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.