What Can We Learn from Nonfiction Writers Who Make Things Up?

There has been a tremendous amount of digital ink spilled this week on the fall of writing wunderkind Jonah Lehrer, whose book Imagine: How Creativity Works, it was revealed this week, contains fabricated quotes of Bob Dylan. Lehrer’s publisher has pulled the book. His employer, The New Yorker, has accepted his resignation. And people like me, who promoted his book, find themselves dismayed and embarrassed.

There are many directions I could take this post. I could explore why this keeps happening, as Lehrer joins a long list of journalists — Janet Cooke, Jack Kelley, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass — who weren’t satisfied with their stunning prose and skilled research, and had to “enhance” their nonfiction by making things up. I could ponder why anyone thinks they can get away with doing so in the age of the Internet, in which crowdsourcing serves as a distributed-computing fact-checker, but many others more eloquent than me have already covered that ground.

I’m inclined to explore the notion of how fiction has been pushing itself against a barrier from non-fiction that, to some, is now semi-permeable. Essayist John D’Agata defends making up details for effect, then publishes a book of a debate he had with a fact-checker about his inclination, then reveals much of those conversations were made up. He is both celebrated and reviled. James Frey fails to sell a semi-autobiographical novel, rebrands it a memoir, becomes a bestseller, is caught in his lies, is scolded by Oprah, and goes on to continue to write–and sell–books.

So we are somewhat more tolerant of “creative” writers like D’Agata and Frey than of “journalistic writers” such as Glass and Lehrer. As both a journalist and a creative writer, I get that. But I remain unsatisfied.

David Kinney in The New York Times brings an interesting observation to the conversation. In an op-ed August 2nd, he points out that Dylan was an outrageous fabricator in his own memoir, Chronicles: Volume I. Kinney notes Chronicles was celebrated, awarded, and promoted, despite its factual inaccuracies:

What’s the difference? Surely, part of it was that Mr. Lehrer was working in nonfiction rather than memoir, where scenes and dialogue are understood to be reconstructed from memory rather than from rigorous reporting. But even in memoir there are limits to how far reality can be stretched for the sake of the story, as James Frey, the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” learned.

Mr. Dylan got a longer leash with “Chronicles.” He filled it with knowing winks and nods to its unreliability, and anyone who didn’t know that he’d play around with his story hadn’t been paying attention.

As I note above, Frey has come out the other side just fine, still getting publishing contracts, and having a known name in an age where the membrane between famous and infamous is even more permeable. It will be tougher for Lehrer to rehabilitate himself, given he chose to write a work of analysis, not memory. Perhaps if he had instead written his chapter on Bob Dylan as a recollection of a weekend of music and pot with a protest-rock legend, and had placed those words directly in Dylan’s mouth as a witness–something Dylan himself did with others in his memoir–we’d go easier on Lehrer.

In the title of this post, I asked what we can learn from nonfiction writers who make things up. I’m still sorting that out. I suspect, however, that many of the lessons on creativity Lehrer offers in Imagine still apply. Perhaps Lehrer felt too empowered by the notion of creativity when he decided to be creative with another man’s quotes.

34 thoughts on “What Can We Learn from Nonfiction Writers Who Make Things Up?

  1. Pingback: Want to be More Creative? Stop Focusing « The Artist's Road

  2. Maybe what we can learn is the process by which they control/inform/entertain etc a reader using facts and truths. As audiences are captivated by realism in an artistic work or purely placed musical notes or figures in motion. The reality of the natural ‘real’ world can be as mind stretching as any fictional world.


    1. That’s a thoughtful and reflective response. Mark Twain, a journalist turned novelist, said fiction was harder because the real world had so many things that would seem over-the-top ridiculous in fiction. So yes, the reality of the real can be as mind-stretching as fiction, if not more. One tragedy here is that his narrative would have been almost as powerful without the contrived quotes.


  3. I had no idea, talk about being out of the loop. I hadn’t read Imagine yet, but it was certainly on my list to read and well reviewed all over the place. It disappoints me entirely because it further undermines the work of many who strive to prove the worth of creativity. In education we often have the problem of plagiarism. Students will literally cut and paste excerpts from the internet and think teachers will not check them or run them through a website called TurnItIn. Lehrer adds himself to a list of people I can share with students when they claim, “nothing will ever happen” that there is “no consequence.” Yet it also has me wondering, do people think life needs embellishments to be interesting? I’m sure there was plenty of good content in the book that will now be put to question. Thanks Patrick!


