Last week, in my creative writing class in Clonmel, the students created characters and were encouraged to make them do slightly crazy things, like walk around the room. They did it dutifully, but dubiously. I was a little surprised, as most groups relish the chance to play God, but these things happen. Some exercises work brilliantly with one group and fall flat with another.
So this week, I acted on a hunch and for my class on setting, I used a piece of text from John McGahern’s memoir, an evocative tribute to his home county of Leitrim.
The hunch was correct. They drilled deep into the piece and relished the description of nature. Later on, their attention was riveted by a contribution from one of the students about a colourful military character.
Why are some people drawn to the robust realities of non fiction, while others prefer fictional flights of fantasy? And which is more compelling?
Let’s take the Tudors as an example.
There’s nothing to beat the truth. That’s why people are drawn to non-fiction. As they read Mary S Lovell’s biography of Bess of Hardwick, one of the most powerful women of the Tudor age, they know that these amazing events – the four marriages, the imprisoned Scottish queen – are actually real. They’re also comforted by the fact that all the facts that Lowell has backed up all the facts she presents in the book with meticulous research.
Meanwhile, people who read a book like The Other Boleyn Girl by Philippa Gregory will get a sense of what it’s really like to be a Tudor. They can get under the skin of a character and experience the world through their eyes. Non-fiction may give you an accurate picture of a country or a period of time, but fiction gives you the chance to travel there.
Which is more compelling, fiction or non-fiction? You decide. I’d love to hear your thoughts.