How I Survived Inside a Crocodile

View from Nyile La

Bhutan: View from Nyile La

For some, fiction and non-fiction are poles apart, for others they seem at times to merge with less than desirable results. In amongst this is the hapless writer of travelogue.

Somebody posted a link on Twitter a few months ago with a list of ‘active verbs for writing fiction’. These lists and reminders are often stimulating so I re-tweeted it. The sender thanked me and must have checked out my bio because she added, “sorry, I don’t have a list for non-fiction writers.” We need a separate language for non-fiction writers?

Antoni Gaudí: Wooden Stairwell Casa Batllo

Antoni Gaudí: Wooden Stairwell Casa Batllo

Active verbs are active verbs whoever is using them for whatever purpose, but it made me realise there is room for some considered thoughts on the relationship between fiction and non-fiction. ‘Non-fiction’ of course covers a vast range of genre, even if we reduce it to literary non-fiction we have a choice of, biographies, histories, memoirs, essays, syntheses of burning issues of the day—and travelogue, which may be written in any of these genres. But they all have in common the responsibility to be accountable: to meet readers’ expectations that the facts contained in them, however superbly crafted the writing, will be reliable—checked and checkable.

The boundaries between fiction and non-fiction are increasingly porous, especially in style. The traditional inverted pyramid beloved of newspaper editors, in which bare facts are crammed into a first paragraph bulging like an overfilled carry-on bag, was partly determined by technical limitations in typesetting and the need to cut quickly ‘from the bottom’; it  is rarely seen in quality newspapers since the digital revolution.

Instead, reports open, like the first sentence ‘hook’ in a novel, with a description of 16-year-old Aito scrabbling in the ruins of his home after the Japanese earthquake, or an impassioned quote from shopkeeper Giorgos Papadros, facing bankruptcy in the collapsing Greek economy. Alternately, the reader is baited with a startling fact or a teasing promise: ‘It is one of history’s most enduring mysteries . . . ,’ depending on the paper, subsequent disclosure may prove more, or less, convincing.

Antoni Gaudí: Frontage Casa Mila

Antoni Gaudí: Frontage Casa Mila

It’s not only that printing technology now allows greater flexibility in editing and publishing; there are sound business and psychological reasons for this change in style. As neuroscience uncovers the workings of the human brain and finds we are ‘hard-wired’ to perceive and interpret the world in narrative, literature has attracted the attention of science: universities, particularly in the USA and Canada even have Psychology of Fiction departments.

Their work shows that what we read, affects our attitudes and behaviour, at least in the short-term. Some claim this influence for fiction only, because of its emotional content, but far less research has been carried out on non-fiction. Non-fiction can equally well have emotional content to which readers relate: the question is not whether fiction, or non-fiction, has the greater influence, but what form and style of writing is most affecting.

One recent study in particular demonstrates not only the power of the written word, but the dangers of reading non-fiction that turns out to be untrue. Researchers, Dr Melanie Green and John Donahue, found that subjects changed their beliefs after reading an article presented to them as non-fiction. When later told the article contained errors of fact, the subjects lost respect for the author, but the changes in their beliefs remained unaltered. Not only are the effects of reading fiction and non-fiction powerful, they are hard to reverse; a fact already well known to advertisers and politicians.

Given the results of this kind of research, fudging boundaries between what is presented as fiction, and as non-fiction, becomes an ethical rather than an artistic issue. In an earlier article on Creative Flux, I stressed the importance to creativity of freeing oneself from others’ conceptual boundaries, but we cross the border between fact and fancy at our peril.

Antoni Gaudí: Frontage Casa Batllo

Antoni Gaudí: Frontage Casa Batllo

When a novel is promoted as a ‘true story’ to pique the curiosity of book browsers, we assume the basic events of the tale took place, but we can accept artistic licence with details because it is offered as a work of fiction – a novel. On the other hand, when an essay or book is published as a non-fiction work, we are entitled to feel betrayed by the author if it is later found to contain falsified information.

This is what angered readers of John D’Agata’s About a Mountain, and his unrepentant response to criticism, in The Lifetime of a Fact. The subject matter of About a Mountain is not of marginal interest: it concerns a major moral controversy – the disposal of nuclear waste. Ironically, as Charles Brock pointed out in his review, it is the ‘moral authority of D’Agata’s voice’ that is damaged in the process. The issue is not only about facts changed to suit D’Agata’s artistic whim, nor even about readers left unaware of what is fabricated (not everyone reads the small print); it is about how we perceive anything else written by this, and other authors, writing in the same genre: it is about trust.

