What is Given: Against Knowingly Changing the Truth

April 20, 2012 § 27 Comments

 Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore responds to Jill Talbot’s blog essay, Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact.

I admire Jill Talbot for moving the debate on truth in nonfiction away from generalized and sometimes vague pronouncements. By providing actual examples of what she has done with her work and what she sees as suitable, we can finally discuss specifics.  (Yes, the writer and the fact-checker in our latest scandal discuss specifics, but the hyperbole and play-acting creates little more than a cloud of disingenuous smoke.)

So thank you, Jill Talbot.  But on many of your specifics, I thoroughly disagree.

Jill is right that the border between truth and fiction is merely a line somewhere, and unlike those national borders that are well-defined by river or mountain range, the line between Fiction-Land and Nonfiction-Land better resembles the border between two desert nations.  Somewhere out there on that sand dune is the line, and there may come a point where one has trouble discerning clearly whether he is on one side, or the other side, or straddling the line itself. The sand itself can shift right under you.

To pick and choose which scenes to include is a fiction, a necessary fiction, because it didn’t really happen that way. It happened with all of that boring stuff included, but to shape a narrative I’ve pulled the boring bits out.  The same applies to dialogue.  To include every word spoken–let’s pretend you had a tape recorder running during a family argument–would overwhelm a reader and make for a less interesting, less understandable scene. So we edit. The very act of writing a memoir, to say “this is my life,” is a fiction of sorts as well, since it is not your life, it is just some chosen moments, translated into words and subjective description.

But there is to me a difference between the necessary picking and choosing, editing, highlighting, arranging, and subjectively describing that goes into the “creation” of creative nonfiction and knowingly inventing. To knowingly invent, in my view, is to cross that line entirely, and suddenly you are standing in Fiction-Land, even if only a few feet in.

Jill’s first major example–attributing a comment overheard in rehab to a student rather than to herself–is a problematic one. I sympathize with her wanting privacy and feeling a need to withhold her own rehab experience in the context of an anthology introduction. And I suppose it doesn’t matter who overheard the comment on James Frey; the impact of the comment is not changed. But while I easily endorse the need for a writer to occasionally protect the privacy of a friend or family member, I feel uncomfortable with an author protecting herself. That’s a slippery slope for sure.

Jill’s other examples are more clear-cut for me. There is a key difference between the impact of boyfriend saying “Your family needs to drink,” and the wife of a cousin saying it. As Jill herself acknowledges, the gravity of the remark changes.  So it is not accurate to so neatly change the source.  It is not necessary either, but that’s another story.

Jill then gives an example where she changes red wine to chardonnay.  Not exactly water into wine, but harmless enough I think.  Still, why?  And she changes the titles of the library books she is returning.  Granted, Linda Hutcheons’ “Incredulity toward Metanarrative: Negotiating Postmodernism and Feminisms” is a mouthful, and changing to Joyce Carol Oates is harmless enough, but why the change to “checking on a missing copy” of the book?  I’m baffled by the easy step across borders in that alteration. What does the fact that a book is missing suggest, and what does it mean that this “disappearance” is invented?

My concern that these minor changes lead to a Nonfiction-Land where a writer feels comfortable making slightly larger, more significant changes is borne out in the next example.

Jill quotes from her own essay:

I told her I remember my mother taking me once to a lake outside her home town in East Texas when I was about her age and that once, I dated a guy in college who tried, impatiently, to teach me to cast, fly-fishing style.

And then explains:

Actually, that guy was during my graduate school years, but a college self, in my mind, connotes a younger, less experienced self who is learning more than just the Gen Ed requirements. And the guy was very, very patient. I was the impatient one.

Well yes, a college self does denote a “younger, less experienced self who is learning more than just the Gen Ed requirements,” but it also changes the essence of the scene, as does the detail of who was impatient, and the scene becomes a fiction, something invented to illustrate a truth, not a truth in and of itself.

I am not Chief Guardian of the Border, but if I were, Jill Talbot’s passport would be confiscated until we sorted out exactly why she crosses the border so frequently, without clearly notifying the proper authorities (which, in this metaphor, would be the readers.)

