Sunday, May 24, 2020

TRUE TO LIFE: Chapter 21, Claim your truth


Claim your truth

once wrote an essay about visiting my grandparents in their dark, stuffy apartment in New York. My father—allowed to read the piece late in the process—protested. “There was nothing dark and stuffy about that apartment!” he said. “In comparison with the others, it was flooded with sunlight.” My childhood home in Halifax with its huge windows was the opposite of my grandparents’ flat on West 79th with its dark shroud of curtains. But my dad grew up in places with fewer windows and heavier curtains.
It’s your story, so you get to tell it your way. If my father had written the story, the apartment would have been bright.
I also believe you can, within sensible limits, change slightly or “recreate” the truth in order to fashion a better tale. Two friends were with me when a fire broke out in my home, but in writing the story, I didn’t need two bystanders to bring the drama to life, so I left one out. Her absence does not change the fundamental truth of the story: There was a fire and no one was hurt. Without an extra person, it’s a cleaner, clearer tale. But that’s as far as I would go with changes.
Beware of the pitfalls of fudging the facts. In 2006 James Frey’s forced admission that his memoir A Million Little Pieces contained blatant exaggerations caused a huge controversy about the issue of truth in creative non-fiction. Frey originally wrote his book as fiction but was persuaded by his editors to call it a memoir. If they’d printed a brief disclaimer—“Parts of this story have been embellished for effect”—Oprah and a million readers would not have felt cheated.
There is no universal truth. Ask your siblings to describe a dinnertime or holiday ritual from your childhood; their memories and yours will be so different, you could have come from different families. In fact, you did. (See Mary’s story in Step 19.) If they read your memoirs, they might be outraged. “It wasn’t like that at all!” they might say. No, it wasn’t, for them. But you are the one writing the story; your experiences and insights are unique. And you might also be reimagining the truth slightly to fashion a better story.
But only slightly. Beware of veering into fiction, a.k.a. making it all up, a.k.a. lying. And tell your siblings to write their own version.
After calling for honesty, I hope I don’t bewilder you when I say writers can be too honest. I don’t remember exactly, but I think my mother worked in a circus when I was young may be truthful, but it’s also opaque. If you can’t see the picture clearly, how will I? Do not tell me what you don’t remember (unless the whole point of the story is that you don’t remember). Contact someone who does know or do other kinds of research.
Without a way to ascertain something, you can make it up in the interests of a good story, but only to a certain point: only if it does not change the fundamental truth of your tale. If you have a general but not a specific memory of what you’re writing, like dialogue between your parents when you were small, make it up. Those memories are buried in there somewhere. I’ll bet what you write will be pretty close to what was actually said.
Be aware that this is controversial: Non-fiction writers who feel we should stay as close as possible to the strict letter of the truth will be outraged.
I preach there are all kinds of truth, your truth and somebody else’s. But behind all of them there is only one truth and that is that there’s no truth.
flannery o’connor

I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell.
tobias wolff

Si non e vero, e ben trovato. (Even if it’s not true, it’s a good story.)

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