Literature aims to influence: unless we restrict our scribbling to a locked diary stuffed under the mattress, we write to grab a reader’s attention, share a vision, a point of view, and in some way, to persuade. Personal experience, dialogue, vivid metaphor, compelling language, and yes, those active verbs, all enhance the power of words to move the reader. The greatest compliment a reviewer can pay a work of non-fiction is to describe it as ‘ . . . scholarly research that reads like a novel . . . ’

When Lee Gutkind started the journal Creative Nonfiction in 1994, encouraging the crossing of genres to evolve a ‘literature of reality’, it was creativity in form, style and language – writing craft – he had in mind, rather than creativity with the facts. ‘We are attempting, as writers, to show imagination, to demonstrate artistic and intellectual inventiveness and still remain true to the factual integrity of the piece we are writing.’ The creative non-fiction approach is well suited to serious travel writing: portraying place, character and culture, constructing meaning, revealing our role in the landscape and sharing a sense of ‘being there’.

After a decade or so of self-defence, creative non-fiction as a sub-genre has gained recognition, but the term itself remains troublesome to many because of its inherent ambiguity; an ambiguity resulting from a limited definition of ‘creativity’ as a rare talent for making things up. The situation is not helped by authors who publish non-fiction that turns out to be untrue.

Antoni Gaudí: Stairs At Casa Mila

Antoni Gaudí: Stairs At Casa Mila

Of course, ‘truth’ and ‘reality’ are even more problematic. On the right to report on contemporary events truthfully, George Orwell cautioned, ‘or as truthfully as is consistent with the ignorance, bias and self-deception from which every observer necessarily suffers.’ Irrefutable, objective facts are few: most are the product of interpretation from one standpoint or another, individual perceptions refracted through personal lenses of varying opacity; and that applies to readers as well as writers. However meticulous a writer may be in expressing his or her exact meaning, whether in fact or fiction, a look through the reviews may have you wondering if they all read the same work.

The dilemma of inevitable subjectivity is especially acute for travel writers, for whom the personal lens is further distorted by their own culture. A generation ago, anthropologists finally recognised the hazards involved in representing ‘otherness’, whether of environment or of a people and their culture. Modern anthropologists are far more conscious of the cultural prism through which they observe others, as well as how their presence and observation affects the subjects of their study; it is an essential lesson for travel writers also.

An anthropologist as well as a writer of travelogue, I am keenly aware of my own potential for bias, not only in what I sense, but in what I select to write about – all creativity is a process of selection – while at the same time producing a work of carefully researched non-fiction. In this respect, it is useful for all travel accounts to contain enough about the author and their presence in the landscape, for the reader to understand at least something of the author’s point of view. It is even more important for authors to understand their own perspectives.

My own mentor on creativity said little and wrote even less, but Gaudi understood the fundamental nature of the creative process, summed up in his statement, ‘Creation works ceaselessly through man. But man does not create, he discovers . . . originality consists in returning to the origin.’ The origin, the irrefutable facts on which Gaudi based his creativity were those of nature—landforms, natural processes, physical forces. He could not ignore these facts or his buildings would have fallen down; instead he collaborated with them, using his vivid imagination to create works of art that are also functional buildings—and in their time, innovative in functionality as well as artistry.

Monks Emerge From Doorway

Bhutan: Monks Emerge From Doorway

As a travel writer, my ‘origins’ are the events, landscapes, and peoples I encounter and record as faithfully as the limitations of being human will allow; my ‘discovery’ is the language and form my imagination employs to interpret these origins and share them with the reader. However imperfect, these are my attempts at collaboration with the facts, and creativity in their expression.

A reader’s pleasure in sharing a journey, an environment, the exposure to another culture, is enriched by the form, style and language of creative writing.  But in my view, a travel writer has a responsibility to be truthful (unless a travel book is presented as a novel), which precludes, for example, the invention of events, locations and local characters to make the place, or the author, appear more exotic, or in a misguided attempt to provide a deeper cultural experience for the reader.

A travel writer is necessarily an outsider and there is validity in that point of view, even though it will never achieve the same cultural authenticity as an interpretation of place by a writer who is also an insider. Outsiders notice things insiders may take for granted; outsiders can act as intermediaries between a place and readers who may never see it, or sharpen the perceptions of those who do. Whether carrying luggage, or sitting in armchairs, travellers who want a better understanding of place, should, ideally, read local authors of fiction as well as reliable non-fiction travelogue.