Jill Talbot ends with a lyric, lovely paragraph in which she explores an evening where the shadows of trees on the snow unsettled her, and explores why she had written earlier that it was the tree branches themselves.  And then she quotes Mark Slouka:

There is no map–read as you may, write what you will.

The difference here? For me, there is a map.  The map can’t be drawn, but it can be expressed in words:

You work with what is given to you. You arrange the puzzle pieces taken from the nonfiction box without reaching over into the fiction box, as tempting as it may be. You do your best to pull up honest memory. Though we know memory’s weakness, at least don’t lie about what you think you remember.  When you are not sure, you tell the reader. When you want to change something, explore why you want to change it. Fiction approaches a certain sort of truth, and thank goodness we have fiction, but it is not the same truth that nonfiction attempts. Know the difference. As a nonfiction writer, you will surely make mistakes, get things wrong, remember poorly, but to do it knowingly, that’s crossing the line.

 Thanks for listening, Jill.  Let us all discuss.

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§ 27 Responses to What is Given: Against Knowingly Changing the Truth

  • Dave Bonta says:

    Reading the arguments of the other camp in this debate, I keep thinking I’ve heard something like this before. Then I remember: oh yeah, all the people who used to say about Zen Buddhism that anything goes; zen means just do whatever. Nope.

  • Deborah Pintonelli says:

    I completely agree. Jamaica Kincaid said, quite eloquently and simply, about her book from 1997, “My Brothe,r” to paraphrase: When I am writing fiction, I make things up. With non-fiction I tell the truth. What I don’t understand is how authors like Talbot can excuse fictionalizing because it sounds better, or makes more sense, etc., without any real evidence that the choices they are making are doing the trick. They are trying to play two sides of the coin, and often end up with ridiculous prose, as in Frey’s root canal without anesthesia scene in “Pieces.”

    It would seem that that by playing this game they are attempting to avoid criticism, and even worse, turn truths into lies, and vice versa. Not a good place to write from, and smacks of self-loathing, and utter disingenuousness. No one wanted to publish Frey’s book as a novel, so he just stuck a different label on it, much as Talbot did with her submissions. She, like so many writers, is looking to get published, and will do anything it takes.

  • megscottharris says:

    Once again, you speak the truth, Dinty.

  • Elizabeth says:

    I use a similar map in my nonfiction. I’d love to see more discussion of nonfiction writers who follow this path: “When you want to change something, explore why you want to change it.” That’s where I find some of my best insights and truths.

  • Sunce I write both, I am very careful to define borders, even making a distinction between “historical fiction” and “alternative history”. The latter is where I’ve changed a “known” fact. Working with Civil War sources gets close to fiction most of the time anyway, since they are all slanted or biased in some way. “Creative non-fiction is applying a narrative technique pf fiction to a factual account. When you start making things up, the you’re back in fiction-land and need to say so.

  • Dinty–I’ve just copied your last paragraph to pass out in every workshop I do from now on! This is the crux of the matter–because “knowingly” implies motive, possibly unexamined motive, but even in the small stuff, potentially dangerous not to the craft, but to the self. The self who needs to hold the self to the fire because no one else is going to. Thanks sooooo much for hosting this debate, and for moving it into the realm of genuine dialogue.

  • Janice Gary says:

    In the midst of writing my grad school thesis (a memoir), I discussed with my mentor that I changed the location of a bar where I flung a drink at a guy who used to heckle me when I was in a punk band. Such a small detail. Why not? He told me something that has always stayed me since. “Why would you do that?” he asked. “The truth is always more powerful.” Since then, I pay attention to that impulse to stray and force myself to stay with any event, place, any truth I want to run away from. Inevitably, there is always something deeper and more profound that emerges. Sometimes, evading what we know to be true is a way of evading our own story. And to do that in memoir completely defeats the purpose of writing such work– both for ourselves as writers (and archaeologists of our lives) and our readers.

    • Pierrette Stukes says:

      Janice, you and I were writing our posts at the same moment. I agree with you completely. Thanks for saying it so eloquently.

