Friday, May 25, 2012

Using "Artistic License" Responsibly (Lesson Learned)

Langston Hughes
Taken by Carl Van Vechten
     I owe you an apology. I posted my essay called "Judged Judge" on my blog. "Essay" implies non-fiction. Little did I know that "Judged Judge" couldn't be classified as non-fiction--it must be called fiction.
     Are you asking, "Christy, how could you mistake fiction for non-fiction?" Well, a little thing called "Artistic License" had me all confused. Let me explain how I learned this lesson. Maybe it will help you avoid such embarrassment!    
     *Note: If you're wondering why I've put a picture of Langston Hughes, read on, read on...
     First of all, what is artistic license? It is license for the artist (hah) to distort the facts in a factual piece of writing. Does that sound bad? It can be, if used wrong--but sometimes it is necessary.
     I'll use an example from my story (Judged Judge, the one I labeled as "essay") to explain ethical usage of Artistic license. If you read my story, you'll remember that I described a "shotgun" wedding. Now, we live in a small county, and I did not want people to divine the participants in this wedding. It could be embarrassing for them, yeah? So I used artistic license: I changed some of the details of the wedding to make it unrecognizable. Not so bad, right?
     Here's where I went wrong with Artistic License. Because this essay was to be written almost entirely in dialogue, I took another liberty: in my story, I wrote about Maisely. Maisely does not exist as a single entity in real life--she is a conglomeration of wonderful people and advice. She is, in large part, a man, and a pair of wise women. I could introduce you to two of these people; the other has passed away. So, the conversation recorded in my story actually occurred before the wedding with friends, in my head during the wedding, or afterwards with one of those three friends; I combined them in order to organize my memories into a coherent essay. I wrote my thoughts and my friends' words into an organized conversation for the purpose of the essay, because I needed dialogue.
     However, this is not non-fiction anymore. To me, it seemed a subtle difference. After all, the point of creative non-fiction is to be creative, right? And the point of an essay is to organize a thesis. The conversations, the wedding, and my epiphany all happened. I gave my honest thoughts, feelings, and worries. I looked appropriately buffoonish for judging too quickly...but I didn't stick close enough to reality for it to be considered "non-fiction."
     I learned about my mistake after talking to my essay instructor. I asked her specifics about the essay in question, and she clarified for me. Thank you, Professor Dixon!
     "Artistic License" helped me out a lot in this memoir. It is an important, useful tool when writing memoirs...but it must be used carefully. A writer should never lie to their readers. There are lots of examples of using artistic license unethically, though. I would argue that A Million Little Pieces by James Frey should not be categorized as a memoir because he fabricated many of the events for no reason beyond creating a dramatic story. He could have written a novel, if he wanted to do this ethically.
     I hope this overview of artistic license frees you up to write your story into meaningful memoirs, using creative license ethically. If you're still not convinced, read on!
Lots of Resources Today
     For a famous example of someone who did something similar to what I did (except his was awesome and totally legit), read "Bop" by Langston Hughes. It's about 3 pages long. I actually based my own essay on his style, here. You can order it in an anthology for free from the library. Just type in your library card number and the last four digits of your phone number.
     For more information on Artistic License, check out these resources. Click here for a Wikipedia article on artistic license. For a conservative approach to using creative license, click here. For a liberal approach to using artistic license (which I disagree with), click here.

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