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Blurring the lines between fact and fiction

Rebecca Skloot begins her non-fiction book, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, a true story about a woman whose cancer cells were taken without her knowledge and the affects on her family, by telling us that no names have been changed, people invented or events fabricated. It’s good to know, but you’d have thought it would be self-evident.

It reminds us that creative non-fiction involves the use of literary devices to enhance the telling of a story while keeping clear water between fact and fiction. I guess Rebecca’s making it very clear that she stayed true to the story.

Lee Gutkind tell us that ‘non-fiction writers can’t alter facts, but they can capture and present them more dramatically.’ Jacquie Banaszynski suggests that we tell our stories with accuracy and understanding and with an unfaltering devotion to the truth.

Both are commons sense approaches. Let the truth stand as the gatekeeper, while the story takes whatever twists and turns are required to bring it to life. The question of course then becomes, who’s truth? The issue of truth is fundamental to non-fiction. The minute you start to select facts, you’re editing the truth.

I’m currently researching and writing a book about women’s rugby, looking at the history of the game – it extends to the late 19th century – portraying the lives and stories of the women who have played, their supporters and coaches. These are stories that have been told and retold over the years, relayed by different voices and now, narrated by my own. Already, I’m editing someone else’s truth; relying on personalised accounts which will be affected by mis-remembering, unintentional distortion and inaccuracy.

The best advice is to simply not deceive and to let your reader in on whatever literary devices used and relied on in the telling of your story.

I admire Rebecca Skloot for making her opening declaration. She explains in some detail how she approached the enormous challenge of telling a real story, staying true to it and respecting the memory of Henrietta Lacks in the process. In doing so, I think she immediately draws you into the story. It works. It’s effective. It’s quite a remarkable story and a wonderful read.