An Assembly of Greys

Sometimes, I wonder if there is such a thing as non-fiction.

A professor of creative writing at Iowa State used to tell the story of a non-fiction class she taught. She had a student whose insane life kept her captivated throughout the semester. He was the son of a single mother and a man who had worked for the mafia in Chicago. His father had disgraced the family and spent a majority of his son’s childhood in prison. The subsequent shame haunted him and his writing detailed the life of a young man trying to climb out of his father’s dark shadows. His stories haunted the professor.

A couple of semesters later, the student’s girlfriend enrolled in the class. The professor pulled her aside one day and asked how the student was doing. The girlfriend was confused and informed the professor that his dad was a farmer and his parents were still married. Later, going over the former student’s writing, she found an essay he had written at the end of the class. It said “true or not, all stories come out fiction in the end.”

We are a society of lies. Even at our best attempts to be honest, our perspectives are subconsciously shaded by motivations and agendas. The best of non-fiction is still structured and selected not for truth, but for dramatic impact. The best of fiction has rings of truth that make you question whether or not it might be a work of fact. As someone who has training in journalism, I can tell you that truth is an assembly of greys. Rarely does it come off black and white. True or false, good writing is good writing.

I’ve written a fair amount of non-fiction, if you count my past journalistic endeavors and other types of reports. I wrote an editorial column on the gaming industry for a couple of years, and of course, what we do here is largely non-fiction, at least in theory. I’ve passed on certain other projects. An anonymous figure in the gaming industry once offered me a chance to write a large story on the downfall of a gaming company. I decided the issue was dead and didn’t really matter. An escort once contacted me on MySpace and asked if I would be interested in ghostwriting her autobiography. I decided there are certain things about certain people that I didn’t want to know.

Of course, this last year has been largely non-fiction for me, writing literary criticism for grad school. There is a lot more of that in my future. I’ve also been thinking about possibilities for longer works of criticism or literary research, particularly related to Gothic and “weird” fiction.

There was a time when none of it interested me. Part of the reason I didn’t continue as a journalist was that I decided I got more out of creative writing. However, as time has passed, I’ve realized that the things I love about writing translate in to all types of writing. There is as much creative work in writing non-fiction as there is in fiction. The difference is the source of the material. These days, I am still mostly interested in creative writing and literary research.

As we recently discussed, writers are always changing. Our skills, interests, and opportunities are always in flux. Perhaps, at some point, I will be back to the beginning, to journalism and the pursuit of the horrible grey truth. For now, however, I am happy to be entrenched on the creative side of things.

Jack Campbell, Jr. is a dark fiction writer in Lawrence, KS. His writing has appeared in various venues including Twenty 3 Magazine, Danse Macabre, and Insomnia Press. He writes about reading, writing, and life on his blog at

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