Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Embellishing vs. Lying

While writing a story for an anthology, I stared at the computer screen in shock. Had I turned the corner from non-fiction and become a liar?

The incident I wrote about centered on a crisis of faith in my parent’s lives and a miraculous healing I received as a baby. My mom had shared the account with me many times during my growing up years. Because I couldn’t recall when I’d first heard it, I created the setting in which she first told me.

In other words, I embellished a true story to make it more appealing.

Some non-fiction writers consider this taboo. They contend that since that particular setting never took place, it is unethical to tell it as if it happened that way. That is lying*, they say.

Others believe this practice of creative non-fiction, or embellishing, is fine, as long as you don’t change the facts of the actual story you are sharing or the characters’ personalities.

I wrestled with my conscience over this one for many days and nights.

I emailed several writer friends, talked to my husband, my writer son, and the Lord. I even looked up the word embellish** in the dictionary, to see how horrible a sin I’d be committing if I decided to keep the bejeweled story intact. I re-wrote the story, taking out the setting. It left me dry-souled.

Finally, I called my mom, who was one of the main characters in the story, and read it to her. I should have done this in the first place, but I have this stubborn streak (please don’t tell anyone)…

Mom was fine with my made-up setting. The setting was probable—I was a preteen, and we were cleaning out a closet together—and I upheld the accuracy of our personalities. Furthermore…

I did not falsify any facts about the actual story. My embellishments did not change the account of my miracle; they just gave it a prettier wrapping for the reader to look at. So…

With a clear conscience, I sent it off.

I pray that the editor I submitted it to will buy it, and that many people’s lives will change when they read that God still hands out miracles. After all, that’s my goal for my writing—to draw attention to Jesus, so others will fall as much in love with Him as I have.

I think He, like Mom, is okay with me embellishing His stories a bit.

*Lie: to make an untrue statement with an intent to deceive; something that misleads or deceives.

**Embellish: to make beautiful with ornamentation; decorate. To heighten the attractiveness of by adding ornamental details.

–Merriam Webster’s Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition

At what point does embellishing turn to lying? Do you think there is difference between the two?


  1. What an excellent question. The fact that you wrestled with it shows me your integrity. I remember years ago when James Frey wrote A Million Little Pieces and added in "lies". People were in an uproar b/c it was a memoir.

    This is a big debate now. Perception is an odd thing.

    It's cool to me how you wanted to write it with integrity.
    ~ Wendy

  2. Jen,

    Sounds as though you've told the truth and wrapped in a beautiful package. I just love pretty ribbons and ornamental paper. Please let me know when it's published so I can read it.

  3. I think it is necessary at times to embellish. If you were labeling it a biography then I would get nervous. :O)

  4. Oh, I love you for your integrity, dear one.

    Sigh. Perhaps God called me to the fiction realm because my brain really struggles to declassify fiction.

    Truth and imagination swirl into one glittery haze upstairs.

    I guess my question for DEVOTIONAL type writing would be, "AM I sticking to the essence of what happened?"
    If asked, will I explain the "barebones" event?

    But I am clearly no expert on this field.


  5. You always make me smile!

  6. SUCH a good post - and I love the thought process you went through. My husband says i always embellish too much - but he severely lacks imagination (poor man) and when he tells stories it's like reading the newspaper. Sigh. :)

  7. I don't know for sure about this as I'm not informed what the guidelines for non-fiction are. It seems that as long as you told the truth about the miracle, the embellishments wouldn't hurt the integritiy.

  8. What a sneaky question. I think your definition says it all. Lying-to deceieve, rather than embelishing to enhance. I have gone through that in my writing, too.

  9. Lying or embellishing?? There is most defiantly a difference between the two. I'm glad your conscience is clear on the subject. You've given me something very important to think about. Thanks, ~Ron

  10. I have to confess a sin I haven't even committed yet. I plan on writing a memoir one day and embellishing the heck out of it. For now that's our dirty little secret. ;) XOXO

  11. Jeanette:
    Embellishing stretches a point. We do that as we talk about our events in life.
    Lying takes our event and makes it unrecognizable. We have seen this done in our society.
    The lying is an issue of the heart. Embellishment makes for a better story,.

  12. hi visiting and dropping on your blog..

    so to be frank do u like my blog..if so follow and drop a comment ..if u dont like means just dont drop a comment ..

  13. Yes, I do think there is a definite distinction between lying and embellishing and am perfectly comfortable embellishing in creative non-fiction.

    What I wonder, though, is when you finally called your mother why you didn't get her to clarify the setting details so you didn't have to stress over how you portrayed them. Then again, maybe she couldn't remember them any better than you. Whatever the case, I think you can rest easy that no one will mind the liberty you took to help create a memorable story. I hope the editor likes it. :)

  14. Interesting. There is a thin line between the two which one needs to take care of, that's all.


Oh, it's YOU! I'm so happy to see you here today, and look forward to reading your comments.