A Month of Truth: What Role Does Truth Play in Writing? By Brad Windhauser
The truth is relative.
This is either a quote I picked up somewhere or it represents the spirit of something I read. For the longest time, I didn’t quite grasp how or why this was true: facts are facts, right? This belief about truth perhaps begins in the Bible. The New Testament’s famous four canonized gospels present, essentially, four versions (or perspectives) on the life of Jesus. They often cover different aspects of his life but they also present three different takes on an important moment: Jesus’ final words on the cross. Is this a problem?
I’m not the one to answer that question, but the potential quandary should ask you to consider how important “the” truth really is. Some people have a hard and fast line in the sand when it comes to this issue; others allow for a little more wiggle room.
Take the audience of Brian Williams. This respected NBC news anchor has recently come under fire for “embellishing” details of his Iraq war stories. You could also ask readers of James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces. This supposedly-true piece of non-fiction told the tale of a recovering drug addict, and in recounting his journey into recovery, he may have embellished a fact or two, such as an extreme session at the dentist and just how long he spent in jail—converting hours into days. When the “truth” was exposed by The Smoking Gun, author David Sedaris, at a reading in Philadelphia, read a prepared response, in which he talked about how authors of non-fiction sometimes have to shape their content for the purposes of a story—as long as the spirit is maintained, you’re getting “the truth.” He also said, speaking specifically about Frey, you shouldn’t be surprised that a recovering alcoholic and drug addict lied to you.
But if the truth does depend on perspective, just how many liberties can an author take? For me, there is a line a writer should not cross (and still call it non-fiction). You should figure out where this line is for yourself—although if you are publishing something with a major publishers, lawyers will make this call for you. I’m sure there are folks who would say that something either happened or it didn’t. A lie is a lie, period. But if you take the stance that memory can be tricky, you might invoke the stance that you’re merely telling “your truth.”
For me, the line delineates the difference between bending the truth and inventing the truth.
In non-fiction, bending the truth speaks to the point Sedaris makes: if your story contains a conversation between two people, perhaps the content actually took place over the span of three conversations. Rather than being in the kitchen, the actual conversations took place at a basketball game, a restaurant, and between a shower curtain, where one of the people was running late and the other was trying desperately to shave his face in the midst of all the steam fogging up the mirror. It makes sense to condense these exchanges into one conversation—streamline it—so you can convey the spirit of what happened, and then move on.
After all, how many of us would want to read a story in “real time”?
That said, I don’t think you should invent scenarios that represent the spirit of what you believe, especially when it involves someone else with whom you’ve never met.
This particular case arose in the recent book American Sniper (which was made into a movie you may have heard about). In this book, author Chris Kyle invented a scene at a bar wherein he and a few others got into a fight with former Minnesota governor (and Navy SEAL) Jesse Ventura, who apparently denigrated then-President Bush, the Iraq war, and Navy SEALs. Although the book refers to Ventura as “Scruff Face,” Kyle apparently identified Ventura while on his book tour. The problem: this altercation never happened, nor did Kyle ever meet Ventura. This partly explains why Ventura sued Kyle successfully for defamation of character.
But what about the truth in fiction?
The irony with fiction is that if you write a story that is too true, you might end up in trouble (i.e. sued)—fiction is supposed to be invented. So if you’re writing fiction, invent your story, your characters. But your story has to be realistic, right? Your job is not to prove that something happened but rather that your people act in ways that human beings do. This is truth.
Writers are told over and over to write what they know. The balance in doing so involves how to use your life as inspiration, not material (per se). If you really need to chronicle your life, call it non-fiction—and check with your friends and family first. And if you do, be as truthful as you can. Truth is relative, just ensure that what you write is what you know to be accurate. If you’re writing fiction, use the genre to enlighten us: you’re not tied to the truth, so lie your ass off.