I recently watched True Story, the 2015 movie starring Jonah Hill and James Franco. It’s based on a book by the same name. The book recounts the (true) story of journalist Mike Finkel—a disgraced New York Times writer who fudged facts in a cover story—and Christian Longo—a man who is accused of murdering his wife and three small children. The two men meet after Longo uses Finkel’s identity while on the run in Mexico. After he’s arrested, Longo promises Finkel exclusive access to his story in exchange for writing lessons and not releasing the story until after the trial. It’s a bewildering story centred on the relationship between Longo and Finkel.
Although True Story wasn’t favoured among film critics, it offers plenty of food for thought for a creative nonfiction writer. Finkel’s loose relationship with the facts was his downfall. But the real heart of the story is the relationship every writer has with truth. Where are the lines when writing true stories? Where do the facts end and the truth begins? How much rein does a writer have for which facts to emphasize and which ones to leave out? Does everyone deserve to have their story told? Is the writer only responsible for telling their truth, or do we have a duty to convey the truth of others as well? The film whispers these questions, leaving the audience searching for answers.
Find the facts.
When it comes to writing creative nonfiction, your first responsibility as a writer is to seek out the facts. Do your research, establish background, check (and double check) your sources. Know the relevant dates, people, and places. Not every detail will need to be included in your final draft, but a full understanding of the facts will set you up for telling the story as accurately as you can.
Examine all perspectives.
I read an article recently about how Facebook filters can lead us to a misinformed understanding of the world. In the writer’s example, she explained how she was continually surprised at Trump’s continued wins in the presidential primaries. All the news she was seeing declared his incompetence and she hadn’t seen a single person who was actually planning to vote for him.
But Facebook’s algorithms are designed to showcase content from your friends and acquaintances, subjects you’ve interacted with in the past, and publications you follow. So if the writer was friends with those of similar viewpoints, read publications from similar perspectives, and interacted with subjects she agreed with, then if she’s not a Trump supporter, naturally she wouldn’t see any evidence of Trump support in her feed. A lot of the media we consume works this way. We gravitate towards those with similar perspectives, understandings, and ideas. We attract familiar opinions and read supporting publications.
You need to be cautious of this when it comes to writing. Everyone has bias and every writer is subjective. There’s no value in pretending that’s not true. But when you’re gathering information for a story, the best way to get at the truth is to interact with the subject from all perspectives. Interview people from different walks of life, research material from multiple sources, examine the facts from every angle. Think about your story from the opposite perspective, even if only to understand what it would look like from the other side.
Acknowledge your place.
In the end, you can only write from your own perspective. There’s no judgment in that—only reality. But acknowledging your limitations as a writer will enable you to write with honesty and authenticity. No one expects a writer to write from all perspectives, but readers do appreciate an upfront admission of bias. This doesn’t mean you need to start every story with, “Yes, hello readers, I am biased.” but establishing your place in the story—whether you were a silent bystander, involved in the event or topic, or merely researched it after the fact—offers readers a deeper understanding of where you’re coming from. Leave clues for readers to understand you as the writer better and to provide context for your telling of the story.
The dilemmas involved in writing nonfiction are amplified when we’re telling the story of a heinous crime (as depicted in True Story). But these dilemmas are important for every nonfiction writer. Sticking to the facts doesn’t always represent the truth, and when real people get involved things get messy. Your best weapon as a writer is to always be aware of this. Do your due diligence in establishing perspective. Your stories aren’t always going to make other people happy, but as Kidder says of memoir in his book Good Prose, “But the good and honest memoir is neither revenge, nor self-justification, neither self-celebration nor self-abnegation. It is a record of learning.”
Write what you know; write what you learn. And always do your best to expand what you know and record what you learn.