Fiction contains a different kind of ‘truth’:  inner perceptions and imagined realities that can shine a bright light on the most mundane object and give it meaning in its cultural context, and sometimes, in any context. To share just a few of my favourites: Vikram Seth, Kiran Desai, Han Suyin, Paulo Coelho, Khaled Hosseini, Chinua Achebe, and Nadine Gordimer.

I enjoy my readings of places and cultures best when both non-fiction and fiction share the creativity of the storyteller to provide meaning, but where non-fiction weaves the truths of fact, and fiction weaves the truths of fancy. Some boundaries are useful.

P.S. To keep the record straight: at no time was I swallowed by a crocodile. *smiles*

A few useful websites for those who wish to follow these topics further:

Narrative: at


Creative nonfiction:



Trish Nicholson

Trish Nicholson

Trish Nicholson is a non-fiction author, writer of some award winning short stories and a keen photographer. All of these passions she shares in her weekly blogs which include book reviews, stories, writing tips, travel tales and photo-essays, as well as updates on her current non-fiction works.

Her background is in social anthropology and regional management, which led to travel in a score of countries to carry out research, and to work on aid and development projects, before she settled on a hillside in New Zealand where she now writes full time.

Last year, Trish signed up with Collca to write for their new ebook series, illustrated BiteSize Travel. Masks of the Moryons: Easter Week in Mogpog, on the spectacular celebration of Holy Week in a traditional community in the Philippines, was released in December 2011. Journey in Bhutan: Himalayan Trek in the Kingdom of the Thunder Dragon, shares the experience of trekking and discovering the history and culture of this extraordinary Himalayan Buddhist Kingdom, and was released on 20 April 2012. It is available from Amazon UK and from Amazon US.

"Journey in Bhutan," by Trish Nicholson on Amazon

"Journey in Bhutan," by Trish Nicholson on Amazon

Author in Bhutanese Dress

Author in Bhutanese Dress

Connect with Trish

Blog | Twitter: @trishanicholson


Please join the discussion below.

17 thoughts on “How I Survived Inside a Crocodile

  1. Hear, hear! As a fellow anthropologist, I can only agree with that. There are some outstanding anthropology books that really blur the boundaries between fiction and non-fiction (sometimes in a controversial way, but most often simply because of the wonderful use of language and the memorable,relevant detail). I’m thinking of Clifford Geertz, Margarest Mead, Levi-Strauss, Victor Turner, David Lan’s ‘Guns and Rain’- oh, there are so many!

    • Hello Marina, lovely to have your support. So many people I know who do not normally read non-fiction, read my book out of friendship and were surprised to find it “wasn’t boring and dry, it read like a story!” As you say. there are so many wonderfully creative writers of non-fiction out there; how do we persuade more people to read them?

  2. Trish, it’s an honour to have you back on CF. Fiction, non-fiction, and travelogue writing dilemmas all concentrated in such a substantial essay. What a stimulating read about truth, artistic license and creativity. Thank you so much for sharing this strong piece. It’s also a nice tie-in to the “connectiveness” and “process” you talk about in your previous essay, “Dimensions of Creativity. I’m particularly intrigued by your mention of subjectivity and origins, in relation to the creative process. More later~

    • It’s wonderful to be back, Terre. Thank you for your care and insight towards your guests, we feel cherished – a truly inspiring feeling for a scribbler.

      • You are more than kind, Trish, thank you! My responses might seem tardy, at times, but it’s because I tend to mull over and chew my thoughts. I have yet to finish a response to the very first post by Terri Long, “How Gender Roles Crush Creativity.” I see CF as a place for people to come in, “walk around” and talk. None of the ideas here have an expiration date. So I’m thrilled that you find it inspiring. That’s the best compliment I could receive, thank you*

  3. Trish, I follow you on Twitter and I am thrilled to get to know you through this fascinating essay about truth and creativity! As a memoir writer, I have an iron-clad obligation to stick to my truth to the best of my ability. Often times,it involves upholding the essence of the truth when the facts or memories are nebulous. So your points about keeping our readers at the forefront of our writing resonate. I agree ,we all need to use the same tools to move our readers with a well-crafted story. We all have an obligation to create the best story we’ve got in the most believable and authentic way possible. Thank you for such a rich and stimulating post. I’m happy to get to know you better and that you really didn’t get swallowed by a crocodile. I have to admit,though, it was a great hook! 🙂

