To fiction or not to fiction

To give some context, I’m writing a short story about Northwestern Bosnia, partially under the backdrop of space and place theory. My project explores how my village and city has transformed post-conflict. An important facet of this narrative is the description of places; I’ve got a few nailed down that I visited last summer and have begun to write about, but I’m running into trouble because some of the places I’m most drawn to don’t exist anymore. There was a glass hotel with a circular staircase. Before it was bombed to scraps, it was an important hub for the city. There was also the Agrokomerc business that consistently invigorated the local economy


What I know about these places I know through anecdotes and through conversations on which I have eavesdropped during various gatherings in the Bosnian community. My gut tells me I need to resurrect these places and create characters to occupy said structures. However, I’ve never written in the fictional outskirts of non fiction. I’m wondering if anyone in the cohort has experience walking this line.

In a former creative nonfiction class, I wrote about the experience of impulsive tattooing. The story and its characters were real because it was about my life, but I scrunched up the timeframe into half a day (when, in actuality, it spanned a weekend). For me this was okay because the point—as we had been discussing in class—is that creative nonfiction addresses the emotional truths of our lives; it worries less about being pedantic.

How do I do this when it comes to places that I have not experienced but that I am attached to by blood and generation? Should I use my family as a prototype, and indulge myself in writing a fictional story? I would make sure that whatever I write on the page gets at some emotional truth. For instance, if the hotel was a place of community and inclusivity, then I could create this without knowing the exact physical descriptions of the place, right? I’d use what I’ve learned from the realities Bosnian people have told me about.


How do you all work with creative nonfiction?

One thought to “To fiction or not to fiction”

  1. Hi Lorena!

    I am so glad I came across this blog post. The worries about truth vs. fabrication and fiction vs. non- that you express here are ones that I’ve often come across in my own writing. I’m personally a lot more comfortable and experienced writing narrative nonfiction, and so purposefully assigned myself to write a fictional capstone project. Thus, I think we’re kind of in the same place here, in that we’re both trying to reconcile a history of writing in one genre with another, and figure out exactly where the boundary between the two lies.

    You mentioned that you condensed the timeline of your tattoo story, because the reworking of what was strictly true helped you tell the story more effectively in a short form essay. I find myself doing this all the time too; I’ll write dialogue in narrative nonfiction work that was probably never actually spoken word-for-word by that person, but that captures the feelings of the scene as I experienced it, balancing a lack of memory with the best storytelling devices. This may be an unpopular opinion, but I think this approach is COMPLETELY FINE!! We’re telling a true story, yes, which means that other than “true,” it also needs to be, above all, a convincing, well-formed “story.” I say this just to affirm your instinct to move away from strict reality in your project. I think it’s not only fine to imagine a cast of characters and events from a place of truth, but that this will also probably yield a more engaging result than if you were to feel constrained to only writing irrevocable facts while writing. (Of course, this movement away from strict nonfiction only works if you don’t claim that you’re writing the truth… Including “inspired by true events” or something similar in your introduction may be a good move.)

    As I mentioned above, it seems like we’re both looking for this boundary between fiction and nonfiction. I’ve been trying, and it’s been deceptively hard to find. So, here’s what I’m thinking: what if you (and I, too) decide to throw away these genre labels for a moment, and think of the space between fiction and non as a continuum, rather than a hard line? Maybe try writing a draft without worrying whether everything you say is “true” or not. Write what you want to write and what you feel needs to be written, and then go back afterward and see whether you think it’s more nonfiction or fiction. In your revisions, you can look at what you’ve written and decide which un-truths to keep and which to research more and replace with true facts or stories. Maybe it will help to free yourself up from the imagined boundaries of these two, seemingly opposite genres, and try to see them as similar instead. And they ARE similar–narrative nonfiction and fiction–in that the main goal of each is to tell a story.

    I realize this is kind of nebulous advice, but my main goal in writing this comment is just to encourage you to allow yourself to write without being bogged down by these muddy truth/fiction boundaries. Write freely, but with the knowledge that nothing is set in stone; you can go back and “truth it up” later, if you want. Best of luck on your project!


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