  • Pierrette Stukes says:

    In a creative nonfiction workshop with Suzannah Lessard, I recall her saying something like, “it is in the sticky, difficult places of the truth that we are trying to avoid that we find the gold.” Obviously, a flatfooted paraphrase. 🙂 My restatement: Go into the teeth of the hard truth and find your soul and the soul of your life story

    • Janice Gary says:

      Suzannah’s response is a beautiful way to say it. (Did you work with her at Goucher? My “truth is more powerful” mentor was Tom French at Goucher’s MFA. As much as I sometimes chafed under the journalists in the program, they were a good balance for those of us laboring at the artful end of the nf spectrum.)

      • Pierrette Stukes says:

        I am in the MFA at Queens U in Charlotte. I haven’t had the graced fortune yet to spend 4 months with her in individual small group workshops, but she presented one of my lectures last term and I got to spend a lovely evening with her over dinner.

  • sonyahuber says:

    I agree with what many have said, and with the goldmine that is there in the real moment (also a very Buddhist idea). It might not be exactly what we want it to be, but it is there–for reasons we might never understand.

    As a writer, this doesn’t mean I have to include “all the facts” if I don’t remember hardly anything from an important moment. Then, the richness that can come from the writing is a list of questions: why don’t I remember this? Why is the only thing I remember that the sofa was blue? Was the sofa even blue?

  • K.N. says:

    I always wonder in this argument why there’s such anxiety about guarding nonfiction against the influence of invention. Why we use terms like, “slippery slope,” the same one Rick Santorum uses to justify marriage inequality. Why such nervousness? Why do we feel so betrayed when we’ve discovered some detail in a piece of nonfiction writing has been invented instead of remembered or researched? I think this is an absolutely essential discussion to have, but I often question the terms with which we have it.

    I wonder too why we nonfiction writers so easily accept the “duty” to uphold the “contract” with the reader? Why don’t we lambaste novelists (who by calling their work “fiction” present it as wholly invented) when their novels are based very closely on the autobiographical? Why is the violation always only ours?

  • Pierrette Stukes says:

    K.N. — Perhaps it is a duty with ourselves as nonfiction writers — for in the end isn’t the contract with our own inner lives and the truths they hold? I like your questions.

  • mwschmeer says:

    This reminds me of all the debates about what is and isn’t poetry. Anybody up for revisting the flarf debates?

    Isn’t it possible that creative nonfiction that “knowingly passes the boundaries of truth” is just a sub-genre of creative nonfiction?

    Which is more important in nonfiction: the experience of reading it, or the experience of writing it?

    I don’t care if creative nonfiction writers play with The Truth. Truth is slippery. NO ONE can speak to the accuracy of an internalized experience; we can only relate to it by comparing it to our own experiences. We can trust only the voice of the writer and that is all, and if the voice strikes us as trustworthy, then we will accept what we read as being a version of the truth, but not The Truth.

    As a reader of creative nonfiction, I’m looking to read things that move me on both an emotional and intellectual level. There is no “contract” with a reader–that is a false construct but makes for a nice metaphor. I came across the term “The Writer-Reader Contract” for the first time in the work of Frank Smith. It struck me as false then, and it strikes me as false now. The writer’s only true contract is to the work, to make the work the best it can be. And if that means it needs to be embellished and fictionalized so that the verisimilitude of the experience is all the more real, so be it.

    I say this as a voracious reader of creative nonfiction; I do not write it. As a reader, the burden is on ME to weigh and measure the believability of a work; the writer’s job is convince me that the work is worth reading.

    As Smith says in Writing and the Writer:

    Writers must produce texts and readers must interpret them, and the text always stands between the two, a barrier as well as a bridge. Writers cannot reach through a text to the reader beyond, any more than a reader can penetrate the text to make direct contact with the writer. Like a river that permits communication between one shore and another, the text is also an obstacle that keeps the two sides apart.

    He goes on this this chapter (“The Writer-Reader Contract”) to discuss how the intentions of writers and readers differ, and that meaning is often made in the slippery space between them. He points out that readers do not attempt to figure out what the writer intends, but rather “upon the context in which they [readers] try to make their interpretations, on their current state of knowledge, and on what they themselves want and expect to find.”

