Creative Non-Fiction: imagination and the nature of truth
by Eleanor Holmes
A copy of Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table lay on my bookshelf for years, a gift from my father, one of his favourite texts. The fact that I’d not actually read it until my creative writing tutor at Newcastle University, the author William Fiennes, re-introduced me to the collection, specifically the final story Carbon, reveals how I had for most of my life considered non-fiction to be less worthy of my time than fiction.
Why had I drawn such a distinction?
I had read numerous books at medical school by Oliver Sacks, such as The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat and more recently Hallucinations. These books, it turned out, definitely fell under the banner of creative non-fiction. On the one hand they could be considered factual science writing, but Oliver Sacks as an author seemed to be doing so much more than that. This realisation made me re-think what this genre was or indeed could be. Since taking William Fiennes’ module in 2013, my consumption of creative non-fiction has dramatically increased and shows no signs of abating.
Creative non-fiction, as I now understand it, is writing based in truth that uses literary techniques more commonly associated with poetry, prose and script. The attention to character, voice, style, shape, structure and form mark out this genre from journalism and reporting; the facts of a piece not necessarily being as important as the way in which it is written. For me, the words ‘not necessarily’ are crucial here.
The suggested reading list provided by William Fiennes surprised me in its breadth and scope: memoir, reportage, nature writing, science writing, portraits, travel writing, case studies and essays. Unwittingly, I had read more than I had expected but it had never occurred to me to ask, “What kind of book is this?”
In favouring fiction, particularly the novel, I’d often sought to escape reality and move away from my own experiences as a child, growing up, going to medical school and latterly working as a doctor. I soon noticed that in writing creative non-fiction, whether telling your own story or that of another person, the writer can leave themselves very exposed. There is something that appeals to readers when an author states ‘this happened’ – to them or to someone else. It creates a stamp of authenticity that can be quite interesting to unpick.
The criticism Jon Krakauer received after publishing Into Thin Air is a reminder of this. In telling his own story, he was also telling the story of those who had died on Everest. His book reads like a thriller, the tension created by the narrative pace is palpable, but the story was never going to be easy to write or to be without its controversies. The moral and ethical debate surrounding consent and sensitivity when writing creative non-fiction is very interesting to me, particularly as this is something I have wrestled with when I have wanted to write about my own work as a doctor, the truth of my own experiences.
Having researched the science behind memory, I now know that when we recall something, memories are created from scratch using different areas of our brain. In remembering, we create our own unique version of the truth, every single time, which begs the question “what is truth anyway?” The latest scientific research on memory, gleaned from my reading of Charles Fernyhough’s fascinating book Pieces of Light, sits quite neatly alongside the fact that creative non-fiction can often blur what has happened (fact) with things that have been imagined (fiction). This creative license and economy with the truth when telling our own stories is something we are all likely to be familiar with, writers or not. I cannot remember with perfect accuracy conversations I had at the age of ten, but I can use my imagination to fill in the gaps, thereby telling the story I want to tell.
This seemed a minefield to me when I started to write, so much so that I wrote under a pen name and still do. This name is no longer a secret, I have become more comfortable writing about my experiences as time has passed. It now acts as more of a separation of my writer and doctor roles. The professional duties I am bound by I take very seriously; those of anonymity, confidentiality and consent. But these same concerns paralysed me for many years in terms of writing about my life as a doctor and all that medicine has done to shape who I am. The subject of family I find far easier to explore than strangers, colleagues or indeed patient encounters; not that I do not also consider and respect those professional parameters when writing about my family, particularly consent, as my mother will attest to in my latest series of creative non-fiction blog posts entitled Consultations with my mother.
The two poems I’ve written and published about clinical encounters (He Blew Me A Kiss in the previous post and The Milkweed Monarchs here) are two examples of how you can blend medical science and clinical detail within a human narrative, writing from different points of view, using characterisation and voice alongside a narrative arc. Interestingly, I can’t seem to write poetry without some kind of narrative inherent in them, perhaps because I was a prose writer before I started to write poetry. It wasn’t possible to gain consent to write these poems from the persons that inspired them, so providing anonymity was very important when I considered publication; a very deliberate blurring of fact and fiction.
One writer from William Fiennes’ reading list particularly stood out for me, and that was Jo Ann Beard. We read her story Werner, and the dramatic tension she created and her poetic prose style mesmerised me. This was a piece of writing based in truth, but it was someone else’s story, that of a man called Werner who the author had read about and contacted. The way she got inside his head, however, and the use of flash backs was so effective at creating this man’s inner world as well as re-enacting the outer facts of his extraordinary escape from a burning building, that you felt you were experiencing what happened as if you were Werner himself.
What particularly struck me after reading this was “how did she achieve this?” I have since researched Jo Ann Beard and found her writing described as ‘dramatic re-enactments.’ I went on to source another essay called Undertaker, Please Drive Slow which was published in Tin House after The New Yorker declined to run it as creative non-fiction. She wrote this forward to the piece:
“In December 1997, Cheri Tremble committed suicide with the assistance of Dr. Jack Kevorkian. What follows is a merging of fact with fiction: the external details of Cheri’s life and illness are as accurate as possible, gleaned from interviews with her friends and family, while the internal details – her thoughts, her memories, and what occurred after her loved ones saw her for the last time – are imagined.”
