• Nora Zelevansky
  • And That’s A Fact: A Journalist Cum Novelist's Tips On Moving Between Fact & Fiction
And That’s A Fact: A Journalist Cum Novelist's Tips On Moving Between Fact & Fiction
Written by
Nora Zelevansky
June 2012
Written by
Nora Zelevansky
June 2012

The Cover of My Debut Novel, Semi-Charmed Life (Just Published on July 3rd!)

If you’ve ever written a personal essay or memoir or even retold an elaborate story that relies on memory to a rapt group at a party, you know that the truth can be amorphous.  That’s why they call it creative nonfiction.  I’m not talking about A Million Little Pieces by James Frey fabrication, but rather Rashomon-style subjectivity, where witnesses' perception plays a large role in the telling.  (Many a reality TV star, edited in an unflattering light, would undoubtedly agree.)

This may seem odd coming from a new novelist (literally my first book came out two days ago, so forgive me if I'm overly enthusiastic!), but, before I wrote Semi-Charmed Life, personal essays were as far afield from concrete facts as I strayed.  As co-editor of my high school literary magazine colloquially dubbed (in an inspired feat of imagination) “The Lit Mag,” instead of writing fiction, I contributed a first person true story about witnessing a man having a heart attack in the park while my father taught me to ride a bike and then a thinly veiled tale about “a girl” throwing up after drinking too much at a party the night before.

It was years before I discovered Joan Didion’s Slouching Towards Bethlehem and realized that I was writing creative nonfiction, not just stealing from reality to pad my lack of imagination. (If, by the way, you have not yet read Didion’s essay “On Keeping a Notebook,” go find it immediately!  It will change your life!)


After struggling to find the right career, I became a journalist, immersed in a world where facts are not only paramount, but essential.  Details are checked, rechecked and verified before a piece is pronounced complete.  (Well, unless the article is online often, but that’s another story.)  The point is that many of us writers consider ourselves either fiction or nonfiction people and I was decidedly all about “the truth.”  Or so I thought.

So, when I sat down to try to write a novel two and a half years ago, I figured that crossing the aisle into fiction was really just a dalliance.  In fact, I was terrified that I’d fall into the same old trap, writing only in my own voice as a character who was a slightly more bumbling version of me (in other words, the way I perceive myself).

I wondered, after all this time: Could I even be a fiction person?



I made one decision early on in the writing process that I think proved wise: I chose to write my novel in the third person, so I couldn’t lapse into that familiar first person voice from personal essay.  That may have saved me.

I did end up writing “what I know.”  And I think that can be advisable if you’re just starting out with fiction, a good first toe dip into the realm of make believe.  Not that I planned to focus on the art world (in which I grew up), to parody my own Upper West Side lefty intellectual upbringing, to make my main character a carbo loader like me, to draw on my absurd experiences covering the beauty and fashion worlds—it just happened.

To clarify, there are many differences between these characters and the people in my life.  The story is truly fictional, not factual.  These people aren’t real.  For instance, the main character Beatrice Bernstein’s parents refuse to ever leave New York City and that is a major issue for them, while my parents travel the globe more than most people.  But they do have similar jobs to my parents etc.

The foundation in reality made it easier for me to let the story get wilder and crazier as it progressed.  To my surprise, I wrote a book that was not only fictional, but also a bit fantastical.  I could hardly be surprised by the satirical jabs and pop culture references to everything from Britney Spears to The Bachelor that I wrote because those are mechanisms I always draw on.  Even the sexual and romantic tension I created wasn’t a huge shocker, considering my love of romantic comedies from When Harry Met Sally to Clueless.  But I was truly shocked by the elements of magic realism that made their way onto the page.  There’s no abracadabra Harry Potter magic, but there’s an other worldliness and flexibility with what's possible that emerges.


If you are thinking of making the leap from nonfiction to fiction and are feeling a little intimidated as I did, you might want to try this exercise:

  • Pick a memory.
  • Write down the first ten things that come to mind when you recall the experience.
  • Now replace five of those with made up "facts," occurrences that didn’t actually happen or people who weren’t there or don’t exist or aren't even human.
  • Then, spend fifteen minutes writing a new version of the story with that mixture of fiction and nonfiction and see what emerges.

