Avoiding ‘Truthiness’ When Writing Your Life

“Did that really happen?” It’s a question every memoirist and personal essayist faces. Ideally the writer will answer “Yes.” It gets awkward when you have to say, “Yes, but…”

In the October 2005 debut episode of his influential TV show, Stephen Colbert gave the world the word truthiness. He said truthiness is when you’re talking about something that seems like the truth that you want to be the truth. That sounds a lot like the way memory works. I know a little bit about that as a journalist, piecing together different participants’ own truthiness of an event in an attempt to find the real truth.

Longtime readers will remember this as the original banner of this blog. It is from my 2010 cross-country road trip, a stretch of I-80 West in Wyoming.

Longtime readers will remember this as the original banner of this blog. It is from my 2010 cross-country road trip, a stretch of I-80 West in Wyoming.

I am now in my third year of learning to put the “I” on the page after years as a fact-obsessed journalist. I have learned a lot and am still learning, but my touchstone philosophy on writing about my life comes from Tobias Wolff’s author’s note from This Boy’s Life: A Memoir:

I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.

In that short snippet, Wolff touches on two challenges for the memoirist–time and character. I’ll examine those challenges below.

1. TIME COMPRESSION

Most of us would view Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a work of influential and lasting creative nonfiction. It is a diary of sorts of a year spent connecting with nature, except that Thoreau actually lived at the lake for two years. He compressed time for the purpose of story. Jump ahead a century, and we find Edward Abbey doing the same thing in Desert Solitaire, compressing two summers spent in Arches National Park into one.

A few months before beginning my MFA program in the summer of 2011, I took a class at The Writer’s Center on memoir and personal essay. I wrote two short essays in that class, both of which have since been published. When I look back at them now, I would say there is an element of truthiness about them. Both relate incidents I remember to be true, but both combine disparate memories into one scene. It increased the drama in each publication. But now I have to say “Yes, but…” if asked if they’re true.

I’ve had two more personal essays published that I’ve written in my MFA program. I did not compress time–and thus did not combine one memory with another–in either essay. I’m finding that as I learn more about creative nonfiction under formal study, I fall more on the side of not compressing scenes. The challenge for me as a writer, then, is to find a way to select details to make the actual scene sufficiently dramatic.

2. CHRONOLOGY

In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck allows us to join him and his French poodle on a cross-country drive. I read it for craft in my first MFA semester, as my memoir-in-progress also is a cross-country road trip. But I’ve since learned that journalist Bill Steigerwald has determined that much of Steinbeck’s story was pure fiction. Steinbeck spent most of the trip with his wife in fine hotels, not sleeping under the stars next to his truck camper he named Rocinante. And many of the people he had extended conversations with didn’t exist.

I am being hyper-focused on accuracy with my road-trip memoir. Everyone depicted in it is real, and I met them at the time the book says, in the order it says. Steigerwald has concluded that Steinbeck didn’t take notes on his trip. I did, in the form of hours and hours of recordings I kept in a audio diary; hundreds of photos; and dozens of hours of video footage. But that leads to another interesting question regarding scene, namely…

3. REMEMBERED DIALOGUE

This is the photo from which I extracted the above banner. Yes, I took it while operating a motor vehicle. No, I do not recommend photographing and driving.

This is the photo from which I extracted the above banner. Yes, I took it while operating a motor vehicle. No, I do not recommend photographing and driving.

In the craft book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between by creative nonfiction guru Lee Gutkind, he writes that “[t]he use of quotation marks traditionally signifies authenticity.” Yet most of us don’t “carry around a tape recorder or video camera to record every memorable conversation in his life.” I’m here to say that even when you do carry both of those things, you can’t capture everything. Some of the most amazing conversations I had on that 2010 cross-country trip were spontaneous encounters with strangers–the kind so vividly portrayed by Steinbeck, albeit mine were real–or discussions with the artists I was interviewing after I turned the camera off.

So how do I portray dialogue I can’t be sure of precisely? As a journalist you summarize. I did that with my essay “September 12th,” a lengthy recollection over a two-day period that contains so few instances of quotation marks that their very presence alerts the reader to the importance of the words. But I’m finding that so much of my book is dialogue-driven, by dialogue I actually did record, that it is jarring if the only quotation marks that I use are in instances where I have the speaker recorded. “I like using quotation marks in recreated dialogue,” Gutkind writes. “Since my readers know it is recreated, it’s clear I am not trying to bamboozle them–and I think quotes make text read more smoothly.” So I’m okay with my use of quotation marks on the opening page of my memoir-in-progress, a conversation with a homeless man in a small town in Massachusetts. But what if I want to take liberties with the quotes of the artist I interviewed shortly after that?

4. POLISHING DIALOGUE

It is a long-standing convention in journalism that you quote a person exactly as they spoke, complete with incomplete sentences, incorrect word choices, and rambling asides. Sometimes you extract a portion of the quote and summarize the rest if clarity is needed, but you don’t put words in their mouth. What I found as a reporter, however, is that sometimes a source would have preferred that you clean up their prose a bit. We don’t speak as eloquently or concisely as we would like.

