When the Truth is Not Enough: From Non-fiction to Fiction (republished)

Liza Blue  
When the truth of memoir is not enough, it is time to tap into the unlimited canvas of fiction.

This blog post was originally published on Critique Circle in the year 2020

When Truth is Not Enough: From Non-Fiction to Fiction

The decision seemed trivial. My husband and I were cleaning out my parent’s farmhouse after they died. Only the player piano was left, a big clumsy thing that wasn’t worth much. The caretaker, Phil, who lived at the end of the driveway, couldn’t find anyone who wanted it. We stood in room emptied of life. and stared. Finally, Phil said, “let’s burn it up.”

For a moment it seemed like a crazy idea. Who burns a piano? At the same time, it was an eminently practical solution. We helped Phil wrestle the piano into his truck and he took it around to the field behind the barn and torched it.

I got a tremendous response when I told this anecdote to friends at dinner parties. They slapped the table, roared with laughter at the thought of a burning piano, asked what we did with all the metal pieces – the pedals, the wires, and the motor that ran the player piano. They wanted stronger visual details when there were none. We hadn’t bothered to watch the blaze. 

I tried and failed to write this incident up as a memoir piece. I will admit to a few wisps of embellishment in memoir but am committed to truth and not “truthiness.” The piano was such a ripe target for symbolism, but I couldn’t offer any. 

This anecdote held the interest of family and friends who knew me and my parents and understood that the burnt piano was nothing more than a creative solution to a vexing problem.  The problem was that this simple truth was not enough for my larger target audience of STRANGERS. I needed to add tension where there was none. It was time for FICTION, a new genre for me.

I toyed with various story lines – an uneasy relationship between mother and daughter with the burnt piano as a final catharsis, parents with a secret rural life, far removed from their staid suburban existence, a wild, drug-filled weekend with the burning piano a stand-in for a funeral pyre. But the larger story languished.   The scene had seduced me. At each revision I added more visual details, a spray of sparks against the cobalt sunset (I have changed the sunset color many times) sharing shots of whiskey with the crusty caretaker, adding flecks of chaw to the whiskey, watching the fire from overturned buckets. The underlying tension, the “why” of the fire went nowhere, but I convinced myself that the tour-de-force of the scene affirmed my identity as a writer. 

Then it hit me. I was getting in my own way. The back story needed a narrator more nuanced and complex than me and my casual decision.   I struggled to turn “myself” into a person I would never be or never want to be, an angry and troubled daughter. I wrestled with writing a character entirely from my imagination, far from my serene childhood with supportive parents. When I began to feel uncomfortable this new-fangled daughter, I invited her into my office, sat her down, looked her in the eye and said, “Yes, go ahead, you can hate your mother. Just tell me why. Don’t be shy, let it out. This is fiction. Your truth can be ugly, disturbing. I can make you say whatever I want.” 

I still tinker with the burning piano scene. The latest revision includes the strange “music” the piano makes as the wires pop off in the heat.  But I have learned the accomplished writer must go beyond and beneath the scene, as compelling as it may be. If the truth of memoir is not enough, I need to embrace the unlimited canvas of fiction, learn to put truth aside and let my imagination rip.  




Perhaps I misunderstood this post, but it disturbed me a bit, that idea that we must tailor the truths we tell to conform to audiences. I’ve had trouble with conformity all my life, but been forced by circumstances to compromise more often than I like. Art has been the one area I’ve completely refused to compromise.

But then as a writer of fiction, I firmly believe the ability to speak truths only improves when you get facts and their baggage out of the way.

In the end, I guess the only thing that matters is your truth. If you want to alter the facts to represent it better, then it is fair game, though I don’t know what that does to the “memoir” tag. If it brings you discomfort to alter your story beyond the one you intend to tell, making the existing one interesting could be achieved in other ways. Or, if not, who the hell cares? Wanting more is always an excellent place to leave readers.

Feb-26 2023


I had quite a visceral reaction to this post. I used to tune and repair pianos. The idea of torching one tore me apart inside. I had a similar reaction while watching a YouTube video of a pianist watching an old upright piano be washed away in the ocean.

I’ve never written a memoir and never really wanted to. I believe fiction can hold a higher truth than any memoir I might write. But that’s just me. I think the blog post does hit upon some of the things all writers go through when telling a story, whether based on a true story or pulled from our imagination.

I’ve read a few memoirs and I’ve read some historical fiction. In fact, I’m reading an historical fiction novel right now. But I have always preferred to keep my fiction and non-fiction separate. This is my gut reaction. My solution for the story would be to leave it to the reader’s imagination as to what the burning piano looked like. Turning away from a burning piano is powerful enough without fancy sparks flying everywhere and wires popping apart. So in that sense, the true story doesn’t really need the embellishments to stand up on its own truth. And the truth can be enough.

Feb-27 2023


Thanks for starting a good discussion. A piano is such a symbol to so many people. Some of us see it and think of all the music that came from it, the people playing it, the families around it at Christmas … the sad songs played on blue days. So I would have a hard time torching it. Plus the guts of a piano are metal and won’t burn anyway so what a mess? I am a non-fiction writer who is now writing fiction and also wrestle with what is worth telling, why am I telling it, what does it mean if anything beyond entertainment. What will our friends in CC think? In the end, it seems to be that you just gotta write for yourself… that’s enough … and then if it turns out you wrote something that meant something for others or entertained others then all the better. But if you try too much to please others it becomes a food’s errand.

Feb-27 2023


Thanks for the interesting comments on my piece about the the line between fiction and nonfiction. For those interested the link will take you the fictional story (both podcast and text) I ultimately wrote about burning a piano. (Can’t seem to get the hyperlink to work)

Liza Blue
The Day I Burned a Piano

Mar-05 2023


I loved this post. Great example of symbolism and how the writer can evoke mood and emotion. If the object were an old tree stump nobody would be moved by it. But a beloved musical instrument sends us into a whole new direction. I especially enjoyed the blur between memoir and fiction. A memoir can be mundane and uninteresting. But add the freedom of fiction and the story comes alive.

Mar-23 2023


For me, it’s all about allegory. I think of it the other way round.

Fiction can be mundane and uninteresting. But add the freedom of honest writing that tells of your real life experiences, and the story comes alive.

It starts with an idea, but the story gets filled with real life events. Some of it verbatim, some only slightly twisted, others only vaguely related to what really happened.

In the case of a memoir you already have the story idea ready-made for you so you can focus on adding the tidbits that make it count. A memoir can be very boring. Style and flair and a bit of fancy can fix that. That’s what makes Tom Wolfe so special. Every word is straight ‘reporting’ but it reads better than most fiction.

Mar-23 2023
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