Facts Don’t Get in the Way of the Truth

December 8, 2014 § 12 Comments

A guest post from Rachael Hanel

Rachael Hanel

Rachael Hanel

As someone who writes nonfiction exclusively, it’s no surprise that my favorite movie genre is the documentary. Give me a two-hour film about anyone, anything, from anytime, and I’m mesmerized. For several years now, I’ve taught an introductory mass media class in which I show one documentary a week. Even after the 20th or so viewing, Bowling for Columbine and The Tillman Story captivate me just like they did the first time I watched them.

My love of the actual extends to the documentary’s close relative, the docudrama. We still get a true story, but with the plot, narrative arc, scene, and character development found in fictional films.

Sound familiar? Creative nonfiction writers are also told to use those foundations of classic storytelling. The docudrama is the filmic equivalent of creative nonfiction. What can docudrama directors tell creative nonfiction writers about crafting stories from the true? Filmmakers who work exclusively with true stories continually find ways to explore the boundaries of the actual.

I was reminded of this while reading a Q&A in the Minneapolis StarTribune with Bennett Miller, the director of films such as Capote, Moneyball, and the critically acclaimed new movie, Foxcatcher. Reading the Q&A makes the parallels between writing and directing nonfiction apparent. How Miller works with the facts to make a film is a good reminder for the nonfiction writer. There’s what we see, and then there’s what’s hidden behind that public front. Miller uses his films to discover what’s hidden, just as we nonfiction writers should do in our essays and books.

Miller tells the StarTribune’s film reviewer Colin Covert how he approaches a film: “… looking and wondering what is the public face and what is the private truth and what might be guarded in the moment. … And so taking a story that’s real affords you the opportunity to make discoveries that are beyond what we might make in ordinary life.”

Covert poses questions perennially asked of creative nonfiction writers: But what about the facts? Do the facts ever get in the way of telling a true story? The unasked question here might as well be: Are you ever tempted to make up things in order to tell a better story?

I wish I could have thought of Bennett’s response: “Sometimes the facts can get in the way of telling a good story. But they don’t get in the way of the truth.”

Bennett further discerns the difference between facts and truth. He describes facts as the foundation from which the story arises. He says he doesn’t consider his films biographies; he prefers the term “portraits.” As such, he’s not concerned with documenting the entirety of a person’s life. Instead he’s more interested in “aspects of a person, aspects of a story.”

The interview couldn’t have been published at a better time for me. I banged out a first draft of a biography (er, I mean, portrait) over the summer. The draft is mostly a compilation of facts just so I could get a clear sense of important events and the timeline of my subject’s life. But now that I have all these facts, I have to figure out how to craft the narrative.

Using Bennett’s perspective is helpful. What truth comes from the facts? What story emerges from between the lines of known events? What’s the metaphor? Bennett says he’s interested in the allegorical. “…it’s especially interesting when you can find a story that has truths that when unearthed yield new insights into something that becomes allegorical.”

Reading well-crafted nonfiction always provides me a muse and has been known to help me emerge from writer’s block. But Bennett’s interview inspires me to take more breaks to watch his films and others like them. When I’m nestled into a movie theater seat to watch Foxcatcher, I won’t feel the least bit guilty. I’m working.

Read Covert’s entire Q&A here.


Rachael Hanel lives and writes just outside of Mankato, Minnesota. She is a former newspaper reporter and copy editor and teaches Mass Media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is the author of more than 20 nonfiction books for children. We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughteris her first book for adults.

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§ 12 Responses to Facts Don’t Get in the Way of the Truth

  • rachaelhanel says:

    Reblogged this on We'll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down and commented:
    My post about the parallels between directing biopics and writing biography.

  • Jean Rhude says:

    Maintaining emotional truth means that sometimes you must combine events, or slant your perspective. I’ve come to view these as literary devices and forgive myself as long as my emotional truth remains intact.

    • rachaelhanel says:

      Jean, I think that’s totally legitimate. If you do that, do you think the reader needs to know up front? I just read a memoir in which the author in a foreword let readers know that she combined some characters.

    • Jennifer Wade says:

      Where and how and why one draws the line, of course, is a hotly contested topic. James Frey, the notorious worst offender, used the “emotional truth” defense to rationalize what (IMO) were simply self aggrandizing lies. So the phrase makes me wary. Still, you may have justification upon which to take a few liberties here and there. Rationale varies with what the individual piece best needs to accomplish.

      • rachaelhanel says:

        Yes, Jennifer, it’s a very individual decision. It still makes me wonder how transparent the author needs to be. I’ve read several memoirs with an author’s note or preface in which the authors say something to the effect of “these memories are mine.” That seems to head-off complaints by others who may remember the events differently.

  • ryderziebarth says:

    Facts getting in the way of of the story…I love it.Tell it Slant, by all means.

  • Jean Rhude says:

    Good question, “should you let the reader know when you have taken these liberties.” I’ll have to ponder that. It can take away from the story in that the reader wonders what is truth and what is fiction. In my memoir I listed the wrong hotel where I went to tell my father of my teenage pregnancy in the South, in the 60’s. When I realized it it set me way back, questioning everything I had written if my time line could be off. It did not matter to the story line at all. My point is, memory is itself faulty. Perhaps emotional truth, retrospectively, is the best we can do.

  • veracitymama says:

    At first glance, the title, “Facts Don’t Get in the Way of the Truth,” seemed to be at odds with one of my cherished Maya Angelou quotes: “There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.” It took a moment or two of reflection for me to realize that they are both saying the same thing. Both come in through different doors and get to the same place. The common denominator is “truth.”

    What a valuable and provocative post! There are a multitude of variables inherent in this subject matter, yet you manage to bring a bunch of them together, stirring the pot just enough to leave us thinking “Hmmm … I never thought of it that way.”

  • John says:

    I’m happy to know there is someone else who loves documentaries. I had begun to think I might be the only person who preferred a documentary to an action flick. 🙂 “Dear Zachary” rips my heart out every time. And “Steal a Pencil for Me” always makes me tear up.

    Fiction can be enjoyable, an escape from the everyday. Yet, I find that non-fiction teaches me so much more. I like hearing other people’s stories because it helps me to realize the interconnectedness of it all. Real life always seems much more interesting to me than fiction.

    I agree with the others who’ve commented about “truth”. Truth really is rather subjective — perhaps that’s part of why there’s such controversy about how truthful we should/can be when writing. Perhaps we don’t want to look at the idea that our version of the truth might be the version where we come out looking better than we actually were at such and such a moment.

    I think James Frey may have done non-fiction a favor. Having those little author notes at the beginning, telling us that perhaps a character is a composite, or that the story is just the author’s version of the truth is certainly a good thing. Sometimes one does have to protect someone’s identity, or condense several days into one in order to keep the story flowing freely. I appreciate knowing that a writer is being as honest as they can be.

    I’m not a fan of the half-true/half-fiction genre. I don’t like having to figure out what is real or imagined. I like fiction being in a different aisle than the memoirs. I don’t like them when they inhabit the same book.

    I know that if I read your memoir, and if one of your siblings wrote a book, that there would be differences in the story. And, that’s acceptable to me. I’ve always believed in that old phrase “There are three versions of the truth: yours, mine, and the actual.” Maybe that’s what makes non-fiction so interesting to me — the knowledge that there is always another part to the story, someone else’s version of the same events.

    I enjoyed your post (and have added your book to my Amazon “To Buy” list).

  • […] Blurring of Fact” which shared Tom Montgomery Fate’s thoughts, and earlier in a December 2014 guest post by Rachael Hanel. She quotes film director Bennett Miller: “Sometimes the facts can get in the […]

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