Memory and Truth: How to Classify Nonfiction Titles

I stared at a tattered childhood Christmas picture. It was the living room of my grandparent’s old house in Atlanta. Wrapping paper covered the floor, my aunts and uncles were still young, and my grandparents were still alive. I took in every detail, hoping the picture would be the catalyst that would allow me to mine forgotten memories. I began to remember little things: the smell of the house, the pattern of the linoleum, the weeping willow in the front yard, and eventually, a story emerged. The question is, are memories true? Can I verify that the events I mined and cobbled together are how things actually happened? Can anyone? If we can’t verify how the events occurred, how can we classify a memoir as nonfiction?

Nonfiction is generally considered anything that is not fiction. This includes reference books, travel books, cookbooks, self-help books, and narrative nonfiction (to name a few). Narrative nonfiction is often misunderstood, as it is fact that reads like fiction. It’s also called literary journalism, fact-based storytelling, and creative nonfiction. The word “creative” can be misleading as it implies storytelling, which is often misconstrued as fiction or historical fiction. Unlike an academic paper, reference book, or journalistic article, in a narrative nonfiction piece the research is seamlessly woven into the storyline. It tends to have characters, a plot, an arc, high stakes, compelling writing, and many other characteristics of fiction. However, a narrative nonfiction writer is not allowed to fill in the blanks with anything that isn’t true.

The two predominant forms of narrative nonfiction are the essay and the memoir. The essay is a conversational examination of a topic or idea and often incorporates research, experiential accounts, interviews, and anecdotes. The memoir is the story of a life, a section of a life, or an event. The memoir is usually written as one sweeping true story or a collection of true short stories. It is a factual account told in a story or narrative format.

If that’s the case, why does nonfiction allow something as unreliable as memories? The idea is that the writer is truly recounting the memory, not whether or not it actually occurred. The experience is born out of the memory of the event. A memoir is a recounting of memory. It has to be a truthful recounting of only what is remembered and what is researched.

While the autobiography offers an encompassing picture of the subject’s life, the memoir offers a glimpse, or pieces, or a complete accounting of a certain part of a life. Trauma narratives such as Man’s Search for Meaning by Victor E. Frankl can shed a new light on atrocities. Travel narratives such as On the Road by Jack Kerouac and Travels with Charley by John Steinbeck can give the readers a snapshot of a place in time. Immersive writing such as Friday Night Lights by Buzz Bissinger is another form of narrative nonfiction where the author immerses themselves in a place for an extended period of time.

Historical fiction is often confused with narrative nonfiction. There is an ongoing debate as to where one ends and another begins. Historical fiction is a researched story based in facts, but the blanks are often filled in with a fictional account of what the character was thinking or feeling, made-up dialogue, and scenes that happened behind closed doors.

Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is a well-known example of historical fiction. It is based on a factual account of the civil war. However, Mitchell made up characters, scenes, dialogue, etc. The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot is an excellent example of narrative nonfiction. Skloot wrote an investigative and historical account of the He-La cell. She traced the cells back to their origin—a woman named Henrietta Lacks. Skloot expertly laid out a factual account based on nearly a decade of research, while seamlessly creating a compelling narrative.

From the beginning of time, people have written true stories. Whether they are documenting events, examining a topic, or remembering the lilt of their grandmother’s dialect, narrative nonfiction allows writers to creatively craft the truth of their experience.

In the Evening: Looking Forward to Untangling the Knot

To begin by saying that Carter Sickels is a good writer would denote enough aesthetic favoritism toward The Evening Hour to elicit an eye roll or a chuckle from someone who has never experienced this book. Therefore, I will not begin this post with, “Carter Sickels is a good writer.” Instead, I will say, “Carter Sickels is a good truth teller.” Yes, I think this is more appropriate. The term “good writer” is tossed about with wild abandon these days, especially when we consider how many writers force readers into a kind of linguistic victimhood as the readers are compelled to search deep into the OED simply to make sense of what the “good writer” has written. Carter Sickels surpasses this profuseness of pretty words; he sinks into a vein of something greater than simply being good at writing. He conjures an emotion and makes it live on the page. He is telling the truth with unflinching, plainspoken intelligence, and in this, he is unmatched by many contemporary writers.

I am thrilled by The Evening Hour‘s characters. Like the novel’s protagonist Cole Freeman, I grew up in a small town surrounded by dense forest and steeped heavily in the rituals of blue-collar American industry. I know these people well. They are my friends, my neighbors, and sometimes, my enemies. My mill town was not unlike Sickel’s coal town. A mill town is the kind of place one has only three options: work in the factories, go to college and work in the factories, or work the streets and go to jail and ultimately work in the factories. The Evening Hour captures the same claustrophobic sensation of overwhelming destiny with its ever-present, ever-exploding coal mine. Small towns are haunted places and Dove Creek is no exception.

Sickels distills the American working class community into its purest elements. He creates a place where people would collapse under the weight of their own nihilism and self-hatred without a spiritual foundation, and we must watch as they defer their faith into objects that they think are permanent and greater than human existence, such as Cole’s Grandfather believing the mountain is proof that God exists. He creates a place where the American dream has crumpled and sunk deep into the poisoned water gushing from every industrial fountainhead to taunt the youth with a cancerous future. If the media were ever to take interest in an industrial accident as the media does in the novel, the focus of all inquiry would be on the backward ways of the citizenry. His America is so far removed from a middle-class delusion that you would never see it depicted on a postcard or in an advertisement. These are the men and women who make the steamroller that is American exceptionalism possible—drug addicted, cancer eaten, and killing themselves to live. Therefore, when I say Carter Sickels is a truth teller, you may get the impression I recognize the face of Dove Creek. However, instead of discounting The Evening Hour as another autopsy of the American underclass, I find it to be almost a celebration. Out of all the wretchedness, there is hope that there is a writer out there who is finally getting to the point of it all. Sickel’s novel is an exploration of how the ennui of poverty might be diminished, if not totally demolished, through the kindness of a single person such as his protagonist Cole—stealing from the sick to give to the poor, a Robin Hood for the demented, delirious, and damned.

I have inside knowledge about Carter Sickel’s next project. Untangling the Knot: Queer Voices on Marriage, Relationships & Identity, the forthcoming anthology from Ooligan Press, is compiled and edited by Carter Sickels and begins, most fittingly, with a superb essay by him. He continues to write the truth as America takes its first steps toward social and legal equanimity and fulfills its promise of equal protection under the law. Untangling the Knot is “one more step toward the conversation we must have” about gay rights. Like I said, he is a good truth teller.