115. Chris Mays, “‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction”

by breavman99

Tired of reading about methodologies in the social sciences, I retreated to more familiar ground: the humanities in general, and Chris Mays’s “‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction” in particular. Mays begins with a 30-year-old article on rhetoric by Jim W. Corder, in which Corder explains that “we all ‘creat[e] the narrative’ that is our lives” (qtd. 319). The hard part, according to Corder, is “accommodating the divergent narratives of others”—in other words, in coming to terms with difference (319). Sometimes we can, but other times we don’t: “We turn away, we ignore, ‘we go to war,’ or ‘sink into madness’” (qtd. 319). “This article is about these differences, and the problems that arise when the nuance of our written worldviews goes unexamined,” Mays writes. “Writing, itself, is the central focus here: It is the contention of this article that an examination of writing, and in particular its complex capacity to render worldviews, can help us better understand how differences arise, why they linger, and why they can seem intractable” (319-20). The key to all of this, Mays proposes, “is in understanding the complexity of writing itself” (320).

To contend that writing is complex is nothing new, Mays admits (320). But “writing’s complexity . . . gives it a significant power to interact with and shape out world” (320). In this sense, it is complex “both in its form and function, with subtle discursive constructions generating profound effects on the local reader and in the wider environment” (320). According to Mays, “the power exerted by writing often manifests in its ostensible simplicity. When at its most effective, writing can seem completely straightforward, and the truths it renders can seem obvious” (320). However, that simplicity is an illusion: “the primary source of writing’s power is not its simplicity, but its ability to disguise its own incredible complexity” (320). “To explain this idea,” Mays continues, “this article zeroes in on a controversy over ‘facts’ that exposes the problems that arise when writing’s complexity is overlooked” (321). His aim is “to explore the complex ways facts are made, rather than assuming them to be already finished building blocks of a universal and static reality” (321). He is particularly interested in “the debate over the fabrication of details” in creative nonfiction (321). “[G]iven the complexity of the questions and debates involving fact, fiction, and truth in nonfiction writing, exposing the complex functioning of writing specifically in this genre advances our understanding of how all writing works on audience sand how writing genres—and facts overall—are divergently perceived” (321).

Mays’s decision to focus on creative nonfiction is deliberate, since this form claims to be factual, despite the artistry involved in writing it (321). “However, despite this oft-acknowledged subtlety in the very conception of what a fact is, the actual shaping of facts as they are defined, deployed and debated in this kind of writing is something often glossed over by writers in creative nonfiction, happening beneath the surface of the genre as it does,” Mays writes. “In other words, while many acknowledge subjectivity, few authors in the genre embrace it” (321). Creative nonfiction is “uniquely complex in its constitution of meaning and of facts, as its authors typically work in the murky waters of subjective experience,” and as a result, this form of writing “is often a site of intense confrontation over the facts its authors represent” (321). Mays focuses on “the debate over fact and fabrication in the work of satirist David Sedaris” (321). I love Sedaris’s writing and had no idea such a debate has taken place. “This controversy illustrates writing’s mysterious power well—what seems like a simple debate over the truth of remembered details exposes the way that all writing is elaborately manufactured,” Mays writes. “The controversy also reveals that the seemingly straightforward genre categories we use to classify writing are, in fact, tools we use to pretend this complex manufacturing does not exist” (321-22). However, “[u]nderstanding how this manufacturing works is crucial if we are to have a more nuanced understanding of facts and if we are to sustain a means of engaging with others—and others’ writing—that is more informed, more productive, and more accommodating” (322).

