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How to: To tell your truth

To tell the truth or to tell a good story? Writers have always had a complicated relationship with the truth. SWLF's Creative Non-Fiction judge Gwyneth Box offers her advice for a beginner.

1. The "Rules"

Although Rob Mackenzie wrote his  25 rules for editing poems for Magma Poetry over ten years ago, they remain relevant. It’s hard to disagree with anything Mackenzie says, particularly as the list is followed by the rider,

“good poets are always ready to break rules whenever a poem demands it.”

Revisiting the rules after all this time, the one that still stands out for me is no 15:

Consider the poem’s “truth”. Not the literal facts (although those may be important at times) but the emotional resonance. […]

2. A higher truth

I’ve never had any qualms about manipulating facts to produce better poetry: I believe, as Mackenzie seems to imply, that the poem’s “truth” stands above the need to keep to literal details. It’s never occurred to me that changing details and moving away from the literal facts turns my poetry into fiction. I hope, rather, that it’s become closer to a “higher truth”.

3. Checking the facts

Still, poetry seems to function in a world of its own and the borderlands of truth and lie, fact and fiction are more often discussed in relation to prose. 

Many novice fiction writers will think that fact and truth are outside their remit. But once they place their work in any kind of realistic historical, political or geographical setting, they risk alienating readers if they stray too far from the truth. If it takes only ten minutes to drive from York to London or if Birmingham is on the coast, if Elizabeth I wears trousers or spends a month each summer by the seaside at Whitby, if David Lloyd George advocates for the death penalty or if the death penalty is imposed in the UK in a story set in the 1990s… these facts will push the story out of the real world and into some kind of parallel universe. 

Most readers will pick up on major errors in fact, but minor details matter, too. A thief hiding the loot in the allotment while planting potatoes in November will cause some readers to abandon the book as they know that even first earlies don’t get planted until February. So fact-checking becomes vital even for fiction.

4. Memories may vary

When it comes to non-fiction, it’s harder to be clear when the manipulation of literal facts turns life-writing, memoir or travel literature into a work of fiction. It’s a question that gets raised time and again when journalists are caught out over inaccurate details that they have brought together simply to “make a good story.” 

I have a lot of sympathy for them. I am so used to picking and choosing which details to include, so used to merging places, people and events in order to create the intended poetic effect, that I am perfectly happy to do so in my prose. 

Of course, this is not journalism, but nor would it all be classed as creative writing. Even when I write a travel newsletter for a client I pick the images that they want to show and I people the settings with characters who best illustrate the experience they want to sell. I’m not writing a guidebook and I’m not guaranteeing that every visitor to the location will meet those people in that identical setting, but I’ve never felt I was writing fiction.

There are, of course, those who sit at the other extreme and are unhappy to change even the least detail. Some years ago I was working with a Spanish author on a translation of a manuscript inspired by the time she spent in India in the Seventies. She always referred to the book as “my novel”. Even so, she wasn’t at all happy when I suggested alterations that would have made the story work far better: she insisted things had to be told the way they really happened.

Perhaps the problem is that “the way it really happened” is itself a fiction. In physics, it’s recognised that the observer reacts with the observed, and we know that a person’s perspective, personal prejudice and expectations influence the way they view events. Add to that the inadequacies of memory, and no personal account can be relied on.

Does that really make every account fictional?

Gwyneth Box is judging the creative non-fiction category of the SWLF 2024 competition. Her judge’s report from last year delves more deeply into what she thinks creative non-fiction actually is. It can be read here.

Words: Gwyneth Box

Photos: Unsplash



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