Much of the dialogue in my travel book from artist interviews is done in summary. But for awhile there, when I would include quotes, they were unaltered. My MFA advisors would trip over the dialogue at times, sometimes even saying it didn’t read like dialogue. I now have, at times, done a bit of clean-up to the interview subjects’ words in a way I think they would appreciate. I am careful to not alter meaning and to keep true to their particular voice. I have also here exercised a bit more flexibility with chronology, i.e., moving elements of the interview around. A good Sunday feature article never progresses in the exact order of the interview, so when I have found it necessary, I have reordered the conversation. This is a chronology twist I am okay with given its long standing in journalism. This leads me to my final point.

5. DISCLOSURE

The journalist who exposed Steinbeck wrote that he would have felt better had Steinbeck been more up front about the fact that the book was part fiction. And in fact the publisher, after this has come to light, now includes this in the preface: “It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative.”

Steinbeck’s opening author’s note is a fantastic read, but it doesn’t tell me what choices he made as a writer. Wolff’s opening, paraphrased above, doesn’t go into detail but gives me an essence of his intentions. I don’t know to what extent I will go into detail in an author’s note on my choices. It may not be to the level of detail above, or it may be more. But when I read a nonfiction book, I am in essence entering into a contract with that author, forming a trust relationship. So I will present in that author’s note whatever is necessary to win that reader’s trust.

What are your expectations when reading a work of creative nonfiction? To what extent are you willing to accept an author’s truthiness in pursuit of a great read? And what choices do you make as a writer?

ADDENDUM 4/14/13: If you came here thanks to WordPress’ Freshly Pressed, welcome! The Artist’s Road is a community built on conversation; we’d love you to join us.

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About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

195 Responses to “Avoiding ‘Truthiness’ When Writing Your Life”

  1. Patrick this is great insight. Ultimately there is this question of what is truth? It is as how we remember it that is more important or the “factual” recordings, which of course can have their own slant through what is documented and what isn’t. I have to admit I was genuinely interested in reading A Million Little Pieces until I heard he may have manipulated details. And of course that was the word used, manipulated, which connotes all things devious. I wonder how much of this is driven by people’s desire to have order and answers to all things about life? Part of me wonders how much I’m missing out on a potentially good story like the above title because now I’ve been told its tainted? Thanks for sharing.

    • You know, obviously A Million Little Pieces is considered by many to be a great read; Oprah wouldn’t have selected it otherwise, most likely. And Frey has gone on to a career as a novelist. So it does come down, it seems, to transparency.

      I feel blasphemous saying this of a literary giant like Steinbeck, but Travels with Charley was at best a mediocre book, really more a cobbled-together collection of essays in which he is cranky about modern life. Those are often hilarious, but it doesn’t make for a good road narrative. Perhaps if he had taken a further step to truly novelize it, it would have been better.

      • Any perspective on Michael Finkel? I sent a personal essay to an editor at The New York Times. I received a very thoughtful one-half page rejection letter. Sad to say, I was excited that he had taken so much time to write me a list of reasons why they were not accepting much freelance work, but had nothing critical to say about the piece. He encouraged me to submit it to other publications. About a minute later, Michael Finkel’s fabrications in his article “Is Youssouf Malé a Slave?” about young boys living and working on an Ivory coast cocoa plantation were exposed. No doubt, I may have been able to publish this article if I had persisted, so I don’t want to give the impression that I don’t have a writing career because of these writers chose “truthiness” over the actual truth. I wasn’t ready to pursue writing at that time with level of commitment that I have today; but I have always wondered if my essay would have been published had Michael Finkel not decided to manipulate the truth in his article. Do you think Frey and Finkel’s choices indirectly hurt other writer’s?

        • Wow, that’s quite a story, Gabrielle. I’ll confess I’m not familiar with the Finkel saga but I’ll go read about that. It is obviously a problem if publishers keep going for the most salacious, and the way you can make your post more salacious is to make things up. But I still believe that most published works are not along the lines of what Finkel apparently did, so that should give hope to the rest of us.

          I’m glad you’re committed to your writing now. That letter from the NYT is a sure sign you’ve got what it takes.

          • Thanks Patrick. I think the NYT editors were pretty upset when they found out about the fabrications and wanted to distance themselves from all freelancers while they sorted this out. The jist of his article is that Finkel used details from many boys who worked on this cocoa plantation to creat a “composite” character but portrayed the character as an individual. Holes developed in his article almost immediately. I’m not sure what drove him to do this, but I think it was the pressure to create something that didn’t exist. The NYT wanted a story about the poor working conditions and suspected abuse of these boys but it seems that maybe it wasn’t as bad as that and therefore the piece needed “fluffing” to be interesting (or…salacious?). He discusses it more fully in his book True Story. If you haven’t read that book (talk about life being stranger than fiction) it involves a man, Christian Longo, who murdered his family and then posed as “Michael Finkel of the NYT” while he is on the run from the police. Thanks again for your excellent post. I have decided to turn my essay into a short story and not rely on memory. Your post helped me to find a path for that piece.