    1. You know, Carrie, I blogged on what I called the cut-and-paste culture back in 2006 (that blog, unfortunately, is no longer online), anchoring it around my middle-school daughter, who wrote a paper on Jesse Owens by cutting and pasting from Wikipedia. We talked about this the other night at dinner. A rising HS senior now, she is so far removed from that girl, and takes pride in her original writing. But she said her teachers require them to run papers through one of those services. A sad reflection on our culture, but another tribute to the power of our digital world as a fact-checker.

      Your question of life needing embellishment is a real one, and I maintain it does not. (See my Twain quote in my comment above.) It is often easier to embellish, however, than keep digging for the gold nugget that is also true.

      I agree that much of the book likely still has value. I’ve gone back and said just as much in my March review of the book, choosing to leave that post published.


  4. The cynical answer to your question would be, “you learn to cover your tracks.”

    But I don’t subscribe to the cynical point of view. It’s a shame about Lehrer, because he is quite remarkable as a writer.

    So what can you truly learn? That honesty’s the best policy? Where does truth end and fabrication begin when you’re quoting from memory?

    To paraphrase that old koan about the tree that falls soundlessly in the woods: If a fact took place and nobody else remembers it, is your recollection of it really true?

    Two other things come to mind. One, that ‘fact’ itself is a conceptual division of reality, a segmentation, an entity with boundaries of its own. Two, that History is a kind of fiction as well. To grasp reality, we must convert it into story. I see a lot of potential for deviation and error right there — but I am talking mostly about honest mistakes, unintentional ones. Not defending Lehrer for making things up.

    I guess JL felt secure aboard the wunderkind airliner and it never occurred to him that sometimes a bird will get sucked into the engines and down a plane.

    The take-away? “Try to be truthful.”


    1. “To paraphrase that old koan about the tree that falls soundlessly in the woods: If a fact took place and nobody else remembers it, is your recollection of it really true?” That is the dilemma of memoirists. The answer in the publishing world is that if you believe it to be an accurate memory, and you cannot fact-check it otherwise, it remains, but a foreward notes that it is based on memory.

      History as fiction is an interesting concept. Historians, like journalists, slant their “story” based on what is included and excluded. Most certainly.

      As to JL not believing he would get sucked into the engine, that is a question many are asking today, how in today’s interconnected world he could actually believe that.


  5. Interesting questions, indeed, for someone like me, working on an interview-based nonfiction piece. When I describe the interview setting, the dynamic flow of the conversation, the ambiance of where we met… is there a difference between observation and fact? Where does “truth” land on this continuum? Oh, and what about editing for clarity?

    I think there’s a significant amount of leeway. I wouldn’t have said that when I started, I don’t think. The interviews themselves are on tape, not always audible throughout because of mumbling, both of us talking at once, or outside noise (coffee shops are the worst!) … but my observations are all mine – about the place, the person’s appearance and demeanor (eager to please: “Did I answer that right?!” or wary from too many Q&A type interviews or misquotes).

    What is my choice to tell the story – my obligation, even, to tell it in a way that engages the reader? Should it be factually correct to the point where it comes across like a court reporter’s transcript? Or do I try to bring the reader along on my journey of discovery as I conducted ~150 interviews?

    You can tell from my choice of words what my inclination is. Editing for clarity and readability means, to me, taking out the “white noise” we all add in conversation so the comments don’t appear stupid when you read them on the page, but it still sounds like that person. (So if she or he IS stupid, then that’s another story.) But I don’t want to sanitize the comment or polish it to the point of unreality, either.

    I thought doing the interviews was the hard part… hahahaha. Writing a novel and making it all up would be so much easier. But I love the challenge of this.


    1. Hey ML, I thought of you while writing this post. I too find, even after only two years separated from my interviews, that my memories are not totally accurate. I have film, photographs, and audio diaries, and when I review those before writing a chapter, there’s always something I had forgotten, or a detail I had wrong in my mind.

      As to what you choose to include or exclude, that echoes my comment to startyournovel above. It is the reality of any storyteller of truth.

      One of my interviewees is a devoted Christian, and her music tells the story of God. After the interview, she said she was delighted I let her talk so much about God, because that was not the focus of my video series. I told her it would be difficult to write about her while leaving God out, but I write in the chapter of how, through the power of editing, I could have done just that. The editor has the power of a Creator over his/her world as he/she is depicting it. That is an awesome power, and one that should be wielded with care. I’m sure you would agree.


