AWP 2012: What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth?

March 3, 2012 § 16 Comments

By Sara Marie Hoover

R236. What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth? / Thursday, March 1, 2012 – 4:30-5:45 p.m.

(UPDATE:  Be sure to read the comments below the post, where the conversation continues and a few of the panelists themselves weigh in.)

In the midst of the brouhaha about John D’Agata, four creative nonfiction writers made a case for the strictest adherence to facts–even going so far as to call compression and composite characters a violation of principles of creative nonfiction.

Brown University’s Susan Kushner Resnick who spent 25 years as a journalist, where truth is truth is truth, argued that, life is messy and it’s the author’s job to work around the messiness. While I agree with this statement, I was surprised techniques like composite characters and compression were considered to be betrayals rather than tools. They became examples of imposing order on messy life, but isn’t that what this craft is about, to some extent? Isn’t that part of the art?

Philip Gerard, UNC-Wilmington’s writing program director, proposed that facts are constantly manipulated to create a specific narrative. He used his latest project, serialized narratives of the Civil War in North Carolina to showcase the difference between “documented creative nonfiction” and a fact-bending narrative a la Gone With the Wind. There’s a difference though between propaganda pieces and artful storytelling, and between making up facts and shaping them to create a story.

Pitt’s Peter Trachtenberg, who has “never openly invented anything,” said his book, The Book of Calamities, is straight journalism because “they were their facts, not my facts and I can’t dick around with them constantly.” And we’re back to square one. Whose story can we tell as CNFers? Are we only memoirists and not literary journalists? For Trachtenberg, the most odious violation is twisting someone else’s life. A valid point, and  yet adhering to a journalistic can’t be the answer. Writers like McPhee, Capote and Susan Orlean have shown us that.

Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, argued the confusion lies with the “creative” part of CNF and addressed the verification of facts. Every statement of fact in her book was verified because her book, she said, was about what happens when the misinformation of fact continues.

So what did the panelists have to say about memoir, that form which relies on memory and reconstructed scenes and dialogue. The tall order of if it can’t be documented, they prefer it not be put into print. “Why make a specific scene? You get into trouble where scenes don’t naturally exist,” said Skloot. Resnick used her current memoir project as an example. When talking to someone who will be in it, she dashes off to the bathroom to take notes. While a good practice, I’m not sure how it applies to past events.

Resnick believes it would be good if there were some standards for CNF, but who would set them and what would they be? The panel seems to assert themselves as purists of CNF, who feel any modification in their eyes is a disservice to the genre. Who will be the arbitrators of these standards? Wouldn’t any type of construction, using this logic, not be the whole truth? Why not just show transcripts and raw data? Otherwise they’re not telling the whole truth either, according to these standards.

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§ 16 Responses to AWP 2012: What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth?

  • There’s no such thing as the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

  • This is a rich and vexing subject. My stance is that D’Agata’s About a Mountain exploited the appearance of journalism, albeit in highly personal form, and was trading on that tradition and that genre for credibility, whether he intended to or not. He should not have changed the facts of a kid’s suicide or numbers or other data he considered irrelevant or didn’t like.

    But these issues are admittedly murky. In Zinsser’s On Writing Well, considered the gold standard for mainstream magazine journalism, we read that composite days are standard practice and recommended. In other words, you go out for three months or even three days with a biologist on the local stream and recreate one day—which is a composite. In the hands of a great writer, it’s probably even representative, too. Some books admit this practice, few magazines.

    And while we are splitting hairs, even a writer who apparently doesn’t make composites, who doesn’t have to because he has months and years to report, like McPhee, and can wait for perfect moments, isn’t he kind of doing it by presenting things in a scene that he actually didn’t yet know or couldn’t have absorbed at that stage in the narrative?

    You can drive yourself crazy. What about Annie Dillard’s fictional tomcat in A Pilgrim at Tinker Creek? Well, that book really IS a lyric essay, which is what D’Agata apparently claims for his book. Yet excusing Annie because of the nature of her ecstatic meditation begins to sound like an excuse when one is slamming D’Agata for fabrications.

    Nonetheless, what D’Agata did was just weird as well as pointless and insensitive if not disrespectful to the dead boy and to the trusting reader.

