Inventing Creative Non-Fiction
Some thoughts from Lee Ann Mortensen and Others  

Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 2002




What is it to write prose, that hideous fabric of supposedly ordinary sentences?  What is it to write creative non-fiction?  How, I ask myself often, does creative non-fiction really differ from fiction?  Ron Powers, a Pulitzer Prize winning author, says, “The novel is a way of creating a mythic truth from your own personal mythos. . . the reader is sharing your myth, and that’s powerful simply because we’re a storytelling species.  We like stories.  The non-fiction act is similar to that, except that it satisfies our hunger for the real and our need to make sense, make order, out of chaos” (from Creative Nonfiction by Philip Gerard). 

Why would non-fiction be any better than fiction for making order out of chaos (or for tapping into “the real” for that matter)?  Some people, like John Barth, would argue that fiction allows for more artistic, or purposeful, crafting.  “. . . our lives have neither order nor purpose,” he says.  “ . . .our values are cruel illusions; our conversations are tedious beyond appraisal; our bodies are preposterous, our minds a bad joke,” but our novels are meaningful, ordered universes (“How to Make a Universe”; 18).  I think he’s right about life not being artful, but what kind of creative non-fiction author ever writes about mere tedious, purposeless reality?

In “Site of Memory” (from William Zinsser’s The Art of Memoir), Toni Morrison tells us she builds the details of her fictional scenes with the fuzziness of “real” memories.  For her, merely recounting the facts of her life has no artistry (no order?).  Her inaccurate memory actually allows her to create deeper, more “magical” situations in her prose.  She does not let mere, “boring” reality get in the way of the story that ultimately needs telling, the story that gets at something wider than any “reality” could ever show.  For instance, she has a “factual” memory of her parents walking away from her arm in arm through the fields, yet she has no real knowledge of their inner lives.  Fiction writers often try to tell/invent these hidden stories.  But is inventing hidden “truths” an unavailable option for the non-fiction writer?  God, I hope not.  I basically don’t know anything about anyone.  My “real” constructs of others are wild inventions of their hidden selves based on their fragmented invasions into my life.

One could then say I live in a fictional universe, so when I write about “the real” it’s a fiction anyway.  So maybe I’m not a non-fiction writer at all.

John Gardner, a hard core traditionalist, likes to say that in fiction, the unity of the story—what he sometimes calls the “vivid and continuous” dream, the story’s internal logic—always comes before the flatness of fact (The Art of Fiction, 31, 79).  A well-done story, he says, seems “true,” but not because it is factual; it is logical because it tests true “against our sense of the actual” (think Realism here; 79).  He says a story must have causal profluence (narrative pull—the what’s-going-to-happen-next tension of a story), which seems to test “true” to most readers (79).  So basically he’s saying good writing, or at least good realistic writing, has to be orderly, but also fool us into thinking it’s “true”.

In Letters to a Fiction Writer (Ed. Frederick Busch) Rosellen Brown asks, “What, in fact, does it mean to tell the truth in our writing?  We are only as complex as we are—but we ought not allow ourselves to be less complex in our work than in our lives” (98).  Whatever postmodern life is, it doesn’t seem to be black and white, so why should prose of any kind try to pretend easy answers are acceptable?  Good vs. evil is only really interesting when the lines begin to blur, and often literary, or blissful, prose blurs lines—between good and bad, between truth and falseness, between hard and soft, between man and woman.  When we write blissful prose, our motto could be: Fuck Simplistic Binaries.

Philip Gerard says narrative writing has an “apparent subject” and a deeper subject (from Creative Nonfiction).  Of course, I would prefer to say that no story ever has just one deeper subject.  That’s just way too New Critical for me.  As a postmodern poststructuralist who believes language is a web of shifting, shaping, constructed meaning, and that the world is made of language (and thus the world is also shifting and shaping and constructed), I would argue that nothing we write is ever that orderly, that singular, or that true, True, or TRUE.  I don’t believe anything I write is ever a reflection of some reality, and nothing I write has only one deep meaning, and all of my writing is under my control as much as I am under it’s control, and this is always shifting.  My writing is yet another piece of the chaotic world and is no less, nor no more, real than anything else.  It is language, and it is interesting to me.  It is another place I inhabit, like a purple room with a fur couch.  It is it’s own shifting-constructed-purposeful-yet out-of-control universe.  And sometimes I call it fiction.  And sometimes I call it non-fiction.   But either way I’d be lying.

Given all this, can I articulate some of my own process?  What do I do when I write prose?

Ok, take, for instance, when I talk to my mother on the phone.  Is the following how our “real” conversations go, or do I start to change it even as I attempt to recreate it?  Yes, of course.

“Hi, honey.”


“How’s school?  Are you doing ok, honey?”

“Yeah.  Funny.”

“How is your house?  Are you ok being alone?”

“Funny.  I have no friends.  I’m fine.”

“Well, if only you went to church.  There’s lots of nice people there you know.”

“I don’t think we’d get along.”

“Well, you never know.  Oh, those photos you sent from New Orleans.  Jake and Justin got scared and screamed when I showed them that leech picture.”

“That’s cute.”

“Well, you know Bonnie Watkins died.  She just went suddenly.   Pancreatic cancer.  She was gone in two months.  Frank Kleinman asked her to send Gail a message—you remember Gail, his wife, right?”


“Frank asked Bonnie when she passed through the veil, to tell Gail he’d been a good boy.”

“Oh.  Hmmm.”

“Your dad and I were talking about how anyone could go just like that.  You never know.”

“Yeah.  Have you been to the doctor yet?”

“Oh, I’m taking lots of nopalitos.  Aunt Elvia swears by them.”

“Uh huh.”

“We just got finished eating your favorite food.  Guess what that is?”




“We’re watching Touched by an Angel right now.  They just have the best messages.  Last week it was about a woman who was paralyzed but wanted to be a figure skater.”

“A figure skater.”

“God can do miracles.  She didn’t skate in the end, but she became a coach.  Oh, did you send your taxes in?”


“I hope you’re getting something back.  Any news from work?”

“I’m mad about it all.  Salaries.  New administrators.”

“Well, now, don’t get so mad you burn you’re bridges.  You have a good job.”

“No, mom.  I won’t.”

“Well, I’ll let you go.  Love you, honey.”

“Love you.”

God, I don’t even know how to write what we “really” said.  I’m already making stuff up here.  That is, after all, what I do.


Copyright © Lee Ann Mortensen 2002