrong”, dishonest, reflecting lack of self-knowledge about the other person’s personal story. Autobiographical material relays to the reader another’s perspective and there is no right or wrong in how and what they choose to relay to others. It is interesting the way it is and there is always something to learn about yourself by learning how others see the world, and their lives.


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