The Role of Imagination in Creative Nonfiction

Writing the truth as we see it — writing honestly — is not just about writing the facts, the way things are. Sometimes, it’s the way we hope things are, or how they could have been, or could be, or even were, as the case may be. Yes, sometimes, writing the truth is about imagining a different reality.

But let me back up.

The expectation of creative nonfiction, as its name implies, is that the writing is true.  Indeed, when it’s not true — when we find the writer has “made stuff up,” has intentionally deceived us — we feel betrayed as readers, as though the sacred contract between the writer and reader has been broken. But this intentional kind of deception is not what I’m referring to when talking about imagining a different reality in creative nonfiction.

Rather, I am writing about imagination as truth.

One of the things I enjoy most about creative nonfiction is being invited into someone else’s mind. After all, creative nonfiction is about truth as the writer sees it. As readers, we follow the path of the mind of a writer at work, watching it unfold on the page.

Creative nonfiction, I think, is the closest we can get to mapping a person’s interior world, whether navigating our own or visiting another person’s. And the truth is, in creative nonfiction — as in life — we can’t help but imagine.

A couple of summers ago, I read The Boys in the Boat by Daniel James Brown, a book of creative nonfiction about an improbable team of boys from the American West who went to the 1936 Olympics for rowing. As a former rower myself and a lover of creative nonfiction, I thought it would be a fun summer read. And it was.

But as I read, I kept having this uncomfortable feeling about the narration of the events. The writer decided to reimagine a lot of the facts into scenes. Which is fine — we do this in creative nonfiction all the time. But what started to get to me part way through was his insistence in his scenes of documenting the small movements and mannerisms of the boys from almost 80 years earlier — someone shifting his weight, or scratching his head. I kept wanting to ask the writer, “How could you possibly know that? — No one could have remembered that.” And so it happened, again and again. I could accept recalled dialogue in scenes – he could have interviewed someone about this. But it seemed to me he had inserted these other things just to make the scene seem more “real.”

Granted, in creative nonfiction, there are things that we simply don’t know, can’t know, even. Something from the past, from another person’s point of view, or something, perhaps, in the future. Sometimes even from our own, unremembered, past.

Previous to that book, I’d read a memoir called Finding Rosa by Caterina Edwards. Its subtitle, A Mother with Alzheimer’s – A Daughter’s Search for the Past, is I think an accurate portrayal of what the book is about. Edwards embarks on a quest bordering on obsession to find out about her mother’s place of origin as her mother’s dementia progresses, and in so doing, Edwards documents her research. This quest for research makes up the bulk of the book, like an investigation of a crime. Near the end of it, after exhaustive research, Edwards decides to imagine on the page what her mother’s life was like. She writes, if I remember correctly, an entire chapter of this imagining, in italics.

What is the difference between the imaginings in these two books – between Brown’s The Boys in the Boat and Edwards’s Finding Rosa?

Brown mixes his facts with his imagining and doesn’t tell us where one stops and another begins; Edwards keeps hers completely separate, and lets us know in no uncertain terms where the line is.

But there is a middle ground, one which is perhaps the most difficult to do well, but the one I feel is most rewarding as a reader, and perhaps most faithful to how the mind works. We imagine all the time in our everyday lives, though we are not always aware of it. But as we try to sort out what is imagined and what is fact, we reveal deeper and deeper layers of truth.

Because we don’t necessarily think “These are the facts” over in this corner, and “Those are what I imagined” over in that corner, in this kind of clear-cut, isolated way. Nor do we often muddle fact and imagination together so thoroughly that we can’t distinguish the mud from the water.

Rather, I think we know, if we stop to think about it, where the facts of the experience end and the imagining beings. But we have to think about it. Often, the imagining does not seem separate from, but indeed somehow part of the experience — maybe only a small aspect of it. Often, memory and imagination are that close together. But I do believe they are distinct. And if that’s the case, creative nonfiction can and, in my opinion, should reflect those demarkations.

We often imagine things differently from what they are, filling in the gaps we don’t know, wishing some that we do know were different. This, in a way, is part of our experience of the thing. “We do live, all of us, on many different levels,” writes Madeleine L’Engle in A Circle of Quiet, “and for most artists the world of imagination is more real than the world of the kitchen sink.”

The trick is to be aware enough of what indeed is imagined and what is not, and to be able to translate both onto the page. And, to be able to alert the reader of what is imagined, with a cue that reads something like “perhaps it was like this . . .” But also with the understanding that this is not necessarily how it was, and in all honesty, probably wasn’t. And then, almost as seamlessly, to signal a return to things as we experienced them in reality.

If the writer is a careful and introspective one, then we as readers will inevitably get more than the facts of how things were. Indeed, we will get a more holistic map of the mind of not only of “this is how things were” but also “this is also how I wished they had been” or “I don’t know how this was,” but “this is how I like to think of it.”

Phillip Lopate notes that “often the ‘plot’ of a personal essay, its drama, its suspense, consists in watching how far the essayist can drop past his or her psychic defenses toward deeper levels of honesty.” I find this aspect of creative nonfiction — this overtness about the lines between imagining and facts, and the fluid passage between the two — to be particularly refreshing and delightful to read when a writer can do it well. (I’m still working on it.)

So. What’s the role of imagination in creative nonfiction?

Imagination is part of our reality. I would like to suggest that it is part of our truth, part of our experience, even if that experience is only lived interiorly. And so, if the essayist or memoirist is committed to documenting the truth, of striving toward deeper and deeper honesty, then we will not only get a map of her reality, but also her imagination.

Question: How do you represent your imagining in your creative nonfiction?

Addendum: Subsequent to publishing this post, I realized that I neglected to mention two significant essays which were instrumental in shaping my thinking about this topic.

One is a craft essay by Lisa Knopp called “‘Perhapsing’: The Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction” in which the Knopp writes about the need to include cues when imagining or “perhapsing,” as she coins it, a concept with which I  have embraced wholeheartedly since reading this essay when it was introduced to me during my MFA. The other is another craft essay called “Imagination: Thin and Thick,” this one by Phillip Lopate (again!) found in his his collection To Show and To Tell, in which he “caution[s] against . . . imagin[ing] on the page a scene unfolding, moment by moment, that one did not oneself witness.” And though I’m more inclined to favour this practice than Lopate does, I do agree with his objection of including “invented detail” which are often added to these scenes without letting the reader know.

I’m indebted to both Knopp and Lopate for their thoughts about the subject, though I didn’t re-read their essays before writing my own essay above: rather, think I’d internalized what I’d read on the subject, reworked it, and came to my own conclusions which resulted in my essay. I must say, I do love reading creative nonfiction in which the overt imagining on the page is done well!