It’s funny: When Madeline Bernstein (the protagonist’s mother) appears in Semi-Charmed Life, she uses this expression over and over again: “And that’s a fact.”  In a way, it’s as if she serves as a reminder for me and the reader about the relative fluidity of truth.

Or at least that’s my version of the story.

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  • Nora Zelevansky

    Lynda - Congratulations on your book!  It's exciting to hear that there are others like me out there :)  Many of you sound like you've struggled with similar shifts from journalism to personal essay/memoir to fiction.  Thank goodness we don't actually have to choose - we can try them all!  No matter what, it seems like fact and experience lays the foundation for fiction.

  • Carol Hogan

    Maybe what we need on here is a "recovering journalist" group:)

  • Lynda Rutledge

    Great post, Nora! I'm another journalist turned debut novelist.  I even have an MFA in Creative Nonfiction, get that, thinking I wanted to become the next Joan Didion, already doing it in my nonfiction as well.   Instead, the literature side kept whispering sweet somethings in my ear.  So I was a freelance journalist for years and years myself...with literary pretensions.  And after I was under contract for my novel and doing revisions for it (Faith Bass Darling's Last Garage Sale just out TOO), I found out that showing/telling thing was deeply true.  But if Creative Nonfiction is just using the techniques of poetry and fiction to tell a better tale--setting scene, POV, writing lyrically--then the jump, if done watchfully, can be done.  And this is a good post to start learning the moves. (And a big Joy-Jump for us two journalists who made the jump this year! Best wishes for yours. And for everybody out there writing theirs!)

  • Carol Hogan

    I took a class in creative nonfiction at Western Washington University last summer, and it was fascinating. It's essay (or you could say memoir) writing with a lot of emphasis on details, place, scene setting, etc. There are even genres within genres. All of my classes just make me want to write more.

    Just like you, Nora, I was a journalist. Spare the words, write the story. It's difficult breaking out of that mold, isn't it? I've never even tried writing fiction and I often wonder if that's because I have no imagination. By the way, congratulations on your new book. I hope sales go great.

  • Cindy Vine

    I've never seen creative non-fiction as a genre, but I think they need to make it one.  What I do with my novel writing is take a real story or incident, and then embroider on it and rework it so that it no longer resembles the original and becomes fiction.  So I might read a newspaper article that stimulates my creative juices, remember another news story from a few months ago which would weave in perfectly, plus a dose of life experiences myself or family might have had, and voila!  A novel.  I guess that would be creative non-fiction as well as my fictional story has its foundations in fact.  I love it!

  • Laura Wickel

    Congratulations on the novel, and I'm going to work that writng prompt! Oh and I'd like to read your book.

  • Nora Zelevansky

    Thank you all so much for your comments and support!  I'm so glad that some of you found the post helpful.  I do think the whole creative nonfiction thing has to allow for subjectivity, but it's implicit, right?  In terms of the fiction vs. non-fiction, as with most things in life, the anticipation and nerves about writing in a different form were harder than the actual writing process.  But isn't that so often the case?  If any of you do try the prompt, I would LOVE to hear how it goes.  Let me know!

  • Best of luck on the success of your novel, Nora. I enjoyed your post -- in fact, it feels as though it was written for me. I've authored personal essays for over 8 years and I've been struggling to make the move to fiction. Funny how we think we're the only one ☺ Thanks for letting me know I'm not alone and providing some hands-on prompts.

  • Carol Hogan

    I'm wondering...when my children were in their teens and I was writing magazine stories about our sailing adventures, I would often read my day's work at the dinner table. More often than not one, or the other, or both would say to me "mom, that's now how it happened." Was I writing fiction? Or was I writing how I remembered it? I thought I was writing fact. Now that I'm writing a memoir they're still saying the same thing. Isn't creative nonfiction a little fact and a little fiction all at once?

  • Judith van Praag

    Nora, Starting to write a novel 2.5 years ago and already seeing on the shelves, that's a mature feat, congratulations!

  • Evalyn Lee

    Congrats about the book and thanks very much for the prompt!

  • Penny J. Leisch

    This is a very good post. As a nonfiction writer, who would also like to stretch my writing, I find your perspective helpful, as well as entertaining. In fact, you do it so well that I think you could make it into a workshop or ebook to sell. I look forward to reading more of your posts about your writing life. I also love guest posts on both of my blogs, and I'd welcome you anytime. Keep writing!