Editorial: A Balancing Act
Maria Turner

In his essay "Not Just the Facts," Joel Yanofsky writes: "[A] true story, like an invented one, isn't authentic just because it's true, but because a writer worked hard to make it authentic." This, he tells us, is as close as he is willing to get to a definition of "that otherwise fuzzy, undefinable term creative nonfiction." By working hard to make it authentic, Yanofsky is referring to the work that goes into transforming life events into a story. He reminds us that when writing true stories, especially perhaps, those from our own lives, a writer must do more than list the facts, like a grocery list, or a timeline. The story may be true, but it still needs structure, point of view, characters, and dialogue to make it live on the page. Stop worrying about the facts, Yanofsky tells his students, and start worrying about the story.

If I had to define that otherwise fuzzy and undefinable term, I would say something like the following: creative nonfiction is nonfiction writing in which the writing is as important as the facts. But not more important. The facts are, after all, the thing that drew us to the story in the first place. Truman Capote, just before he discovered the newspaper article that would lead him to write In Cold Blood, told a reporter: "It was as though there was a box of chocolates in the next room and I couldn't resist them. The chocolates were that I wanted to write fact instead of fiction. There were so many things that I knew I could investigate, so many things that I knew I could find out about. Suddenly the newspapers came alive, and I realized that I was in terrible trouble as a fiction writer."

The facts make up the life events that we are trying to understand, or learn from, or illuminate, or marvel at. And they are not only seductive, but they also carry a certain weight. Nonfiction characters live and breathe and sometimes die beyond the confines of the page. As James Agee so eloquently put it in his introduction to Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: "In a novel, a house or person has his meaning, his existence entirely through the writer. Here, a house or a person has only the most limited of his meaning through me: his true meaning is much huger. It is that he exists, in actual being, as you do and I do, and as no character of the imagination can possibly exist."

Capote, while indulging in his box of chocolates, did not forget his duty as a storyteller, to transform the facts into a compelling narrative. This is the challenge of creative nonfiction: to satisfy the demands of the story while honouring the real people, places, and events that the writing is trying to depict. And it is in this delicate balancing act, between the constraints of the facts and the needs of the narrative, that a writer can transform a true story into an authentic one.

Maria Turner is the nonfiction editor of carte blanche.