    In short: readers interpret a text based on what they want to get out it, not on what the author wants them to get out of it. The onus, ultimately, on the reader. And by adapting the conventions of fiction to nonfiction, writers of creative nonfiction invite (I would say almost demand) readers to bring their own meaning and interpretations into the text. Creative nonfiction asks the reader to do some of the creative heavy lifting that other nonfiction genres–like a dictionary, a reference manual, a scientific article, a feature news story–cannot ask the reader to do. Creative nonfiction invites the reader to participate in active, interpretive meaning making because the writer has created tension by misdirection, relied upon dramatic triangulation, obfuscated narrative plot lines or strands, or engaged in other fiction techniques that readers are quite happy with when reading something labeled “fiction” but somehow get upset about when they are asked to interpret these same techniques in something labeled “nonfiction.”

    The problem is in that “nonfiction” is a broad category that includes so many genres beyond the essay. And “creative confiction” does not fit easily into the “nonfiction” category because it is something more than nonfiction: it is personal. It is reflective. It grapples with large issues on a personal scale. It is something else.

    And it is time to give it a new name. “Frictions,” for all the cheeky wordplay of the term, is a start.

    ps: I always recommend that writers read Smith’s Writing and the Writer and it’s companion piece, Reading and the Reader. Although they are theoretical and meant for an academic audience, there is value in understanding literacy and cognition.

    • mwschmeer says:

      Heh. Just noticed the typo “creative confiction” in my above post. Maybe that should be the genre’s name?

  • Jill Talbot says:

    “Though we know memory’s weakness, at least don’t lie about what you think you remember.” Not one of these examples addresses my “memory’s weakness.” Not one of these examples addresses what I do NOT remember.

    From an essay of mine, CREATING NONFICTION, that appeared in SEGUE:

    “Though details derive from memory, what we don’t remember can be as poignant and significant, depending on the story we wish to tell. I don’t remember the color of my grandmother’s dress can be just as evocative as the exact position of the chair in her living room. But choose wisely and don’t rely on one or another for too long. Also, the use of I remember can show a relationship to memory and to the place and time but try deleting it to see if the memory can stand on its own. Finally, it’s not enough to just include a memory in an essay, a writer must know why it’s there. And convey this in the text.”

    I’m thinking of Mark Doty’s “Bridge in Beige,” in which he discusses how misremembering can be equally revealing; in fact, Joy Castro has discussed Doty’s piece on her blog.

    Yet while I find the subjectivity of memory a fascinating arena in writing memoir and essay, in “Border Crossings,” I’m NOT focusing on the fallibility of memory, I’m discussing the shaping/molding of details. Who’s to say I never saw Mr. Green Jeans outside a window? The memory that stands out to me is the first time I saw him in the cafeteria–it’s just where I placed him in that sentence. I pick up a detail from a memory and move it–but it’s not like I’m moving my little car from Marvin Gardens to Park Place and exchanging my parking fine for a get out of jail free one. The truth is Mr. Green Jeans was kind to his young wife and often came to campus during lunchtime, and I often observed them when no one else paid attention–which is what writers do.

  • I think creative nonfiction writers DO have a contract with the reader and an obligation to not knowingly speak untruths. When I read Talbot’s essay and discovered that she was really the “student” in rehab, I read the rest of the piece with trepidation. What else might she by lying about? Was the entire essay a sham? Would I get to the very end and be greeted with a “Fooled ya, I don’t even write creative nonfiction!” As Sonya says, there is a goldmine in the truth. I read creative nonfiction to see how the writer works with that goldmine. To find out there is no “gold” is to be royally misled.

    • K.N. says:

      Obviously your trepidation comes from Talbot’s admission in her essay about her essay. What if you didn’t know the difference? Most readers of Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek” don’t realize the very opening image of the cat printing bloody pawprints on her chest as she wakes in bed — which becomes a central image of the book — is not Dillard’s lived experience. A student of hers told her about his cat, and she claimed the experience as her own. But if you don’t know the difference, you think the image is wonderful, and you hand her a Pulitzer Prize.

  • […] Dinty W. Moore, “What is Given: Against Knowingly Changing the Truth,” part of a worthy exchange with Jill Talbot on the Brevity […]

  • The key, I think, is intent to deceive. And I think I know, if I pay attention, when I am inventing in order to make a more dramatic scene or a better version of myself. Such writing should be rigorously self-censored. The facts must be accurate, and the writer must be willing to go along in the spirit of emotional accuracy.
    On the other hand, the reader of literary non-fiction is fairly sophisticated at the genre and knows that this is writing, not the experience. If I say, “my mother’s dress was likely to be” or “was probably” and then draw as accurate a picture as my memory provides, that is truth enough. If I say, “I don’t remember exactly, but….” Or “I seem to remember, although…” or “I wasn’t there. I’m inventing now…” – the reader will be willing to go with me into that middle playground, and will not be deceived.