Creative nonfiction “would seem a perfect venue for discussions exposing the complexity of writing and of the problems that arise when factual controversies arise” because “it is a genre that . . . proclaims its basis in fact despite the use of literary techniques to colorfully render that fact” (322). The debate over the James Frey scandal, and similar controversies, “illustrate the difficulty in drawing absolute conditions for the facticity of creative nonfiction” (323). These controversies might “have prompted the widespread adoption of a more fluid or subjective way of describing the genre, or indeed, of describing writing, accuracy, and facts themselves” (323). That’s not what happened. Many proponents of creative nonfiction “have remained steadfast in their insistence that the genre has clear boundaries” (323). “It is surely worthwhile to live by the maxim of not ‘making stuff up,’ and confronting ‘all of the facts’ seems on its face to be a workable goal for a genre that includes the word nonfiction in its name,” Mays continues. However, “the complex workings of writing often clash with the seemingly rigid genre expectations of creative nonfiction,” and that clash “lays bare what can be an important understanding of writing—one that does not take facts as absolute and, thus, one that foregrounds rather than minimizes a process in which creative is not so far away from invented as many would claim” (323-24).

Mays notes that “while rhetoric and composition scholars know well the decades of poststructuralist theory asserting the contingent nature of our claims to certainty, the claim that facts are important comes up again and again” in writing about creative nonfiction (324). “To expose the intricacies of writing’s complexity, though, is to complicate this straightforward idea that creative nonfiction deals in facts,” he continues (324). One way to reveal this complexity is through genre theory. On one hand, a genre provides us with “a regular set of cues that tells us how to understand the writing within it,” and those cues control “the meaning we make out of writing” (324). On the other hand, “genres are inherently unstable and so are always changing” (324). So, “because writing is complex . . . it is both generative of and structured by fluid and contingent genres that can be constituted differently by different audiences or in different contexts” (325). Facts, too, as “part of the meaning we create from writing, are thus themselves continually being made and remade in the ongoing, context-dependent process that is writing” (325). “[W]e understand facts differently in different situations and in different genres,” and so “facts emerge out of genres, and how the boundary lines of fact and fiction are drawn is dependent on the genres in which one is observing the facts” (325). 

Mays isn’t trying “to dismiss the value nor the existence of facts altogether” (325). “The explanation here goes in a different direction than notions of social constructivism that suggest facts, or any kinds of boundaries between fiction and nonfiction, are arbitrary or, perhaps, illusory,” he writes. “The account of writing presented here does not do away with stability, nor with facts, but rather exposes the complexity of their creation and argues that this complexity itself produces an illusion of stability and of simplicity” (325). Stability—including the stability of facts—is necessary for us to function (in writing and in life), individually and collectively (326). However, that recognition might 

gloss over the extent to which differences in assessments of what facts are go unnoticed and so can hide the negative consequences of these disparities. That is, those cogent arguments in nonfiction scholarship about the ethical and practical consequences of playing fast and loose with the facts in creative nonfiction, while important to consider, effectively shift the focus away from the complex mechanism by which all facts are created and maintained. (326)

“This divergence in facts is hidden by the very mechanism through which facts and meaning are constituted: genre,” Mays continues. “Genre looks stable to observers because it functions to provide stability—it organizes writing into recognizable forms” (326). But that stability is only temporary. “Using genre theory to better understand this complexity and contradiction can help us better navigate divergent and competing understandings of writing that produce drastically differing sets of facts simply by making us aware of the unstable process of these facts’ formation and maintenance,” Mays argues. “This awareness might also help us grasp how we might better recognize—and deal with productively and civilly—our tendency to perceive writing in ostensibly stable configurations and then argue over which configuration is more correct” (326-27).

Now Mays turns to the case of David Sedaris and the question of whether he had accurately recounted his experiences working in a mental institution when he was 13 years old. The response (mainly online) to the revelations made by writer Alex Heard, who fact-checked the story, illustrates “the way that, to most, the situation is black and white and, no matter the opinion, that dissent is largely inconceivable. Observers often just do not perceive that there are different ways of drawing genre boundaries and intensely defend the singularity of their views” (328). “This insularity exposes the problem with creative nonfiction specifically,” Mays continues. “More than other genres, creative nonfiction is a site of extreme nuance and complexity in the way facts are constituted” (328). The complexity of creative nonfiction are, for many observers, “hidden by seemingly straightforward genre rules” (329). “[I]f one perceives creative nonfiction as stable form one’s own vantage point, then the idea that there is disagreement about the meaning (and the facts and the rules) of the writing in this genre might seem so clearly misguided as to be infuriating,” Mays suggests, and “when we apprehend a genre in one particular way, we often fail to notice that it’s actually moving and that there are different ways it can be apprehended—ways that to other people are just as inarguable and obvious” (329). “Facts emerge from writing, but they can emerge quite differently, and the process that creates this divergence is often impossible to see,” he continues. “In this sense, fact and fabrication, highly complex concepts, are always on the move,” and “the very act of writing creates a contingent and unstable context, carved out of a reality that is always exceeding our capacity to fully know it or even to pin it down for too long” (329). “This hidden complexity of writing therefore leads to one of the central conflicts in our appraisals of it in creative nonfiction: There isn’t anything close to absolute consistency in the assessment of whether a work is fact or fiction,” Mays writes (329). 