  • I believe all truth and history for that matter is a construct. There are all kinds of inaccuracies in History that are corrected and embellished upon depending on the needs of the current generation – I am a journalist and I am a memoirist and I am a life narrativist – I have followed the threads of family stories literally to their homesteads and the streams they drank from. No one should ever set standards on personal stories – the stories tell us how they are to be told. We are the ones who have to scramble to find the right tools and craft. If that means imagining then so be it. As Hampl said – it’s not the way we remembered it – it’s why we remembered it that way…

    • Pam Smith says:

      Professor Mongar,
      I also believe that “all truth and history” is a construct. We are story telling beings, who are informed by stories and story ourselves. A great deal of this process goes unnoticed and unexamined.
      In my work as a writer, and a narrative therapist, I look to the uses of a story. In that way, I can find something like human cultural fact- what this story is meant to mean.

  • Rachel says:

    Part of what Skloot seemed to be doing was revealing a greater truth that had yet to be made public. Her “greater truth” was based upon a perspective or stories not yet recognized and accredited, for reasons made apparent. But how can we ever think we have considered (fairly) all possible perspectives/stories to have gained the “whole truth”? I think we tend to forget the inescapable issues that shape our versions of the “whole truth” (which was one of Skloot’s points, right?). We can never drop all the distorting lenses. It’s noble to try – but dangerous to assume we have. I guess I’m not fully understanding this debate and this passionate drive for “facts.” It’s an age-old debate without an answer, isn’t it? . . . Here’s my inspired effort to play around with the idea though (if anyone’s interested): 🙂

  • I actually specifically addressed memoir. I was more or less obligated to, having written one. That memoir features an episode in a church on the Lower East side where junkies pray to effigies of Sts. Sebastian, Maximilian Kolbe, Dymphna, and Jude for such graces as a good bag of dope or a clean shot. The church was made up from whole cloth, something I signaled to the reader pretty broadly. My position is that if the facts are your own, you have a license to play with them in various ways, as long as you give the reader some indication of what you’re doing. Dogs signal that they’re about to play by smacking the ground with their forepaws. I’m only suggesting that memoirists do what dogs do. Otherwise somebody may get bitten. Or mistake a nip for a bite.

  • Paul Sampson says:

    Skloot spent some years as a science journalist, a discipline in which errors of fact can have very bad consequences. Further, her excellent book on Henrietta Lacks addresses extremely serious questions about who owns information. She was not writing a meditative essay, a la “Tinker Creek,” in which Dillard married specific observations of animals and plants to poetic reflections on their meaning to her and to us. Both are fine books, and both approaches are valid, because in each case the reader is given fair warning as to the meaning of “accuracy.” I do think we have an obligation to let the reader know our intentions in this matter. Just calling a piece “creative” does not excuse bad reporting, and good reporting ought to be as well written as good fiction or good poetry. I like Trachtenberg’s dog analogy, above. It’s a sharp observation about dogs, used in a creative way.

  • As Peter says, our panel discussed memoir at length, and the take home was not that memoir writers shouldn’t try to recreate scenes. Quite the contrary. We talked about many research and interviewing techniques that memoir writers can use to recreate and verify scenes in an accurate way. If there was one take home point from our panel when it comes to any nonfiction writing, it can be summed up in two words we repeated many times: “disclosure” and “signal.”

    “Disclose” to readers what approach you have taken to facts by writing a prominently placed author’s note. We gave several examples of authors who have done this ranging from the journalistic to the largely-fictional approach of Jeannette Walls, whose author note in Half Broke Horses explains why she called her book “a true-life novel” rather than a memoir. (This is the place to disclose things like composite characters — i.e. characters that didn’t actually exist and are therefore fictional even if they’re based on real characters).

    “Signal” when you’re stepping outside the bounds of fact in a work of nonfiction. Our take home wasn’t that memoir writers had to be journalistic purists — we said go ahead, stretch the truth, imagine the impossible, do whatever creative things you want, just signal to readers so they know when they’re reading fact vs. nonfiction in your work. Say things like, “I imagine X happened” or “I wish X happened” or say a bunch of stuff that you’re not sure actually happened then say, “I can’t verify any of that,” or start it all off by saying, “what I’m about to tell you may or may not have happened,” or whatever. There are many signals you can give in writing that let you bend in whatever way you want while also being honest with readers, which is essential, because there are very real life consequences to presenting fiction as fact — we talked about many of them in the panel.

