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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