Autobiographical Fiction versus Creative Nonfiction

In the rebranding of writing, I suppose there’s nothing more confusing and irksome than the change of autobiographical fiction into creative nonfiction. They are basically the same thing, and the more accurate term to describe the genre is autobiographical fiction. So how and why did the idea of a fictional story based on real events morph into nonfiction embellished with creative elements?


Thomas Wolfe’s Autobiographical Fiction novel

The reason for the change is that the literary establishment thinks there’s more money in a true story, but true stories tend to be a bit on the boring side. So spicing up real events with creative writing and dramatic arcs fixes that problem—unfortunately it creates another. It makes people feel as though their lives lack the magic of other people’s lives, and as a result they create drama all around them trying to be more real.

The truth is that you aren’t being told everything about what is fiction and what is nonfiction. Film scripts that are ‘Based on a True Story’ often get registered as fiction for legal purposes. Reality TV is staged and edited to fit dramatic arcs. What is being sold to you as truth is often a stylized and sanitized version of events designed to make you want more material things—to keep up with the ‘Joneses’ as they used to say.

There’s an old saying that seems to have disappeared from our culture: You can tell more truth in fiction than you can in nonfiction. Autobiographical fiction is the poor writer’s creative nonfiction. While both involve creating composite or symbolic characters, only a writer with money and legal backing has the impudence to believe that their characterizations of other people are somehow objective truth. A fiction writer knows that they are only offering a perspective, that creative embellishment of any kind actually turns a work into fiction. They don’t see that as straying from the truth. They see it as a way to get at deeper, more universal truths.

So if you are writing in the genre of creative nonfiction, maybe it’s time to stop and take a step back. Ask yourself, have I crossed a line into fiction? If not, maybe you should. If you are writing fiction, maybe do some rebranding of your own and go with the fiction. You might find yourself freed up to tell a more interesting story that gets at some deeper truths that nonfiction can’t reach.


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