  • D.W. Petry says:

    I question if it’s not in the writer’s zeal or ambition to write the “good story” or reveal the grand “truth”(or a particular truth) that facts are compromised. Perhaps the temptation to alter the factual materials for the sake of the work of “art” is too great, the desire to publish too desperate. I thought the goal of creative NON-fiction was to create a work of “art” using the stuff from reality—use the real bricks, the red ones, not the plastic ones, or the ones reshaped to make it fit better. That is the challenge is it not, to use the facts, just the facts, and use and position words in the creative way to build the non-fiction story. To change the facts, to change what actually, for real, happened, is simply deception, a false truth, an indulgent diversion into that land of alternate reality, however slight that reality might be. It’s cheating. If you’re writing for the sake of “Truth”, on that high almighty mission, and willing to fudge the facts, then genre be damned, to hell with it. What’s the point of something being defined as fiction or non-fiction if all that matters is truth or the story?

    Doesn’t claiming a thing an apple when it was really an orange diminish the quality and authority and the truth of the fact? Some will say, the truth is that it was a fruit and the facts of the matter don’t matter. But it does matter. Maybe thinking that the truth lies only in the fact of the subject being a fruit is missing another truth, which is the truth of the apple as opposed to the truth of the orange. It strikes me as odd, or suspect, that such care can go into selecting the details of objects in fiction, exactly because the writer knows the value of those details, those facts, that his character did eat an apple and not an orange because he was allergic to oranges or something, and yet in creative non-fiction there is argument for changing such details. Details matter for a reason. They are the reality of the situation, regardless of the multiple truths or stories that might be spun from them. The challenge in creative non-fiction is to discover why the facts exist as they do and as they are, why they all came together and did what they did, or do what that they do. I would argue that the details of non-fiction are fundamentally important. They convey a truth perhaps not readily visible, or agreeable or understandable, but their very existence makes them always significant. Whether to choose to include them in a story or not is appropriate, to change them is to make a fiction. And to pass that fiction off as non-fiction, as something real that happened, may make a better story, but it will have deceived and betrayed the reader. And that is the harm.

  • divineadvancedhumanbeings.com says:

    Truth explains who we are, where we came from and most importantly… where we are going. When we follow this path of truth, we arrive at the place where we began our journey. Each one’s journey of truth vs. believing… is where we first heard an unidentified voice that beckoned us forward. When we obtain truth, we make a full circuit and arrive back to where our journey began. However, we are not the same, but wiser because we have discovered who it was that urged us to move forward in the beginning. This revelation is called evolution.

    Before we can understand truth, we must stop “believing” what truth is! Belief is another word for I don’t “know”. It’s better to “believe nothing” than it is to “believe in something” you don’t know to be truth. Our beliefs will always take us in the wrong direction! We must stay with what we know and seek truth. You cannot be a “seeker of truth” and also a “believer of truth” at the same time. A seeker of truth is always open to learn and always willing to change their course… but a believer has already arrived, therefore… they build their paradise at the base of the mountain “believing” it to be the summit and call it a victory. [more….]


  • Caterina Nelson says:

    If you want to change things from what is true to what is not true (whether you’re Annie Dillard or not), call what you write fiction or, maybe, mostly-frue nonfiction. Just don’t call it nonfiction (creative or otherwise).

  • This has been an excellent forum. Dinty was here to teach in Geneva, Switzerland, the part of the map that is called “fiction land” (but he really was here) in February. A terrific teacher, as when he writes here that to remember poorly “knowingly” is crossing the line. Thank you everyone, Susan Tiberghien, One Year to a Writing Life.

  • […] Border Crossings: Fiction and the Literature of Fact and Dinty Moore’s response, What is Given: Against Knowingly Changing the Truth, as well as Micah McCrary’s Creative Nonfiction: In Defense of the Truth (with a lowercase […]

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