February 28, 2012

It’s been a while since I’ve posted so I figured I’d better come up with some excuses for why the blog’s been silent . . . let’s pick one, shall we?

1. I’ve finally succumbed to my celebrity gossip obsession and now spend most days and nights fervently surfing the net for salacious news tidbits on former child stars gone bad . . .

2. I’ve thrown the manuscript into the backyard firepit, deciding I’ll have better luck if I write one of those memoirs where I work in a cupcake shop for a year or I join the Merchant Marines or I move to a villa on the Rhine and rediscover my inner child or renew my spirituality or rejuvenate my old “glass half-full” view of life and the movie rights will be sold before the ink’s even dry on the contract. . .

3. I’m hunkered down arguing with my fact-checker, John D’Agata-style, trying to convince him even though my manuscript, My Brief History of Sex Education, is a memoir, I’d far prefer to attest to the manuscript’s “truthiness” than attest to its truth. After all, memory is a funny and fallible thing. . . 

But I’ve never been much of a liar so I’ll be pathetically honest and admit it’s none of the above, though the John D’Agata controversy has stirred my inner fact-checker—that little voice I hear as I write that asks, “Is that really how it happened? Is that really how you felt then?” And they’re tough questions to answer, especially when writing memoir, because unlike essays, memoirs are nonfiction in the form of a novel. We use facts to attain the truth, but we also have to tell a great story. The great story is why we LOVE memoir, right? And the truth of a story just adds to its appeal. It’s why we ask, “Did that really happen?” after finishing a book. It’s why we’re prepared to be transfixed by any movie prefaced by “Based on a true story. . . ”

But you can’t—or you shouldn’t—preface a memoir or a piece of what you’re claiming is nonfiction with the words “based on a true story,” which is essentially what John D’Agata has done. For those of you new to the D’Agata brouhaha, he’s recently published a book in which he argues with his fact-checker over actual facts vs. truthiness in his memoir (my words, not D’Agata’s—or rather my words plus my favorite Stephen Colbert word). In the book, D’Agata actually claims that facts are different from truth and thus facts can be changed if they result in greater truth or better art. And D’Agata isn’t tweaking little facts here and there because he doesn’t quite remember the actual course of events; he’s taking verifiable, irrefutable information—such as the method by which a boy killed himself one night in Las Vegas—and altering it for greater impact. If you want the full story and his mind-boggling argument, here’s an article from the  New York Times.

A sample of John D'Agata's story after the fact-checker has his way with the ubiquitous red pen.

It is true (and, I hope, factual) that writers are artists—we want to create something whole and beautiful, even if memory is a funny and fallible thing—and it’s tough sometimes to know how far to go when filling in those gaps, hard to know what role nostalgia or bitterness or shame should be allowed to play.


And, having read D’Agata’s work in the past, I absolutely recognize his talent and skill. But I don’t believe we should use that creativity to convince ourselves that the ends justify the means—memoir is not Machiavellian. The struggle in creating art is the talent of working with what you’ve got—and in memoir that’s your facts as well as the truth of what those facts lead to. You mess with one, you mess with the other.

There have been many responses to the D’Agata book and the NY Times interview, and many suspect (rightfully so I believe) that D’Agata went looking for controversy as part of a self-promotional scheme—after all, success now is achieved by 1% work and 99% just getting your name out there—but either way I felt compelled to take a minute from the manuscript to join in on the debate. My friend and fellow memoirist, Dinty Moore, also wrote a succinct commentary if you’re looking for a more thorough discussion of the fact or fiction debate. . .in Brevity


One Response to “Truthiness”

  1. W.F. Roby said

    Really enjoyed this read. I wish you’d go a little further! One of my favorite topics is the whole “it’s not how well you write it’s how well you network” fiasco, and you seemed to be kind of on a roll before the post ended. But thanks for sharing your feelings on all this. I like your blog. I’ll be checking it out, so please, share more!

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