In Undertaker, Please Drive Slow she utilises flash backs to Cheri Tremble’s past and childhood, flickering memories that mark her decline from a healthy, working woman and mother through her diagnosis of breast cancer, the treatment she endures, then her terminal decline. The images she uses to convey the final circumstances of her death are free of cloying sentiment and all the more powerful for it.
This writing is however right on the edge, clearly controversial because of the subject matter and the question of ownership as well as truth, whatever we mean by this. It does however shed light on a subject that is so rarely spoken about, that of death and dying. Clearly we cannot ask the person who has died to tell us about their experience of dying, but in this extraordinary essay I feel Jo Ann Beard comes as close as possible to doing that. There is a kind of alchemy at work here, the way she pushes creative non-fiction as a genre to its very limits to explore an emotional truth that I believe would not have been possible if this had been written as fiction.
Primo Levi notes in Carbon his final essay of The Periodic Table:
“The reader, at this point, will have realised for some time now that this is not a chemical treatise: my presumption does not reach so far… Nor is it an autobiography, save in the partial and symbolic limits in which every piece of writing is autobiographical, indeed every human work; but it is in some fashion a history.”
I have now finished reading The Periodic Table, a book that defies easy classification, something I now realise is a positive draw for me and that I seek to explore in my own writing. The blend of short stories, memoir and science writing, woven together by Primo Levi’s love of chemistry, his training and work in this field, his survival of Auschwitz and the horrors of the Holocaust, and his undoubted genius with words is such a moving and life-affirming whole.
BBC Radio 4 have just dramatised The Periodic Table for radio, the different chapters named after single elements from the periodic table broadcast in episodes, ranging from fifteen minutes to an hour. This provides a perfect entry point to Primo Levi’s work as well as a way in to explore this rich and endlessly rewarding genre of creative non-fiction. If you read or listen to no other essay of Primo Levi’s make it Carbon, the story of a single atom of carbon as it journeys from limestone crag to the author’s brain cell as he writes. As William Fiennes said to me it is perfection in writing, the perfect full stop.
BBC Radio 4 iPlayer: Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, available now: www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p040d1vz/members
The Milkweed Monarchs
by Eliot North
I was riding my favourite bike. The Chopper
with the red flag and the silver streamers on the handlebars.
Minding my own business, cruising down Beach Road
to school at Kaikoura Flat. Happened right outside the
Whale Watch Office. “Idiot tourists,” Dad said,
“never bloody look where they’re going.”
Don’t remember much after that. Just the pain
in my belly, the voming and that funny shaped
bruise that crept like a shadow across my skin.
“Handlebars mashed his Pancreas,” the guy said to Mum
after they airlifted me to Christchurch. Wish I could
remember the ride. They’d given me the needle by then.
Couldn’t understand a word when I came to; most of
the docs were from England. Got my own room
on the kids ward though, was pretty stoked at first.
Turns out nine weeks in one room can really turn you off
a place. Kept telling me I couldn’t eat and put a stupid tube
in my chest, for that pseudo-food to drip in overnight.
Would’ve gone mad if it weren’t for the Monarchs.
Mum and Dad bought them in from the farm,
loads of tiny ones on bunches of Milkweed. Boy were
they hungry, just ate and ate whilst I couldn’t. Got fatter
and fatter, the black and yellow stripes growing further
and further apart. They were more interested in them than me.
Didn’t mind though, those ugly critters. Gave most of them
names. Watched how they crawled around my room before
they tucked their tails under like upside-down question marks.
Mum said I was daft, but I knew the Monarchs would save me.
As soon as they slipped into those bright green overcoats
and changed for good, with their precious crowns of gold.
“Coincidence,” the docs said. I don’t reckon. My pancreas
would’ve been stuffed if it weren’t for them. When the cocoons
turned black and then transparent, I could see the orange
wings inside. First one came out all small and wet with
a loud POP! Like the noise my brother makes when
people kiss on TV. I knew it was my time too.
Just pressed the buzzer and the nurses came flying.
Pulled out the drips, blood spurting over the sheets
but I was free. Stretched my arms wide and stuffed a
Chocolate Fish in my mouth before they got near my room.
You should’ve heard the shouting but I didn’t care;
there weren’t no Pseudocyst in me no more.
Commended in the Hippocrates Poetry Prize NHS category 2014
Published in the accompanying anthology
This essay draws on the suggested reading list provided by William Fiennes for his Creative Non-Fiction course at Newcastle University and the following books, periodicals and podcasts:
Beard, Jo Ann, 2002, Undertaker, Please Drive Slow, Tin House Magazine, Portland: McCormack Communications. Vol. 3, No. 4, pp 27 – 59.
Levi, Primo, 2000, The Periodic Table, Penguin Books, London. Translated from the Italian by Raymond Rosenthal.
Fernyhough, Charles, 2012, Pieces of Light: The New Science of Memory, London: Profile Books Ltd.
Cusk, Rachel, 2013, New Writing: Memoir, Newcastle: Mslexia Publications Ltd. pp 30 – 42.
Radiolab podcast: Season 3, Episode 4, 2007, Memory and Forgetting, New York: accessed 1/3/13 at www.radiolab.org.
N+1 podcast: Episode 3, 31st August 2011, Both Fish and Fowl – Jo Ann Beard, New York: accessed 16/3/13 at www.nplusonemag.com.