AWP2019: Rewriting History: Why It’s Not Okay to Fictionalize Our Memories

Panel Participants: Lee Gutkind, Sarah Gerard, Patti Horvath, Alana Massey, Mia Herman

AWP19ThumbnailDescription: Every so often, literary scandals seem to surface, particularly when it comes to memoirs. Is there an unspoken code of ethics that exists for memoirists and essayists? Or is it something deeper, something psychological that gives birth to the betrayal we feel upon discovering that a nonfiction writer has invented a character, setting, or memory? In this panel, nonfiction writers discuss the difficulty in cultivating memories while managing this genre’s ethical demands and expectations.

On Friday morning, I stood at the back of a packed room to catch this panel. Jammed into the corner was the “Godfather of creative nonfiction” himself, Lee Gutkind. Gutkind has been preaching at the temple of “never-make-anything-up-if-you’re-writing-CNF” for a long time. My first class in CNF, our referential text was Gutkind’s You Can’t Make This Stuff Up; I’ll give you three guesses what it is about.

CNF is curated

Still, it was nice to hear new voices in CNF relate their experiences with this issue: Gerard (whose book of essays, Sunshine State, 2017 Book of the Year at more places than I have room to write) leaned heavy on her reportage experience, noting a tendency to scavenge for documentation as proof of her memories. Gerard said, “Not everything is provable with documentation, but can be conveyed with context.” Gerard hinted at that fear in CNF that we may have remembered something wrong, and gave a useful craft tip of using signal phrases to signify creative inflection, as in, “If memory serves,” or, “The way I remember it,” etc.

Contra to a rigidly-held maxim to never fictionalize CNF, Gerard said, “The unified self is a fiction.” This is the strike-slip point of the masses crossways jutting up against each other—narrativization and The Truth—the place of tension, in “true stories, well told.”

Feelings aren’t facts but they are real

Patti Horvath (whose memoir, All the Difference, traverses disability and identity) began with a reference to Rebecca Makkai’s memoir/short story “Other Types of Poison” about her Hungarian grandparents and their time in a Gestapo prison: Horvath noted that Makkai “directly addressed the nature of memory,” its slippages, and in this way showed loyalty to the truth—admitting where memory fails us is honest. Horvath went on to say that “an unreliable narrator can signal to a reader to read beneath the surface,” that the author, the I is not quintessentially the final iteration of authentic voice, connecting with what Gerard previously said: the I is a construction (there were references to Jung, here). In response to a question from moderator Mia Herman (CNF editor, F(r)iction), Horvath added that it’s essential to convey characters’ flaws, even those belonging to our real-life loved ones, because we don’t love people without their flaws. Horvath said, “Be fair to people, otherwise you end up with flat characters.”

Place for fictionalization in CNF

Lee Gutkind (founder and editor, Creative Nonfiction) brought the talk full-circle, first by laying out a history of the attempts at defining the CNF genre, the fights to keep it separate from journalism, the inclusion of techniques of fiction while avoiding fictionalizing. Gutkind, despite having heard it all before, keeps a sense of humor about the genre, at one point stating, “We don’t have to call poetry creative poetry.” It is here Alana Massey (author of All the Lives I Want) adds that, for her, getting at the truth of CNF looks like an amalgamation, a “Sims version” of her characters.

In one exchange with Massey, Gutkind offered that: “Our words are there forever, so they have a lasting impact and can create unintentional victims.” Our job is to step back and show the world through the eyes of the people we’re writing about; Godfather Gutkind said, “don’t look at me, look at them.”

One of the core take-aways from this panel, filled with writers who have specific, niched and expert takes on how to straddle the faultlines of truth in CNF, was not so much what we write or unwrite, but what we center: do we fictionalize to protect, either self or other? Or does that leave us with flat characters, as Horvath suggested? How can the first person, the I, be an authentic voice if a constructed, “unified” self is a fiction anyway?

The capital-T Truth does not have to be sideways with narrativization, but it can feel like it when we’re in the hot spots: writing about loved (or unloved) ones, attempting to follow breadcrumbs of documentation, or trying to account for the polyphony of perspectives in CNF.


Lindsey Novak is a writer who followed the sun west from her native Missouri Ozarks to the dusty Arizona East Valley. Her work appears in The Fourth River literary journal and is forthcoming in The Rumpus, Atticus Review, and Angel City Review. Her debut chapbook, Echolalia, is forthcoming from dancing girl press.


Visit Assay’s Spring 2019 issue for more!

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