Muddy Truth

Have you ever told someone a story you were certain was true only to find out later that the story you’d told was false?

Perhaps this is not something that occurs to everyone. However, as a Creative Nonfiction writer, who is claiming to write only what is true, I find that the stakes are often higher in this regard. Like a journalist, I must “check my facts” or I am, though unintentionally, deceiving my audience.

But the waters are muddy. In order to tell a good story, you need strong details– you need to know what color her nail polish was on the day she first held hands with her crush, what flavor of gum he was chewing when he choked, and the name of the plant she crushed when her knee gave out during her walk.

The problem with this is, of course, memory. Ordinarily, a person will not remember trivial details. Our memories record sparingly and unpredictably.  Maybe we’ll remember how the bone cracked when it broke after a fall onto the driveway– or maybe we won’t remember anything but pain. We might remember a brother running toward the house, a mother putting ice on the finger, what the doctor said when he saw the fractured finger, or even our own scream when the bone fractured. Or maybe we won’t. Our memories are arbitrary.

So what’s a nonfiction writer to do? Amazingly, a reader allows the nonfiction writer to make things up, trusting that the writer will preserve the reader’s trust, and that the spirit of the tale– and the major details– will be true. Where is the line, then, between what is fiction and nonfiction? It lies in that reader and writer trust. The writer is allowed to tell the story well, to make it believable by adding inconsequential and assumed details. The ones I mentioned above are good examples– the color of the nail polish, the assumed actions that occurred after a child’s finger is fractured, even dialogue that could very likely have occurred (because our minds also do not record conversations in perfect detail, or sometimes even at all!).

Admittedly, the distinction between creative nonfiction and fiction becomes muddier all the time. What constitutes “major” details? Can CNF writers create one composite character out of two real people? Can CNF writers create entire dialogues between characters, not being sure that any of the words were actually spoken? Can CNF writers assume intentions of true people in order to make a good story? How much are CNF writers allowed to exaggerate the truth?

The famous scandal of in my memory of a memoir writer who stepped over a line, making readers he had betrayed trust, is the controversy of the memoir, A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. The book, released in 2003, tells the purportedly true story of an addict’s recovery. However, in 2006, after the book had sold 3.5 million copies, had graced the New York Times best-seller list for 15 weeks, and had been chosen by Oprah to be a part of her book club (she and her staff cried while talking about it on her show, they were so moved by it), the Smoking Gun released an article (called “Million Little Lies”) that revealed that this “memoir” was pretty far from true.

The article states, “Police reports, court records, interviews with law enforcement personnel, and other sources have put the lie to many key sections of Frey’s book. The 36-year-old author, these documents and interviews show, wholly fabricated or wildly embellished details of his purported criminal career, jail terms, and status as an outlaw ‘wanted in three states.'” Ouch.

There’s more, unfortunately, but you get the point. The guy made up so much of his memoir, in fact, that he forced his publisher to admit it and to apologize to the outraged public (just try to imagine Oprah’s response).

And what was Frey’s response? His letter to his readers, which has been included with all editions of the book since 2006, apologizes for fabricating  portions of his book. Along with other things, he admits that he had literary reasons for his fabrications: “I wanted the stories in the book to ebb and flow, to have dramatic arcs, to have the tension that all great stories require.”

Hm. Sound familiar? Unfortunately he violated of his reader’s trust instead of telling as much of the truth as possible. What can we learn from this?

As a Creative Nonfiction writer, my aim must always be to tell the truth. Often, I’ve found that adding inconsequential and minor details adds truth to a story rather than detracting truth, but I must always be aware of the balance.

2 thoughts on “Muddy Truth

  1. I think about this all the time. I read an article in the NYT about a month ago that expressed deep disappointment that Steinbeck’s “Travels with Charlie” contains less-than-completely-factual accounts of his travels with Charlie. The writer of the article completely missed the point.

    I think the difference between Steinbeck and Frey is just what you said – intent. If the intent is to make yourself (or your subject) look like a superstar action hero, then the fabrications are problematic. But if you change details, embellish conversations, or even make up characters (as Steinbeck probably did, presumably as composites of other characters) to effectively convey whatever truth you’re intending…then I say “lie away.”

    In my own writing I have the problem of having to protect my subjects by making them absolutely unidentifiable without compromising the important details of their characters and environments….it really gets convoluted.

    I’m reminded of the man who would have been my dear old friend and possibly soul mate had I been born 150 years earlier: Mr. Mark Twain. “Some people lie when they tell the truth. I tell the truth lying.” Amen, brother.


    1. I love your thoughts, Megan! I am constantly struggling with how true a piece needs to be as Creative Nonfiction. I go back and forth with a few pieces– is this fiction? Nonfiction? Ha! 🙂

      By the way, I was just thinking yesterday, “I need to call, Megan.” Phone date?


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