Please Define: Non-Fiction

My father doesn’t understand non-fiction.

“What does it mean, exactly,” he asks, “This ‘non-fiction.'”

“I write stories that are true.”

“About what?”

“You, me, our family. People I meet. Things I see and think about.”

He looks at me, confused. Something is terribly wrong. “Why,” he says, “Why would anyone want to read about that? Who cares about you or me or our family?”

My father is not being rude, at least I don’t see it this way – he is genuinely curious as to what in the world makes me think this is a good career option.

“I don’t know dad,” I shrug, because I honestly do not, “This is a risk you take when you write. You write what you know and hopefully people want to read it.”

“And if they don’t?”

“Then…I get a day job and do something else in addition to write.”

My father is not satisfied. He’s about to pay a lot of tuition money. He’s a businessman, born to a woman who counted every penny and invested heavily in two things: land and her three sons’ educations. The former so that her sons could pursue careers in real estate development and the latter just in case they bungled it all away.

“Money must be spent on the knife’s sharpest edge,” she liked to say, and even though she passed away long before I was born, her words are from time to time echoed to my cousins and I via our fathers. The sharpest edge would be studying something like Electrical Engineering or becoming a doctor or, as my father had hoped for me early on, plunging into the world of accounting and economics (his eyes were always pretty open to my other faults, but for some reason my ineptitude at math eluded his gaze). Most of my cousins have landed right on the blade. I seem to hover somewhere near the hilt.

“I don’t understand why you won’t write fiction,” my father continues, “What about something like Harry Potter? That woman made a lot of money.”

Ah. The old Harry Potter comparison. As if I could ever in a million years do what Rowling did.

“Dad,” I say, irritation seeping into my voice, “I can’t just sit down and write some seven volume fantasy series. That takes…”

“What does it take? You know I saw a TV special about her – she was homeless! She didn’t even have pens and papers! You have everything! You don’t even have to work and you can’t do what she did?”

I look at him, eyebrows raised and mouth slightly open to say something that would emphasize my exasperation, but nothing comes out. I close my mouth, lower my eyebrows. Dim my eyes.

“Dad, I don’t want to write about things I don’t know or don’t have interest in.”

“Didn’t you like Harry Potter? You have all her books.”

“Yes! But reading something you like is totally different from wanting to write. I like reading about a lot of things, but I don’t necessarily want to write about those same things.”

“Why not?”

“Because it wouldn’t be the same or as good as the other people who write it. Everyone writes what they know, and if they don’t know, they do a lot of research, but normally when they are willing to do the research they’re interested in the subject. I like writing about our family and whatever else I’m interested in.”

My father leans back, “I don’t understand,” then looking up, he sees the look on my face. Not a sad look, just tired. The one I get right before I tell him that it’s better that we live far away from each other so I don’t murder him in his sleep. Time to change the approach.

“Okay,” he says, “just explain to me what non-fiction is. You say you write about family but I don’t understand why people would want to read about that. Show me some examples of people who write the kind of non-fiction you want to write and maybe I can understand.”

I think about David Sedaris, Adam Gopnik, and Anthony Bourdain, and how my father would not understand their appeal, even though all their books are bestsellers. Better to use a Chinese example, but I can’t think of any.

“Gun Germs and Steel!” my father says before I come up with anything, “That’s non-fiction, right? That’s a very good book.”

“Yes, it was,” I say, “I liked it too -“

“You could write something like that!”

“I could, but again, not my thing. That’s like history and social science…not really creative non-fiction.”

“Ohhh,” my father leans back, nods slowly. Is he starting to get it? “So you write more creatively.”

I nod, “I tell true stories from my perspective,” I pause. That sounds like a euphemism for lying, but then again, that’s a whole other bag of worms I don’t want to open. “It’s not research,” I say, “Well, there could be research involved, but that’s to add to the story rather than the story itself.”

My father is silent for a while. I’m not sure what he is thinking, just as he is not sure what I am thinking.    I’m thinking that I need to find a better way to explain this to my father, whose friends nod fervently when he tells them, when they ask, “How are your kids doing?”

But he knows that look. “Your daughter wants to be a writer! That’s fantastic!” they say, clapping him on the back, but inwardly they breath a sigh of relief, “Better your daughter than mine.”

“True stories,” he says, leaning forward now.

“Yes. True stories.”

“But what’s so creative about telling the truth?”

He has me there. I’m not sure, actually, and I tell him so. I don’t make things up – at least not now. I tell it like it is, but hopefully there’s something beyond that. Maybe in the future, I may have to start making things up, to protect people I love or fill in the blanks or satisfy some deep-rooted craving for fantasy or whatever other reasons some writers become novelists and others essayists or biographers.

I turn to go and my father doesn’t ask me any more questions.

“Hm,” he says simply.

It bothers me that I can’t explain it better. But then again, that’s not the kind of writing I do.


“Good writers define reality; bad ones merely restate it. A good writer turns fact into truth; a bad writer will, more often than not, accomplish the opposite.”  – Edward Albee

“Exploit the things you’re good at.”  – Jason Lee

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