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'Everything actually happened'

19 November 2007

A great irony of creative nonfiction is that one of its chief assets is also one of its chief liabilities. The fact is that in nonfiction, everything actually happened. It's all true. One of the reasons we eagerly turn to nonfiction is because we have it on reliable source - most often, in any case - that the events on the page actually took place, and the people who did them were, or are, real. A good part of our astonishment at reading Ernest Shackleton's account of his eight-hundred mile open boat voyage from Elephant Island across the terrible frigid sea to South Georgia Island, for example, is that real men went through this, with real fears and real hopes, who had real families at home, with real men left behind, cold and hungry, depending on their success. This happened...

But the cold clear fact is that no matter how astonishing the story, there is no guarantee that it will be interesting writing. Many writers of nonfiction, particularly in the ever-burgeoning category of memoir, seem to believe the strength of their subject is enough to keep the reader captivated...

Not so. Or, often enough, not so.'

Richard Goodman in The Writer's Chronicle, published by the Association of Writers and Writing Programs in the US