Creative NonFiction – Embellishing with Good Grammar?


I saw an interesting interview the other day with James Frey, infamous author of “A Million Little Pieces.”  I never read it – I tend to steer away from gritty, raw memoirs.  After the kerfuffle about it, I avoided it even more because I’m a chicken shit who loathes controversy.  I never saw Oprah flay Frey on her show or anything.  So, when I inadvertently witnessed Frey & Oprah’s kiss-and-make-up session the other day, I have to say my curiosity was piqued.

Surfing the web, I came across a blog that said (paraphrasing here), we have James Frey’s fall from literary grace to thank for the term “creative nonfiction.”  To be honest, I’d never given the term much thought although I am very anxious to write a memoir about my family which will no doubt push the limits of both “creative” and “nonfiction” – more on that later.  The blog went on to say that if an author today writes a “memoir,” there will be an author’s note making certain…disclaimers about its content.  Presumably this is done to protect authors from vengeful talk show hosts and lawsuits.

Human beings are not perfect; we have faulty memories.  I swear that I remember seeing Walter Cronkite make the somewhat teary announcement that JFK was dead on national television.  I remember my mother putting me down on the beige wool carpet in the master bedroom of our house.  I can still feel it’s roughness on my legs.  I can see our brownish (faux wood perhaps) television set.  I was 2 when JFK was shot.  Did I really remember that day or am I remembering a combination of news footage and carpet burn?  Who can say?

My memoir will be about how I come from a long line of crazy people (on both sides).  There is no embellishment there; the instances (and variety) of mental illness in my family is simply staggering.  I guess I could get into hot water just saying that as certain members of my clan maintain that there is nothing wrong with them.  I suppose I could write a sterile, clinical tome using all manner of medical terminology and excerpts from interviews with various doctors.  There would be footnotes.  I’ve never liked footnotes.

No, I will write what I suppose will be a highly embellished, fictionalized version of my family history as told through the ages by people like Great Aunt Maeve who thought she was the daughter of a Selkie (seal-person).  Great Aunt Maeve is safely dead and gone now, God rest her soul but even the story of how she died is, well, utterly fantastic.  And, fantastic if you get my meaning because Aunt Maeve, real though she might have been (and I’m not telling), and her story is the stuff of family legend.

Writing fictionalized accounts do not necessarily protect authors from harm either – libel is still a real concern, especially if you are writing about those still living.  Anne Lamott says in Bird by Bird, “I tell my students that they should always (italics hers) write out of vengeance, as long as they do so nicely.”  She goes on to say that if you write about someone, you’d best disguise them so that they, their friends, family, and associates can’t recognize them in your work.  That still scares me.

Great Aunt Maeve was a wee lass from a small village on the coast of Ireland.   Or was she…

I’m compiling a list of nom de plumes right now.  I’m thinking of going with Orangey Snufflet.


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