How people perceive writing in a genre (like creative nonfiction) can “be influenced by conditions that exist in a particular community” (331). But even members of the same community—writers of creative nonfiction, for instance—can have difference perceptions. Mays compares the responses of Heard and of memoirist William Bradley, for instance. Those perceptions matter:

While many scholars of creative nonfiction make the argument that in all nonfiction writing gray areas exist between fact and fabrication, there is always some point for most readers (and critics) at which writing can become clearly dishonest—a point where the boundary between harmless embellishment and deleterious fabrication becomes, if not absolute, then at least clear. What is interesting, however, is that for different people, such a line is drawn very differently. Moreover, it is often difficult for individuals to reconcile their own boundaries with the divergent ones of others, and it often goes unnoticed that seemingly clear standards are often applied very differently in different situations. (332)

For Mays, the point is that “the very complexity of the act of writing hides the way that all writing is conflicted, as the variation of the boundary lines by which we classify writing means that the same writing might be turned into either fact or fabrication, either creative nonfiction or creative fiction” (332). Mays refers to complexity theory to suggest “that the boundaries of creative nonfiction will always seem apparent to the person who has drawn them, just as the delineation of facts or fabrications will seem clear. Despite this apparent clarity, however, the genre rules that govern the perception of fact and fabrications are in fact fluid and malleable, changing as contexts change” (332).

In practice, it is difficult to implement a workable view that, in creative nonfiction, facts are malleable, Mays continues (332):

The subjects of writing can be harmed, for instance, when lax standards for facts create an anything-goes environment, which can also degrade public discourse and allow pernicious ideas to go unchallenged, as when fringe political group representatives attempt to intentionally spread misinformation. (332)


[d]rawing strict boundaries for what is factual discourse ignores the problems entailed by the existence of differing genre configurations. As genre theory shows, genres organize our interpretations of writing in ways that shut out alternative organizing schemes, and so the production of facts in a genre will preclude the legitimacy of other ways of constituting the facts. In short, it is very difficult for a person to draw or demarcate facts in multiple ways, since the very acceptance of one set of facts reifies boundaries that are a product of one version of a genre instead of another. (333)

“Seeing through the lens of complexity and genre theory does allow us the better grasp the mechanisms of this exclusionary epistemic practice,” Mays continues. “Fact, by their very nature, seem to speak for themselves, but this becomes true only after they have been produced within a genre. To ignore the mechanisms of how this production works—and to ignore that genres, and facts, can vary—is to ignore a major complication of saying that facts simply speak for themselves” (333). Citing Jane Bennet, he suggests that “we need to at least recognize that these divergent configurations exist, even if we cannot perceive them,” and that imagining facts to be “absolute and undebatable” is misguided as well as harmful to others around us (333).

