Heart of the Matter: Exploring the Purpose of Truth in Creative Nonfiction

February 5, 2018

All writing possesses an element of truth, from the most basic textbook to the most elaborate high fantasy novel. Truth is what pulls readers, allowing them to catch glimpses of themselves in often impossible situations. Suspension of disbelief only goes so far, after all, and even elves and robots should have some humanity in them. Otherwise, they’d be impossible to relate to.

For the writer of creative nonfiction, truth can often bring a sense of relief, their burden lifting as they spill themselves on the page. Sometimes we keep things bottled up for so long that we forget there’s another option, that we don’t have to be locked up so tight. We grow accustomed to the ache in our chest, the coil in our stomach, unable to imagine a time when they weren’t there. I think part of the reason there is such a feeling of release is that, usually, the writer is sharing what pains them – allowing others to carry the weight of it, if only for a short while.

Likewise, reading creative nonfiction often brings you back to a time when you were that other person, so to speak. Recently, I had the opportunity to read Joel Leon’s “For Colored Boys Contemplating Suicide,” and I can honestly say that the raw truth of the work is what kept me reading. Leon writes of poking a kitchen knife into his stomach as a means of self-harm, and suddenly I’m transported to the moment when I pressed my palm against a steak knife just enough that I hoped it would break skin. He describes wrapping cords around his neck, trying to figure out how to end his life, and my mind is drawn back to the antidepressants sitting on my bedside table, to the times I’ve poured them out into my hands and wondered what it would be like to take them all at once.

It means something because, even though the circumstances differ, I’ve been there, and I know that other people have, too. Part of the reason we write creative nonfiction, allow ourselves to be vulnerable in that way, is because we want to know that we’re not alone and, in turn, provide others with the knowledge that they aren’t, either. In short, the impact of a piece of creative nonfiction lies in its truth.

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