When Fiction is Nonfiction

Earlier in the week, I came across an interesting and thought provoking blog post by a longtime favorite, Jess Witkins. Jess is currently working on a book of her own, and talked about the worst thing she ever did as a writer. If you don’t feel like following the link, I’ll “out” her for you: Jess once cheated on a boyfriend, all in the name of her craft.

She explains her actions thusly:

I truly believed, in the deep down pit of my soul, that I did what I did because I thought it would make me a better writer…I believed the only way I could write like all these other authors I loved was to “experience everything.”

I am not condoning her actions – but I am not condemning them, either. I kind of get it. Many people misguidedly believe you need to experience the things you write about in order to do so convincingly. There’s an excellent scene in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous that addresses this; a young journalist is interviewing a rock ‘n roll star and asks,

Do you have to be depressed to write a sad song? Do you have to be in love to write a love song? Is a song better when it really happened to you?


Ooh. Those are deep questions…

Which, unfortunately, are never answered in the movie. It didn’t take me long to respond to Jess’s post (below), but her question weighed on me afterwards for quite some time. I came to realize the answer isn’t as black and white as I’d first thought.

Screenshot 2015-05-26 16.04.40

Obviously, I am not going to kill anybody in order to know what that feels like. I’m pretty sure Stephen King never broke down a hotel room door with a hatchet when researching “The Shining,” and it’s doubtful Michael Crichton actually reanimated a dinosaur when penning “Jurassic Park” (but, how cool would it be if he had!).

Smaller details, however? I think immersing yourself in the experience does help. I’ve had a bacon maple bar or two from Voodoo Doughnut in my lifetime – a place that plays a minor role in my book. I know the layout of the joint, and exactly how airy and delicious that first bite is…how the maple icing sticks to the roof of the mouth while the savoriness of the bacon cuts through the sticky sweetness, and…Voodoo

DAMN YOU, diabetes!

So, my point is, I can see it both ways. The most important trait a writer needs (besides the ability to write) is a good imagination. Experience can help round out the details, perhaps – but I don’t think you have to cheat on somebody in order to find out it’s wrong, or that it leads to a whole bunch of bad things, like guilt and hurt and insecurity. Jess closes by saying,

I often wonder if the life lesson overall wasn’t worth it. I learned what it means to hurt someone, I learned what it means to be hurt by a friend. I don’t think it helped me with craft or editing, but it helped remind me I’m human. I will make mistakes – foolish ones I won’t believe I did. But I will try better next time.

Tough way to learn a lesson, that’s for sure. But a great way to turn a negative into a positive.

I would love to hear what other writers think about the question posed here. Or what anybody thinks, really. Even if you’ve never commented before, go ahead and share your thoughts if you are so inclined.

And here’s that link to my novel, No Time For Kings. It’s not all about murder and mayhem. There is love and hope and optimism, too. And some mighty tasty doughnuts…


Published by Mark Petruska

I'm a professional writer and editor living my best life in south central Wisconsin.

12 thoughts on “When Fiction is Nonfiction

  1. Extrapolation. All I can do is take personal experience and imagine the extremes. As you said, I’m not going to blow a bad guy up with a .50 caliber rifle from a mile away (see my novel Ochoco Reach, due out next January (shameless plug) :-). We take our personal experience AND what we’ve read to get to those places in fiction. I don’t know about other writers, but being able to explore those extreme behaviors and situations is one of the reason I do what I do. Researching the details and exploring the feelings involved is the allure of writing fiction. Isn’t that why we write in the first place?


    1. Go ahead and plug away, shamelessly or not! I’m always in the mood for a good read. What you’ve said about imagining the extremes makes perfect sense. I think most writers do extrapolate based on imaging how far somebody would go in a certain situation.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. What’s funny is I had a professor who explained that nonfiction is essentially fiction because they are memories in our own minds and those memories are not facts. We tend to have memories that don’t belong to us simply because we’ve heard the story a million times that it almost feels like we were present for it when in fact, we weren’t. Nonfiction is such a gray area and readers feel cheated when they find out that what an author has written may not be 100% accurate, but it’s accurate in their minds.
    I’m confused even just writing it haha.


  3. Great, now I’m craving a maple bacon bar. Diabetes blows. I fell of my nutritional wagon and feel like I went backwards 5 steps. I’m back on, but have to kick the beer off again (which was the hardest part with Scott drinking ) Beer…oh why do I love you so much? Send me your best bloody my recipe please….well, text it to your brother if you wouldn’t mind, he’s the bartender.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I’ll send along that recipe, I promise! If you guys do come up and we rent a beach house together, Tara makes a great bartender.

      Don’t beat yourself for falling off the wagon, if you will. Slow and steady wins the race! If you keep yourself from enjoying too many good things, you’ll go nuts. I’m at the point now where I am easing up on the rigid diet. I’ll never go back to the way I was, but I will allow myself an occasional indulgence now.


  4. I love a post that includes a box of doughnuts on the side!

    Interesting topic. Just my opinion, but I think writing a love song or a break up song is different than writing about those topics in a book. There’s just something soulful about songs that I don’t think comes across in books. Therefore, I do think you have to experience something to write a good song about it, whereas you don’t need to experience something to write a book about it (that’s where research and second hand experiences come in). Then again, I might be full of crap.


    1. You’re not full of crap, because others agreed with what you wrote about songs v. books. It’s all very interesting to me. I’ll have to ask Mick Jagger whether he really does have sympathy for the devil next time I run into him.


  5. I could definitely go for some donuts right now, and must applaud you for a masterfully subtle book plug. That’s the way to do it!

    I tend to agree with your other commenters. I think songs come across more soulful if the artist has actually experienced the feelings mentioned. Maybe because a song is more than just its lyrics. It is also tone and inflection, things that someone who is familiar with the backstory behind the song can best express.

    I think an author, on the other hand, doesn’t necessarily have to have first-hand experience with a specific situation as the reader’s imagination is also a key ingredient in the story telling. If experience with the subject was a must for it to be ‘real’, then both writer and reader would have to be familiar with the topic in order to fully appreciate the words.


    1. Ahh, yes. The reader always uses his or her imagination to fill in the blanks, huh? I was going to say a novel relies on tone and inflection too, but despite the author’s best intentions, there will always be room for individual interpretation. I have a very good picture of the villain in my novel, for instance, but who’s to say somebody reading doesn’t come up with a completely different mental image?


  6. Mark, I liken this topic to being an actor. And actor doesn’t have to experience something in order for him/her to act it truthfully. I’ve played many roles in my career as an actor and didn’t ever experience what the character experienced in my real life but was able to convey it. In fact, I’ve actually portrayed a woman in a play, and yet I’m a man.

    But will say that I’ve known many other actors who felt as though they needed to experience something first-hand in order for them to convey it truthfully.

    I agree with you though. Something such as fiction-writing or acting is just that – it’s fiction and it’s acting. Therefore, I think the most important tool a write or actor can have is a great imagination that can make us BELIEVE it’s truth.

    And when it comes to writing songs, I think that’s different because most songs are composed and created from personal experiences.


    1. Excellent points, Ron. Method actors like to immerse themselves in their roles, but I’ve always thought they take things to the extreme. If you’re a good enough actor, rely on your imagination to take you to those far away places!


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