Another example of “[t]his actual messiness in our seemingly unambiguous appraisals of writerly fabrications” is the case of satirist Mike Daisey, whose solo show, The Agony and Ecstasy of Steve Jobs was both a tremendous success and included “fabricated or embellished” details of Apple’s factories in China (333). Daisey defended his “‘combination of fact, memoir, and dramatic license,’” although he did rework his show, “bending a bit to the standards of ‘journalism’” (334). As with Sedaris, some observers concluded that while details might have been wrong, the overall truth of Apple’s treatment of workers in China was “‘indisputable’” (Mays cites the New York Times), while others disagreed (334). “Both Daisey’s work and Sedaris’s work could be considered examples of creative nonfiction, even though there may be disagreements as to whether the work was closer to journalism or theater (for Daisey) or humor writing or autobiography (for Sedaris),” Mays writes (335). His point, however, is “to illustrate the fundamental paradox of writing: as authors, both Sedaris and Daisey wrote, and the moment they did, they created complexity. The boundaries drawn to make sense of this complexity, to make sense of their writing, were drawn out of contingently constituted genres with an apparently static—but actually unstable—network of rules” (335). An awareness of the ways that the “discernible categories of fact and fabrication” are in flux, even though they appear to be stable, “should inflect all our understandings of, and judgements about, both facts and writing” (335).

Mays argues that understanding “the complex processes through which genres are constituted shows them to be both unavoidably obfuscatory and powerfully divisive”:

while it is not necessarily harmful for authors to strive for accuracy and facticity, and there is ethical value in creative nonfiction authors’ attempts to recall details correctly, there is also ethical value in recognizing the quite variable processes by which details are crystallized into facts and in recognizing the processes by which facts are judged—differently—through the prism of different genres. (336-37)

In addition, “while there is merit in holding authors accountable for basic community standards for honesty or for fidelity to the subjects of their writing, it is also valuable to recognize that there can never be absolute accuracy in the complex world rendered by writing,” Mays states. “Indeed, the act of writing itself is the creation of an unstable and malleable context in which absolute accuracy is impossible, even though writing also, paradoxically, creates the conditions—genres—in which such an absolute can be ostensibly assessed” (337).

In his conclusion, Mays returns to James Corder’s call for us to accommodate those with different ideas about the world. “The unwritten difficulty here, though, is that the very process of creating our own narrative inhibits the creation of that commodious universe,” Mays writes. “The very existence of our narrative—and our facts—impedes our recognition and legitimization of the facts and narratives of others” (337). Of course, not all facts, or all stories, deserve to be legitimized: the “fact” that the earth is flat, for instance, or the story that the Holocaust never happened. I’m not sure that Mays, or Corder, is suggesting that we legitimize such stories or such “facts,” but on the other hand, I’m not sure they aren’t suggesting that, either. The criteria for fidelity to reality “is, ultimately, contextual,” Mays suggests, and failing to recognize that one’s standards are only one possibility “is to only see the obviousness of one’s own configuration” (337). We need “to attempt to presume the validity of both your own rules and those of someone else simultaneously” (338). And no text can tell the whole story: “Just as both rhetoric theory and genre theory explain, there is no way to present the entirety of a situation, nor to present a situation that is understood identically by every reader. Authorial choices, and the genre rules used, entail a specific view of reality that is always and unavoidably partial” (338). Overemphasizing “unimpeachable facts,” Mays writes, “elides this very important point and disguises the ways we make choices about our view of the world every minute of every day. It also can discredit writers engaged in the legitimate endeavor of writing about the world and so can distract us from the beneficial effects of these writers’ efforts” (338). Mays calls upon his readers to acknowledge the “rhetoricity” of facts, and he cites Kenneth Burke to make the point “that our perception of the world is always and necessarily a contingent selection among an infinite excess of possibilities” (338).

I’m not sure I agree with Mays’s conclusion, as I’ve tried to suggest. Some possibilities in that infinity of possibilities are going to be wrong, mistaken, or malevolent. But I feel at home in this writing, the way I felt like a stranger when I read (for example) Laurel Richardson and Elizabeth Adams St. Pierre, or Tony Adams and Stacy Holman Jones on autoethnography. Perhaps I ought to be considering my writing to be creative nonfiction rather than autoethnography. I will need to read more about both categories to be able to make a decision, but that’s a possibility I need to think about. And the nice thing about Mays’s essay is that his bibliography gives me a place to begin an exploration of creative nonfiction as a methodology. I won’t begin that exploration right away—I have other things to read first—but I’ll get there, eventually.

Work Cited

Mays, Chris. “‘You Can’t Make This Stuff Up’: Complexity, Facts, and Creative Nonfiction.” College English, vol. 80, no. 4, 2018, pp. 319-41.