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The Balance of Truth and Storytelling in Non-Fiction Writing

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When Stephen Colbert coined the term, “truthiness” in a hilarious bit during the George W. years, he talked about how one’s truth doesn’t necessarily come from books or from thinking, it comes from your heart. 

Of course, it was a comedy bit satirically pointing out the eroding boundaries of what once was a pretty solid concept: the truth! 

What do the “wordinistas” over at Webster’s have to say about the truth? that which is true or in accordance with fact or reality.

The truth in journalism is set in stone: it’s not a malleable or debatable concept. This was a lesson the infamous writer Steven Glass learned the hard way. In 1998, Glass was fired from The New Republic after he was caught fabricating sources and entire stories for the magazine. According to his friend, Hanna Rosin, also a writer at the New Republic:

“He made up some funny stuff—a convention of Monica Lewinsky memorabilia—and also some really awful stuff: racist cab drivers, sexist Republicans, desperate poor people calling into a psychic hotline, career-damaging quotes about politicians.”

His fabrications nearly destroyed a reputable magazine that was founded over a hundred years ago. It was devastating.

Non-fiction writing is not journalism. And creative non-fiction is a genre that’s increasing in popularity, even though it has many people scratching their heads as to how “creative” and “non-fiction” go together in the same sentence.

The reality is, creativity is not exclusive to fiction writers. The “creative” in creative non-fiction simply means “told well” rather than “made up.”

Creative non-fiction, though factual, can read like fiction in that it draws you in with attention to detail, clear imagery, metaphors, and other creative writing techniques. Last week I saw this line “‘I might have a seizure,’ she said, as if predicting rain” excerpted from a personal essay, and I clicked on the link to read the whole thing, drawn in by those 11 words. 

Creativenonfiction.org defines the form, explaining the juxtaposition of “creative” and “non-fiction.”

The word “creative” refers to the use of literary craft, the techniques fiction writers, playwrights, and poets employ to present non-fiction—factually accurate prose about real people and events—in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. The goal is to make non-fiction stories read like fiction so that your readers are as enthralled by fact as they are by fantasy.

If there is one thing that nature writing, true crime, history, essays, memoir, and narrative journalism all have in common it’s this: If the writing is not compelling, the reader will put it down. This is especially true of screenwriting: if something interesting does not happen by page three, the distracted executive who is reading your script has already moved on to the next one. 

Before trying my hand at copywriting, I wasn’t sure how far my screenwriting background would get me in the marketing world, but it turns out in marketing (as with any writing), compelling storytelling is everything. So the art of pretty persuasion came quite naturally to me. 

What is it about storytelling that is such an effective way to reach people? Robert McKee, in the screenwriting bible, Story, noted that stories “fulfill a profound human need to grasp the patterns of living—not merely as an intellectual exercise, but within a very personal, emotional experience.”

As a devourer of memoirs, I can say that going on a journey inside someone’s emotional experience is both a thrill and an inspiration for me as a writer. Elizabeth Gilbert’s Eat, Pray, Love is one I’ve read many times. When trying to explain how good it is I would say that her candid and eloquent writing really paints such a vivid picture of what it was like at that crossroads in her life when she was seeking spiritual and romantic fulfillment (with a lot of amazing Italian meals along the way).  

In another powerhouse book, The Year of Magical Thinking, Joan Didion’s memoir about the year after her husband’s death, she writes:

“We might expect that we will be prostrate, inconsolable, crazy with loss. We do not expect to be literally crazy, cool customers who believe their husband is about to return and need his shoes.

Many people discuss mourning, but when you read those words, there is nothing false–there are no euphemisms, just pain, and the interior walls of grief.   

Another thing to note about this genre is that it is the documenting of experience. Again, it is not journalism, where word-for-word accuracy is something to stake your reputation on. If Elizabeth Gilbert lost a few details about some meal she had in Italy a year ago and filled in details as best she could from her recollection, it wouldn’t really matter if she wrote that she drank Chianti or Barolo. This was not a crime scene, nor was it a matter of political interest. 

Whether you’re a writer of memoir or non-fiction books, it can be a very freeing experience when you realize that the most compelling writing in this genre does not require the kind of rigidity that requires 100% word-for-word accuracy.  For example, the reason a person picks up a self-help book is that it addresses a problem he or she is having and presents strategies and solutions to overcome that problem. So, while these strategies and solutions have to have some legitimate weight and substance, this kind of writing isn’t as much fact-by-fact writing as it is advice that resonates with the reader. 

Whatever form of non-fiction writing you’re doing, use the truthiness of other writers that you admire as inspiration, whether it’s Joan Didion’s memoirs, Modern Love essays, or Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point. And if you’re wondering about the equation of truth and storytelling in non-fiction–If your reader wants to keep reading, you got the balance right. 


Rebecca Cullen is a Los Angeles based author, screenwriter, and copywriter.  She started out as an assistant to the writers of Poltergeist and Marked for Death.  She then went on to sell original pilots, pitch jokes with Jimmy Caan, and has currently put her cynicism aside to write a romance for the Hallmark Channel.  Rebecca is raising two extraordinary boys, Aidan and Beckett, and shares part-time custody of one confused dog, Buddy. She is a transplanted New Yorker living gluten-free in Southern California, except for key lime pie at the Galley. You can find her website here.

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