Not Just the Facts
by Joel Yanofsky

Since 1992 I've taught a continuing-education course on autobiographical writing and I'm always surprised by the same thing: how preoccupied my students are with the facts. I know I shouldn't be. After all, the facts are what they own, what they show up with and offer to me as a kind of collateral against the anxiety and ambivalence they feel on finding themselves where they are, doing what they're doing—attempting to transform their life, or at least a small chunk of it, into a story.

Another reason I shouldn't be surprised is that nearly 20 years ago, when I began to write about my mother's death from cancer—the first piece I would ever sell, as it turned out—the facts were all I had, too. I thought of them, then, as my secret weapon and, heaven knows, I needed one. I was angry at everyone: relatives, friends, the doctors, the rabbi, God, myself. I wanted to know why this had happened. I wanted revenge. I wanted my mother back. And I wrote as if the words on the page would accomplish that. I have never felt more driven, more inspired. But when I reread what I had written, I also realized it wasn't enough. Everyone has a mother, it occurred to me in a cold-blooded instant of pure literary detachment, and everyone's mother dies. I have disliked myself often since then, but never as much.

Still, there it was. If I wanted to write something that would be interesting to someone other than myself, I would have to turn what happened into a story. That meant working on the facts, not changing them or the gist of them, but, yes, manipulating or rearranging them to suit my storytelling needs. That meant creating a structure, other characters, dialogue, and a point of view: making myself, for example, seem even more bitter and confused than I already was. But mainly it meant my mother's death would have to become secondary to the story I wanted to tell.

Invariably, this is a difficult point to get across to people who take my course. Most of them are mature students, in their fifties or older, most have their own heartbreaking stories to tell of surviving the Holocaust or recovering from an illness or a difficult pregnancy or a devastating divorce, and most react badly to the notion that the details of their lives are, well, flexible. Although they usually start out by saying that they don't even know why they are taking the course or what they expect to get out of it, secretly, subconsciously, they do. They want to tell how things happened to them, exactly how, in the proper context and sequence, with every particular intact. Most of all, they don't want to leave anything out.

My job is to encourage them to leave out whatever they can and add whatever they need. To stop worrying about the facts that make up their story and start worrying about the story itself. To understand that a true story, like an invented one, isn't authentic just because it is true, but because a writer has worked hard to make it authentic. Which is, incidentally, as close to a definition of that otherwise fuzzy, undefinable term creative nonfiction as I am prepared to get.

Note: This is an excerpt of an essay that was originally published in Books in Canada, September 1995. The complete essay can be read at the Books in Canada website.
Joel Yanofsky is a literary journalist, book reviewer, and author of three books: a collection of comic essays, Homo Erectus … And Other Popular Tales of True Romance, the novel Jacob's Ladder, and the highly acclaimed biography Mordecai & Me: An Appreciation of a Kind. Joel Yanofsky lives in Montreal with his wife and son.