  6. imaginativestorm

    My teaching partner, Allegra Huston, recently wrote a memoir titled Love Child. It’s a wonderful book about growing up as the youngest daughter of John Huston, the film director. Allegra interview many of her close family. She discovered that everyone had a different memory of the same situation. Her sister thought the car was blue. Her aunt thought it was black. Allegra thought it was red. She solved the problem by writing about what she didn’t remember rather than what she remembered. “I don’t remember if the car was black or red. I can’t tell you how early in the morning it arrived, nor do I remember what time it left after lunch. There must have been three people in the car. I don’t remember.”


    1. That’s a great solution. It folds honesty into the equation.

      I like Tobias Wolff, who in his introduction to This Boy’s Life says he remembers his dog as really ugly, but his mother says the dog was actually quite striking. It’s a great way of pointing out that we all have different perspectives, and different memories.


  7. When I was researching for my review of Wild, I stumbled across this quote by Cheryl Strayed:

    “Memoir is the art of subjective truth, and while I feel a strong obligation to the truth piece of that, I also firmly plant that truth within the context of my own subjectivity.”

    If one were to poll a room full of people about an event they’d all witnessed or participated in, the responses would differ. To me, it’s about intention. In memoir, my intention is to tell the truth in so far as my memory (and my journals) can render it. Intentional fabrication is the very definition of fiction … or close to it..

    Strayed goes on:

    “I didn’t write anything that didn’t happen the way I remember it happening, and yet I’m fairly certain there are things that others would remember slightly differently. Of course there are a million instances that I brought to life by using the skills of a storyteller, as memoirists do — did the wind really blow that man’s hair across his face the moment he asked me that question? Maybe. Maybe not. But that’s how I pictured it in my mind and so I reproduced it for you on the page.”

    I find dialogue to be especially fascinating in the context of memoir. Unless it’s transcribed or recorded, there’s no way to recall the precise stream of words, the cadence, the back-and-forth banter of a conversation that occurred years before. Again, to me, it comes down to intention. Does the writer intend to record the essential truth of the conversation as best memory can render it? Or does she seek to intentionally embellish it?

    What can we learn from Nonfiction writers who make things up? Nothing I didn’t already know in my heart and try to practice, in so far as my flawed humanness allows..


    1. First off, Terri, let me compliment you (again) on your Strayed posts.

      I think her comments seem in line with what I read from memoirists. This is a topic I happen to be studying right now for my critical thesis paper in my MFA. Thank you for sharing.

      Yes to the dialogue issue. I am fairly new to creative nonfiction after years of writing as a journalist, where I would only put things in quotes if I was sure of the quote, otherwise I would paraphrase. I find a lot in creative nonfiction, people do what they call “dialogue summary,” where they say in narrative what people said, rather than exact quotes. I like that approach. I did that extensively in my essay “September 12th,” so much so that I decided I would only use direct quotes occasionally, for greater impact. It doesn’t seem like you see summary dialogue as much in fiction.


      1. I’m going to look back at your essay to see how you employed this technique. I’ve used it as well. (I couldn’t help but think about this topic as I re-read parts of Strayed’s book last night. Quoted conversations from encounters on the trail, etc.) Thank you, again, for the compliment. Means a lot.


  8. Someone (can’t remember who) coined this as “friction.” Why do writers fabricate truth? It’s easier. To connect readers to non-fiction by writing honestly is challenging, but it can be done by utilizing fiction writing techniques, and therein lies the challenge that some are too lazy to bother with.


    1. “Why do writers fabricate truth? It’s easier.” YES!!!!!!

      It is easier. But when you see the increasingly complicated lies some of these writers will do to cover their tracks–Stephen Glass created web sites for fake companies and fake voice mail accounts for those he “interviewed”–sometimes it seems like it would be easier to do a bit more research. No one would have missed the fake quotes Lehrer manufactured for Dylan; there were enough good quotes out there by him that he could have told the story without the fiction.


      1. What’s funny (or sad) is that it’s becoming more and more acceptable to fib. I took a prose-writing workshop class and did a presentation about this. I was surprised that the majority of the class thought that making up things, such as dialogue, was okay in order to help construct a better story. For instance, I workshopped a chapter of my memoir, and they encouraged me to create a scene for dramatic effect that involved a (very secondary) character. I didn’t, and I won’t. Vivian Gornick has some surprising opinions about this (salon.com). Cheers! Jane


        1. Jane, I saw that happen once in a CNF workshop. It was a little stunning to me. I will check out Gornick’s piece. I think Terri’s quotes of Cheryl Strayed above are also informative, that you can include a detail that enhances the writing that seems real to your memory, which of course is different than making up a scene.


