"Writing itself becomes the subject of the writing course..."

 — Michael Carter       


On “Truthiness” Telling

June 8th, 2015 by

Recently, a friend I walk with most mornings told me about a movie he had watched and enjoyed. As he described it, I realized that I would like the film also. And the way he described it led me to think that it was nonfiction or documentary. But before I could ask about this, he stated, “It’s true.”

This got me thinking. I would have used a different word, autobiographical, perhaps, not true. There is a difference. By “true,” I think my friend meant that the movie was based on real people and events that really happened to them. This is opposed, of course, to fiction, which I suppose we tend to write off as “untrue.”

However, something can be written as an autobiography and still not be true in the factual sense. People lie. Or they bend the truth to save face. Or they will be limited in their understanding. I know this because I am currently working on something autobiographical, and I keep coming up against the limitations of what I know and what I’ve conveniently chosen to forget.

To complicate matters, certainly, much fiction is autobiographical.

I know people who only read nonfiction, which they call “true stories.” That the stories are supposed to have occurred as told makes them somehow more compelling than fiction. The people who say this think of fiction as fluff.

The Limits of Fiction
This nonfiction/true vs. fiction/fluff is a simple binary that covers over what is not simple. Is all nonfiction simply true and all fiction simply fluff—or worse, lies?

I can think of nonfiction accounts of events that have been questioned—Hemingway’s A Moveable Feast, for example. And always, historical accounts are given a new perspective by new evidence. Were those accounts, for example, of Davy Crocket being the last to fall at the Alamo, by any stretch of imagination, true? Or were they imagined? Most of the research today suggests an imaginary scene.

I’ve also heard people say something that I think is true of fiction. “Fiction is lying in order to tell the truth.” In other words, the situation might be made up, contrived even. But something in the story leads to a truth that casts new light on what it means to be human.

There is a limit on what we can contrive in a story. Probability is what fiction writers violate at high cost to their work. I’ve noticed this when I’ve brought my fiction to workshops with other writers. The parts I made up were accepted as true, but an unusual event that really happened to me they challenged. “That couldn’t happen,” they said.

The Truthiness of Memoir
I am in the finishing touches of writing a memoir. I distinguish it from autobiography because I am not trying to write my life story. I am writing a story out of events that happened to me in my early twenties. I am writing a story from my life.

And in most of this story, I am trying to stay true to events as I experienced them, even when they cast a horrible light on me. I have chosen to tell this as nonfiction rather than as fiction because I have decided that if written as a novel, most people would not believe my account of some things that happened that were too coincidental. In fiction, they would seem contrived. As I’ve noted above, and as we say all the time, “truth is stranger than fiction.”

But again, what do we mean when we say that something is true? Is it the same as saying that something is autobiographical? It is possible, then, that we are not being very accurate. Something in an autobiography can be as true as the teller is able to think that it is, but it is still based on a partial viewing of events.

David Sedaris, who has sometimes been questioned about the truth of his narratives, refers to his stories and essays as possessing “truthiness.” I prefer to think of what he does as autobiographical, in that I suspect that he is, like most writers, trying to tell a story in the best way possible, fully aware that telling a partial truth is always possible.

I find it interesting that in fiction the first person narration is considered “unreliable.” In nonfiction, we seem to believe the opposite. If someone is narrating their own events, we give them the benefit of the doubt—until, as with James Frey, we learn otherwise.

I think that this is not a defensible position. I suspect that all first person narrations are open to question, including mine.

I suspect that “truthiness” is about what we can expect. We should expect authors to tell the “truthiness” and nothing but the “truthiness,” to the best of their ability.

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