Nancy McCabe earned an MFA in fiction from the University of Arkansas and a Ph.D. with a dissertation on fiction from the University of Nebraska — but she currently writes nonfiction. As someone who specializes in creative nonfiction and memoir, McCabe knows that life has a way of not going as planned.
A conversation with Lee Gutkind, the founder of the journal Creative Nonfiction, flipped a switch for McCabe. Writing fiction had not felt right for a while, she said. She realized that what she was trying to set to paper was too close to her own life, and cloaking it in fiction was stifling the story’s power.
“I was draining away the drama of the events as opposed to increasing it,” McCabe said. “That doesn’t mean that I’ve given up fiction altogether; it just means that for a period of time, nonfiction seemed to be the thing that was best suited to the material that I had.”
Deliberately labeling material as fiction or nonfiction is perhaps one of the few ways that readers can distinguish the ever-blurring line between the genres. McCabe will discuss the controversial topic in a Brown Bag lecture titled “Crossing the Line: Autobiographical Fiction and Fictionalized Memoir” at 12:15 p.m. today on the porch of the Literary Arts Center at Alumni Hall.
McCabe is the director of the writing program at the University of Pittsburgh at Bradford and has written four memoirs. Her work has been lauded with a Pushcart Prize and has also appeared numerous times in Best American Essays and Best American Nonrequired Reading, both published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt.
“I think that we read things a little bit differently depending on what they’re called,” McCabe said. “If they’re called fiction, we know it’s a made-up story. It might tell emotional truth, but we know that the events themselves — even if they’re maybe autobiographically based — are still an invention.”
Something labeled nonfiction, on the other hand, brings with it a certain level of interest based on the assumption that it actually happened. Readers connect with a story in a different way based on this “nonfiction contract,” McCabe said. For this reason, readers may feel betrayed if they discover something labeled nonfiction was actually fabricated by the author.
A recent and controversial example is that of writer James Frey, who admitted that he had exaggerated much of his life story as recounted in his memoir, A Million Little Pieces.
“If [Frey] had just called that a novel,” McCabe said, “there just wouldn’t have been an issue.”
Readers forming expectations based on these labels might be a contemporary problem. As it is, the genre of creative nonfiction is only decades old. While authors have been writing nonfiction creatively for centuries, McCabe said, the term itself emerged from the journalism of the 1960s.
Now that the genre of creative nonfiction has been established, much more discussion has been generated about its rules, boundaries and exceptions.
“I think a lot of things maybe that were written as nonfiction at one time might be written as memoirs today,” McCabe said. “For instance, Sylvia Plath’s The Bell Jar, which is pretty autobiographical, might very well have been written as a memoir if she were doing that now.”
McCabe suspects that readers have, for whatever reason, grown skeptical of fiction, fearing that it isn’t “true” and thus they cannot connect with it. She disagrees, finding just as much truth in fiction as in nonfiction, although perhaps it is not always interpreted literally.
Besides, after an experience in which her mother disagreed with several instances of truth-telling in McCabe’s first memoir, she has realized that the notion of absolute truth is impossible even in nonfiction.
“It was an interesting lesson to me in a couple [ways],” she said. “One, just that we do experience things differently, and two, that when you put something into print, you have to be really sensitive about the power that gives you.”