          1. I still love her book, “Fierce Attachments,” but I read it before I learned she made up parts of it. All that is needed in these situations is a disclaimer…sigh. Jane


  9. Hiya Patrick,
    Great topic. I haven’t read Lehrer’s book yet either, but I did read the news story about him fabricating Dylan quotes. Hmm, here’s a quote from Lehrer that I read in an article on The Guardian’s online site:

    “But I told Mr Moynihan that they were from archival interview footage provided to me by Dylan’s representatives. This was a lie spoken in a moment of panic. When Mr Moynihan followed up, I continued to lie, and say things I should not have said. The lies are over now.”

    To me, it’s not such a travesty that Lehrer made a mistake in panic, but how he chose to lie in a deliberate way. He wasn’t proactive to correct his mistake as best he could, contact the people concerned and apologize admitting his mistake, then accepting whatever consequences came from that and move on, learning from the embarrassing lesson. Instead, Lehrer admits he kept on lying.

    I believe he probably would never have ‘fessed up to anyone had Lehrer not been confronted and publicly exposed. If he had written a memoir I definitely wouldn’t have the same expectations about factual integrity as I look for in a non-fiction book, which is what ‘Imagine’ is.


    1. Hey Carole Jane!

      See my comment above on the manufacturing of the cover-up. I do think there is a bit of human nature, that when you are already deceptive, you lie a bit more to cover up, and then it just keeps escalating. And absolutely he never would have come forward had he not been caught, and caught red-handed. What I didn’t include in here is that he was caught earlier this year by Jim Romanesko of plagiarizing his own writing in pieces for The New Yorker, which is not as big of a sin, but is still wrong. To me, that suggests a pattern of behavior, which makes me extremely skeptical of other parts of Imagine.


  10. Pingback: “Writer’s Blah”, the Writer’s Blues « crampedwriting

  11. What can we learn from nonfiction writers who make things up? That just because it’s published in a book doesn’t make it true. That applies even if there is general consensus that it is true–it could still be wrong. The self-publishing boom and the internet have made people more aware of the need to question the authority of a publication, but people do still tend to think that traditionally published books are reliable. Not necessarily!


    1. “That just because it’s published in a book doesn’t make it true.” You are right, but that saddens me, because it’s fun to say “I read it on the Internet, so it must be true,” but I come from a world of fact-checking. Of course, fact-checkers are all but gone from the world of publishing now, and book contracts contain statements that require the author to attest everything is accurate, and they leave it at that. (Sigh.)


  12. What can we learn? That we care enough to get it right and to check we are doing exactly that. One source is never enough.
    Plagiarism is rife in these days of easy cut and paste. We have to know that not everyone has integrity and we must be certain that what we write is either completely fiction or checked to be accurate as far as we can. And for fiction writers who don’t think they have to check every final detail? That old rider in fiction, all the characters and places in this book are fiction… maybe it’s best to stick to the fiction.
    Great post and very important.


  13. Nonfiction is such a nebulous thing as memory is also fueled by imagination. This past week, for instance, I was telling a story about when I stepped on a Copperhead, and in my mind it was coiled back and ready to nip my ankle. My husband had been with me during that walk, though, and he recalls that it was just stretched across the road, and when I stepped on it in the dark, I just took off running. I guess what I’m trying to say that in both versions of the story (fiction, nonfiction), I still stepped on a snake.


    1. Jolina, I’m curious when the incident with the snake occurred. It is my belief that time increases the distance between different people’s recollections, but they can seem different to some degree even moments afterward.

      I’m glad you survived the incident!


  14. What’s the difference? Surely, part of it was that Mr. Lehrer was working in nonfiction rather than memoir, where scenes and dialogue are understood to be reconstructed from memory rather than from rigorous reporting. But even in memoir there are limits to how far reality can be stretched for the sake of the story, as James Frey, the author of “A Million Little Pieces,” learned.


  15. Interesting thoughts here! I don’t follow nonfiction, so most of this is news to me. Obviously I don’t know all the details, but gut instinct is to ask why these writers didn’t just acknowledge that they fudged it? Why not call it “creative nonfiction” instead of “nonfiction”? It seems that readers wouldn’t care either way, and then there wouldn’t have been such backlash. Or maybe that’s what they wanted? We know that movie stars pull that type of publicity stunt all the time; perhaps writers are cashing in on that method?


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