When Nonfiction Writers Take Liberty

As much as I hate to admit it, I enjoyed Mark Morford’s column "I Wanna Be A Crackhead Author:
Hello, I am an ex-hooker heroin addict with AIDS who eats live puppies. Please read my book
". A taste:

I shall start my story humbly, meekly, just like JT LeRoy and James Frey. Small town, somewhere in Idaho or maybe rural Montana, brought up by a sadistic pedophiliac Pentecostal preacher father who only has one good arm and a decimated colon, and a narcoleptic mother with 17 cats who sucks down cases of Tab and reads the “Left Behind” books as nonfiction and who passes out every night in a Percocet haze watching endless reruns of “Knight Rider.”

Me and my two sadistic, ADD brothers will sneak off to the local zoo for days at a time and sleep with the monkeys and torture penguins with fireworks. I will suck on my first bong at age 4 and will be stone drunk by 7 and will regularly black out by age 10, but not before impregnating my pothead babysitter and stealing her credit card to buy a Game Boy and a small Cessna, which I will promptly fly all the way to Mexico before crashing into a tortilla factory and breaking my spine in 12 places and rupturing my kidneys, which I will pay a Mexican mafia doctor named Mannie 50 bucks to swap with black-market kidneys stolen from unwary tourists. Oh my yes. I can see it now.

It’s not exactly discouraged in college narrative nonfiction writing classes that you enhance your memories or history to make a better narrative that’s more gripping, illustrative, or humorous than the events that have actually happened to you.

Why, even I, your humble unreliable narrator have embellished certain things in my own essays to make a point. For example, I created this whole beautiful wife thing out of whole cloth, culminating in a fictional pregnancy to increase my traffic (or I have invented the invention of her to prove a point about embellishing–sorry if this paradox has caused unKirkian patched PCs to shut down and free the Enterprise crew and Harry Mudd).

The key, though, is to know a limit between embellishing and fabricating. In one, you’re exaggerating for effect something that really happened, and in the other, you’re exaggerating for effect something that didn’t really happen.

I only hope that I know the line. If not, I hope to be very celebrated and successful with my undiscovered deception.