You've probably heard this a billion times, but it's true—good writers write about what they know. But this maxim, while true, has also been subjected time and again to misinterpretation and misapplication.
There was a group of filmmakers in Europe during the nineties who decided they were only going to make films that reflected reality as it actually exists. They called themselves Dogme 95, and they willingly restricted their filmmaking with rules like "no music unless it's played from a visible source onscreen" and "no faked deaths." The intent was to only deal with "real" issues and only within a completely "real" context.
The problem was that, even with the many restrictions the directors accepted as a group, they still weren't dealing with reality as it really is. The mere act of aiming a camera at actors and having them do and say things they've memorized beforehand is unreal because it's scripted and guided.
A lot of writers assume they can achieve a similar level of realism in their creative nonfiction. They dwell heavily on physical details, they work hard to omit nothing, and they offer little to no commentary. But the fact that they're reshaping the past in their own words automatically means that readers aren't being exposed to pure reality.
Which isn't really the point of such writing, which includes memoirs, reflective essays, narrative history, etc. Writers are always trying to say something, even when they work hard to write "objectively." The only difference between writers who attempt total objectivity come off dry or dishonest, whereas those who write with self-conscious subjectivity are always more interesting.
Think of the best storyteller you know. Not the best writer, but the guy who tells the best stories, the ones that have people laughing hysterically or listening wide-eyed. If he simply relayed facts or events, he wouldn't be the best storyteller; it's because he adds his own commentary and (sometimes spurious) detail that makes him so good.
So it is with the creative nonfiction writer. She isn't so good because she merely reiterates bare data. She's good because she reworks the material in such a way that readers are both intrigued or entertained, and gain a new perspective on life, the universe, and/or everything.
Before you protest that this is tantamount to lying, understand what is being suggested: not that aspiring writers ought to manipulate the truth or deliberately distort the facts. Rather, that they ought to select those details and commentary which are the most interesting and the most meaningful. This is the only way to communicate something worthwhile to readers.
Perspective is a funny thing. Some readers are bound to misunderstand your point, others will strongly disagree, and a few will understand and benefit from the message of your work. But if you're writing for the correct reasons, and you're crafting your essays and memoirs with care, you'll be making a significant contribution to a field too much overfilled with inanity and sentiment.
Review by C. Hollis Crossman
C. Hollis Crossman used to be a child. Now he is a husband and father, teaches adult Sunday school in his Presbyterian congregation, and likes weird stuff. He might be a mythical creature, but he's definitely not a centaur.Read more of his reviews here.
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