    • Thank you so much Kathleen,it is lovely that you visited and commented, and it is such a boost for a writer to find a ‘like mind’. I’m glad you enjoyed the article, and didn’t mind getting ‘hooked’! Memories are imperfect, I’d be lost without my pile of little black journalists note books filled on trips. Harder for a memoir writer – for the early years at least, but I think the way those early years are remembered (selectively) is part of the story. Memoir is a genre I am interested in but have not yet worked on, although some of my beta readers have considered Journey in Bhutan a travel memoir – I’m a bit shaky on genre, I like things brought together rather than separated, but I will follow what you are writing and learn more.

  4. Thanks for your comments,Trish. I would love to have you join us “around my kitchen table” at my blog, Memoir Writer’s Journey, to add your experience, creativity and perspective. It sounds like you’ve already written your travel memoir and I look forward to reading it.

  5. Trish, there’s so much to talk about here so I’m just going to latch on to your Gaudi quote. It gave me the impression that he was selling himself short by chalking up his genius (only) to his Roman Catholic god. So I began a response with some blather about tapping in to the collective unconscious and trying to analyze similarities and differences with Gaudi’s “discovering vs. creating” and “returning to the origin.” Then I found the full quote—and I’m hoping it is accurate, since I couldn’t find the original source—and I think it gave me a better understanding of what he meant.

    “Creation continues unceasingly through the Media of Man. But Man does not create he discovers. Those who search for the Laws of Nature as a support to their new works collaborate with the Creator. Those who copy do not collaborate. Therefore originality consists in returning to the origin.” –Gaudi

    I believe he celebrates individual sway. I think he sees Man as an active conduit or voice, hence his validation of those who “collaborate with the Creator.” It is exploring Nature to discover a fundamental Truth(s) that functions as a decision-making king-pin. But we do make the decisions. So add to the mix: acting on eurekas and taking advantage of accidents and our, sometimes messy, process unfolds and results grow, both grounded in that which makes art timeless. However, I think it’s evident that being rooted in Truth, Nature, or Beauty—which are often interchangeable—alone, does not make a work successful. Rather, success is achieved when the artist’s way of seeing that Truth, etc., is conveyed or understood, even if that only consists of the process, such as Performance Art, and not an end product or thing.

    A.G. distilled his thought to such perfection, as did you, numerous times in this essay, distil the importance of truth and trust in non-fiction.

  6. Wonderful, thoughtful response Terre. Thank you for finding and posting the full quote – I don’t know the source either, unfortunately.I know Gaudi worked within a specific religious context, but the concept of origins, of nature, can be applied without reference to a specific deity. And you are right, the inspirational moments that grow out of this matrix, and the decisions we make about them, lead to the individual’s, creative expression.
    It has been an exciting and stimulating week – thanks to you, and to all the readers and those who have commented here and on Twitter. I now look forward to enjoying the creativity of your next guest.

    • Thank you, Trish. And yes, I’ve loved having this piece on CF. It’s strong and relevant and been shared by many.

      Regarding origins and nature: I wholeheartedly agree; I was trying to see it through Gaudi’s eyes, and I’d read he was an intensely devoted RC.

      I found another quote in response to objections being raised regarding the extended completion date of the Sagrada Familia, Gaudi said: “Don’t worry, my client isn’t in a hurry.”

      I’m so happy you asked about CF’s next guest, thank you! You can read all about Kathy Meis’ new product, Bublish, here:

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  8. This is a great piece, that reflects a lot of what I’ve been studying the last year as a CNF student in VCFA’s MFA program. I’m glad it went beyond the usual discussion of D’Agata, etc., and reflected your experiences as an anthropologist and travel writer. I’ve been reading a LOT of travel writer books the last year, including the standards of Theroux, Chatwin, etc., but your post reminded me of Zora Neale Hurston’s Tell My Horse: Voodoo and Life in Haiti and Jamaica. The book was, at its core, an anthropology study. But she inserts herself into the story at different times and in different ways, to powerful effect. That book helped me understand better, as a journalist, where a CNF writer can go while still bringing some objectivity to the subject.

    • Patrick, thanks so much for your comment, it completely slipped past my comment-radar–and I’m guessing Trish’s, as well. Zora Neale Hurston’s book sounds intriguing. Sorry for such a late response!

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