Writers deal with truths, not facts

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Photo by Doug Robichaud on Unsplash

Tell all the truth, but tell it slant. That’s advice from Emily Dickinson, cited by writing teachers every day. You have to lie a little in order to tell a good story. Authors often get harangued for fudging details in their memoirs. But the reality is… adherence to facts can strangle your writing. Instead, aim for slanted truth. There’s a difference.

If you’re worried about judgment from your family, then let yourself change details. Don’t fret over whether you’ve faithfully documented the exact season something happened, or the order of events. You’re not a journalist, or a biographer.

Its your life. As far as I’m concerned, you should chop it up and serve it to readers as you see fit. Take the best (or worst) parts of your memories, and weave them into a story.

Take how I describe interactions with people as an example. Early on, I felt guilty if I compressed three different conversations with one person into a single interaction. Technically, it didn’t happen that way. But I got over my reluctance. Why? Because I realized how tedious it would be for readers if I specified the times and dates of three separate phone calls. Really? Who cares? As far as the reader’s concerned, they might as well have happened simultaneously. To me, that’s not lying. That’s editing.

This is the advice I follow for my blog. For my academic work, I’m tedious as hell. You have to be. Maybe that’s one reason nobody reads journal articles. The endless qualifications and hedges.

There, I just lied again. I said “nobody” reads academic journals. Not exactly true. But it’s a more direct expression than “not many people.” It fits better with my voice, so I went with that. Facts be damned.

One of my favorite writers, Borges, talked about his two personas. There was the flesh and blood Borges, and then there was the writer Borges. Almost like a different personality altogether.

Maybe a better example is The Hulk. When I’m not writing, I’m like Bruce Banner. Pretty quiet. Mild. But when I sit down to write, I became bolder. More aggressive.

And what does Hulk do best?

He smashes.

And that’s what I do when I write. I smash. When I’m smashing, I can’t stop and think about whether every word is a complete and accurate reflection of what happened seven or eight years ago. I’m going with my gut. What I remembered feeling. What I want to convey to my readers.

Years ago, James Frey suffered a slow and painful trial in the court of public opinion for altering facts in his book, A Million Little Pieces. Personally, I never read it. The diary of a drug addict alcoholic didn’t interest me that much. Some guy got fucked up and did stupid shit. Big deal.

But then news stories began flooding my browser with headlines like “Writer Lies in Memoir” or “Best-selling Author Busted.” Curious, I skimmed some of them. Apparently Frey had exaggerated his exploits, especially the amount of alcohol he was consuming.

Even then, I figured…big deal. Did that really diminish the reading experience?

Not that I speak for agents and editors. But I’d like to encourage writers and bloggers to loosen up with their adherence to “facts.” As a reader, I want a story that’s based 80–90 percent on your life. I don’t want a litany of details. Memory and experience is subjective. I describe my family a little bit differently on my blog than I do to friends and coworkers. Which one’s more true? (Almost always, my blog.)

Here, I’m taking off my filter and saying what I really think. I’ll make a bold statement in a way that I never would anywhere else. It feels a little bit like a lie, or an exaggeration. Here’s an example:

Which one’s more true? I don’t know. It depends on the time of day. I know the second one has more punch, so I go with that.

For me, I have to change details to protect myself. Other times, I expand and condense timelines for better storytelling. Maybe I’ll combine two or three people I know into one character, in order to make my point more effectively. Honestly, who cares? Everything I write about happened. If I have to stop and explain who did what when, it kills the inspiration.

Writing’s supposed to be fun. I’ll change names. Flip genders. Alter places and dates. Those things ultimately don’t corrupt the meaning. And they help me stay somewhat anonymous.

One thing I can promise: I’ll never pull anything straight out of my ass. For example, I’ve blogged about traveling to Spain. Yeah, that happened. I’ll never lie to my readers and say I took a night train from Madrid to Paris, and had sex with a handsome stranger on the Eiffel Tower. Sure, I wish I’d done that. But that’s not even remotely true. So why bother? Writers who deal in nonfiction have to convey truth, but not literal facts.

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