Quotation of the Day: Rebecca McClanahan

Because it can’t be said too often or too strongly:

“When we write nonfiction we relinquish our right to change what happened to suit our imagined version. The creative part of nonfiction lies elsewhere, in the way our imaginative eye views the world–selecting details, combining and recombining information, and reshaping experience….Artful arrangement of information was one of the cornerstones of the ‘new journalism’ of Wolfe and Capote, and remains an important component of creative nonfiction. Facts, information and real-life events do not have to be presented dryly, like encyclopedia entries. They can emerge wrapped in the skin of story, or shaped like prayers, lists, recipes, letters, confessionals, dialogues or diaries. When the eye of imagination is engaged, it illuminates the artful possibilities hidden within actual events. From the hard rock of fact, stone by stone the writer builds a castle.”

Source: Rebecca McClanahan, Word Painting: A Guide to Writing More Descriptively (Writer’s Digest Books, 1999)

5 thoughts on “Quotation of the Day: Rebecca McClanahan

  1. Theresa Milstein says:

    Great quote. That's what I like about Malcolm Gladwell – he can take any subject and make it understandable and interesting. Once more, in his books, his stories come together to support a larger theme.

    If only I could say that for most of my graduate school history books.

  2. deonne kahler says:

    I'm reading David Shields' Reality Hunger, which is both interesting and infuriating, and he's much squishier on this idea of "truth." But I'm with McClanahan – the creative part is in the storytelling, not the facts of the story.

  3. Meredith Holmes says:

    I agree. We all need to be reminded of this often. At least I do. I'm new to non-fiction, and I was surprised and a little appalled at my strong, almost unconscious urge to make stuff up.

    One of the creative challenges of memoir is to resist this urge to cover the blanks — the places where memories have been lost.

  4. deonne kahler says:

    Meredith – I know what you mean. I'm writing a memoir and struggle with the parts I don't exactly remember, and writing about people I have no access to (so I can't ask them for clarification).

    Have you read A.M. Homes' The Mistress's Daughter? She does a brilliant job of dealing with that struggle, and imagines people and past experiences in a way that feels true. (She's up front about her "imagining" – she doesn't claim to know for sure.)

  5. Meredith Holmes says:


    Haven't read any A.M. Homes, but I'll check it out. Thanks for the suggestion.

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