Truth, Lies and a Writing Prompt: The line between fiction and nonfiction

I have long thought of poetry as the gateway drug of writing. It is how I began as a writer, telling small stories in rhyme.

For some years, I thought I had grown beyond poetry, as though it was a genre of incomplete thoughts. This assertion was passed around as a joke in conversation during the years I pursued my MFA. The barbed retort was that fiction writers were all liars, all of us unable to glorify the truth as the poets did.

Most of my early fiction is nonfiction. I pulled heavily from my childhood and family experiences when creating my graduate thesis. My undergraduate stories were worse–stream-of-consciousness rambling in which I poured out my anger at someone in my life who was “doing it wrong.” I wrote stories because I couldn’t bear to face my life straight on. I wrote poetry because I was afraid to flesh out my stories.

It makes sense that what I mostly write now is nonfiction. I am no longer afraid of myself or the potential consequences of accepting myself. For the most part. (It also makes sense that my poetry was mediocre at best.) But knowing why we write what we do is not the same as knowing how to write what we want.

In a class I teach, I was asked about the difference between fiction and creative nonfiction. Due to metaphor and faulty memory, it is not always obvious.  One of the writing prompts we undertake is a three-parter designed to dig into this query:

Truth to Tale 

1. 20 minutes. Choose an event that you can see very clearly. Use the five senses (taste, touch, smell, sound, and sight) to indulge the scene. Write what happened from your point of view (first person; I, me, we).

2. 20 minutes. Rewrite the scene/story you just completed by changing the point of view and/or perspective. So, you might now write in second person (you) or third person (s/he, they). You might also choose to write from the perspective of someone or something else in the space where your story happens.

3. 20 minutes. Change what happens. Lie. Tell it differently than you remember it. Make it a conscious choice.

For trauma writing, I enjoy requesting students write what “should have” happened or what “could have” happened. I will talk in more detail about that in context with healing our own stories in another post. The goal of this exercise is to help the writer find the line between their truth and their fiction.

Creative nonfiction can be tricky. Just as the media spins news stories, memoir writers must also choose a framework that informs the reader, nudging them toward the most important takeaway. In my experience, the biggest obstacle is rarely telling the truth; it is which truth to tell. Here is a poem by Hannah Notess which beautifully explores truth and fiction through storytelling: Water Under World. I hope you enjoy it as much as I do.

Want to see how someone executed this prompt? Read “It’s Okay to Think About Your Hair” by Shareen Mansfield.

*If you complete this exercise, blog it with a link back so I can promote your post on Twitter and Facebook. I will also link your post at the bottom of this exercise as an example. 

Shawna Ayoub

Shawna Ayoub is an essayist, fiction writer, poet and instructor with an MFA in creative writing from Indiana University. Some of her work has been published in The Manifest-Station, Role Reboot, [wherever], The Huffington Post, The Oxford Review and Exit 7. Her writing explores the intersections of race, place and survivorship. She writes with honesty about her own experience in order to transform pain.

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