When we last left the three little pigs, Pig number two (the one with sticks) claimed that the Wolf said, “I am going to huff and I am going to puff and I am going to blow your house down,” is a classic line to be sure. One I have heard many times and even read before to my daughter. However, what if the Pig got it wrong? What if the Pig misunderstood what the Wolf said? The story would change. So would how the reader viewed the story. But enough about barnyard animals, what about real life and real writing?
I recently read a memoir where the writer describes events that took place in vivid detail when she was a child. It was a beautiful section of literary prose and really brought the reader into the experience. However, is it reasonable to assume every line of dialog was exactly how the writer remembered it?
Because most of us don’t carry tape recorders and cameras with us at all times. In all fairness I am not sure what I had for breakfast three days ago. If I were to make an educated guess, I would say that I had a protein shake with banana or yogurt and toast, or a bowl of ice cream, because these are the kinds of breakfasts I eat all the time. My morning choice comes from either feeling the need to eat healthy, or being in a hurry, or feeling a little decadent or a little blue. However, I am not really sure what I ate on Feb 28, 2010.
If the writer cannot verify his recollection, should he include the information on the story? I would argue yes if the writer is being authentic with what he wrote. This means it might be okay to talk about eating ice cream for breakfast, even if I am not 100% certain, if the rest of my day is authentically about my decadent or blue feelings. As a reader, I want to know and feel that the writer is committed to her version of the story, which means it will likely be imperfect in fact but 100% truthful. CNF writing is a biased interpretation of events designed to lead the reader toward a particular point of view. Really good CNF will frequently tie the events on the page to a larger more important universal truth.
Does this mean that writers can now ad lib or invent story lines to serve the story? Absolutely not. I believe that if someone consciously fictionalizes an event and claims truth (something not real to the writer) then the writer is being dishonest to his audience, who need the writer to be credible to make the story believable, credible and interesting.
So when I read, “I will huff and I will puff, and I will blow your house down.” I understand that the dialogue may or may not be fact, but the deeper truth is that the Pig inside a flimsy house of sticks is terrified. The dialogue moves me to feel the Pig’s terror, which is true and important for the reader to know.
So what is the goal of CNF in my opinion? I believe finding and presenting authenticity, the writer’s honest truth. This can be difficult. It is difficult in memoir. Less so in travel writing (I will have a lot to say about truth and accessing the real story in travel writing in a future post) Although writing travel is still more difficult than it seems.
Another goal of CNF should be to coin a new phrase to describe CNF without having to compare it fiction – again, a topic for another day