    This earlier post from Dinty here on Brevity is actually a great re-cap of precisely the message our panel conveyed:

    (And speaking of disclosure, one rule of journalism is that it’s essential to disclose when you have a relationship with a subject you’re writing about that might impact your presentation of the facts, as this poster has with me, and I with her. So full disclosure: The author of this post is a student at the University of Memphis who took several classes with me while I was on faculty there).

    • Tina says:

      I agree with what you and Tratenberg say about giving the reader full notice and warning as to how we’ve approached the nonfiction work: did we combine characters, did we compress time, etc. I don’t think the reader should just have to figure it out. No memoir is “the whole truth.” It’s our truth. But we need to make that clear to the reader.

  • Sara Hoover says:

    Thanks Rebecca for pointing out our past history. Yes, I am a student at the U of M, and Rebecca was also my thesis advisor for time. There was no skullduggery involved in not disclosing this. Dinty asked the posts to be 500 words and my original was double, which included this and others points of the panel discussion. There was no way I would be able to represent everything covered, but certainly the spirit of the discussion.

  • sue says:

    I would also like to point out some inaccuracies and misinterpretations in Ms. Hoover’s post. I believe she missed one of the most important points of the panel, made eloquently by Philip Gerard, that the “art” of writing creative nonfiction is to turn transcripts and raw data into story. I don’t think anyone suggested that pure recitation of facts is the way to be honest in CREATIVE nonfiction. There are many ways for careful, truthful nonfiction writers to impose order on the messy truth, and none require the laziness of composite characters and compression.

    Also, while I may have said I ran to the bathroom to take notes (though I don’t remember saying those words), I actually spent most of my furtive note-taking moments in lobbies and in my car.

  • Although the panelists accurately maintain that they repeatedly trumpeted the value of disclosure and signaling, they also implied a continuum in which needing to that frequently (as in the case of composite characters or compressed time) took one further away from “true” creative nonfiction, a conversation that reminds me of nothing so much as high school boys arguing over whether or not something is “real” metal.

    Skloot talked about the contract we have with readers who enter the nonfiction section of the bookstore to meet their expectations of nonfiction, but based on the best-sellers and high profile works in the genre, I think readers must expect that writers will take some liberties with the facts that won’t be apparent to them. Perhaps we’re discounting the reading public’s desire to be outraged.

    The most curious thing about the panel, to me, was the mythologizing of D’Agata, a.k.a “Jake Doom,” a super-villain name if ever I’ve heard one. Too bad the twitter handle is already taken, or it would be fun to start tweeting his plans to destroy CNF with a mere 144 characters, entirely unattributed and unresearched.

    I hope this doesn’t give the impression that I found the panel disappointing, because it was provocative and interesting to see Skloot, Gerard, Trachtenberg, and Resnick take relatively clear positions. I do wonder exactly what we hope to accomplish with these positions, because CNF doesn’t seem in any more danger now, despite its villains, than it was when the “death of the essay” was decried in the early years of the 20th century.

  • […] called with news about one of my cats just as the panel was starting — the cat is OK). The Brevity blog has posted a number of summaries of the creative nonfiction panels written by guest […]

  • Sorry I missed this panel, and appreciate the chance to sit in on it via this discussion. Trachtenberg’s dog tails seems to embody Skloot’s description of “disclosure” and “signal” quite well. In my own memoir (To Have Not), I found great freedom with phrases such as ” If only,” “I remember it as…” “I imagine …” and find they barely break the rhythm while allowing me to be both truthful and creative. In my workshops I encourage budding memoirists to fill in the blanks of what they don’t remember by imagining what might have been going on–and invite them to use phrases like “What if…” “Maybe,” “In my dreams…” as triggers. Along the lines of Hampl’s reasoning, I believe what might have happened and what we imagined to have happened can be as vital and important to the story as what did happen–provided we disclose it properly. What the reader objects to most is dishonesty, and it is really not necessary if you are a good storyteller willing to work hard and creatively.

  • […] with the question of truth and the role of factual accuracy in nonfiction. Thankfully, according to this source, at least one panel of writers apparently understands that the issue is not that […]

  • […] brief roundup of what happened during the entire presentation on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, here if you like.  You’ll find all the panel participants and an extended comments section […]

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