  2. Hi Patrick! I loved this post. I’m finding myself writing with “truthiness” a lot lately and I keep asking myself if it’s okay…Thanks for writing on the subject. I feel better now!

  3. I read more fiction than memoir, so I’m generally not bothered by invention. I also understand that memory is subjective and our brains alter “the facts” even as events are occurring to help us make sense of our experiences. I do prefer, though, to be informed when time or character has been deliberately manipulated for the sake of the story. And if a large percentage has been changed, I prefer that the author tell me the story has been fictionalized.

    • Hi Shary, the fiction/nonfiction issue is interesting, because many CNF writers are also fiction writers. That is obviously the case with Steinbeck, and with Wolff. I know of many cases where an author first told a “true” story in a novel, then was brave enough to write it again as CNF. Often the second version is more compelling, in part because the reader knows it’s “real.”

      I like your emphasis on being informed. And as to the “large percentage,” therein lies the rub. What is that magical percentage?

  4. I like how Brenda Miller puts it in ‘Tell It Slant’, that our memories are really based on random, inexplicable events.so they are “its own bit of creative nonfiction.” I think my expectation when reading creative nonfiction is it can be quite subjective as the author will present their own version of ‘truthiness’ (love that word).

    But I balk at the thought of writers deliberately deciding to fabricate events in their nonfiction for the purpose of creating a sensation. For biography or nonfiction, I’d expect the author to fact-check and present the events as historically accurate as possible.

    • Carole Jane, “subjectivity” is a key word. I think all of us, when reading a person’s account of an event, understand we are seeing it through their eyes, and another’s version would be quite different. When I did my critical thesis on writing about others, I learned that CNF works best when the writer shines the brightest interrogative light on his or herself, and struggles to be as understanding as possible of others. I think when a writer does that, we’re more accepting of their subjectivity.

      And yes, yes, yes on fact-checking and accuracy. The lecture I’m writing right now for my graduation is on depicting scene in historical biography. The scene took place before the writer or anyone the writer can interview was alive. What liberties can a writer take to evoke the scene? Oh my, I could write a dozen posts on that.

  5. I’m printing this article as it is a keeper. I think that if one is artistic enough to write good fiction from fact, that same ability would allow one to create art from “what really went down.”
    Thanks!

    • Hey Nancy! Wow, it’s not every day someone tells me that they’re printing out and keeping one of my posts. Let me echo my comment to Shary above, that a good writer, in my opinion, can do more with a fact-based account than with a fictionalized one.

  6. When Allegra Huston (www.allegrahuston.com) was writing her memoir LOVE CHILD, she told me there were many things she didn’t remember. For example, Allegra thought the car was red. Her sister said it was blue. Her aunt said it was black. So Allegra decided to write about what she didn’t remember.

    For example, (not quoting Allegra): I don’t remember if the car was blue or red. Nor do I remember if I noticed it in the morning or in the afternoon. I don’t remember who was driving, perhaps my uncle. I don’t remember when I first heard it coming up the long driveway. Was it July or August? I don’t remember.

    • I love that example, James. I’ve noticed Joan Didion will do that, and it makes me buy in to her story even more.

      I should note that in September 12th I had a couple of moments like that. In the MFA workshop I submitted that to before seeking to publish it, a student criticized me for that, saying I should just decide what the truth really was. One of the workshop instructors (who is my current advisor) lit into her (in a polite way) and said no, that is exactly what a writer should do when they’re not sure.

  7. That’s hilarious! And so truthy. I’m excited by the confession. The author gets maximum points for being honest… and the picture I’m getting from the “negative” is just as good or better than a straight ahead description. Thanks for that, James.

  8. This is an interesting topic, Patrick. In fact, this is my main struggle with reading nonfiction. I’ve even cited it as an explanation of my preference to fiction before. With fiction, I know it’s made up, so I can suspend disbelief and go with it. With nonfiction, I find myself constantly questioning the truth of what I’m reading, and it detracts from the experience for me. I don’t have any answers, but I appreciate that you’ve taken so much time to consider this as a writer.

    • Thank you, Annie. As I note in comments above, I think when a writer fictionalizes the truth, they often tell a less interesting story. But I love sci fi and I love suspense, and the stories that speak to me in those genres often involve plots that simply aren’t credible in the world we know.

  9. Love this post, Patrick. For me, it’s a timely one, too, as I work through a first person, non-fiction narrative (dare I use the “M” word?). I think we all try to avoid the “and-then-this-happened” kind of narrative that, even in a barroom anecdote, is pretty boring. But to your question: I do feel a little manipulated when I read nonfiction and suspect that there’s been some deliberate staging going on. I think the distinction for me is the level of intellectual depth and sincerity in the book and narrative voice overall. If I feel the book has been written mostly to satisfy the market or to jump on the coattails of a national event, then I auto distrust the author to tell me even his or her own version of the truth. In fact, in some books, you can almost see those spots where (I suspect) an agent or editor has nudged the author toward more “truthiness” aka sales figures.

    • Excellent point on market forces (agents, editors) and their thumb on the scale. It would be great if some CNF authors came clean on the extent to which they encounter that.

      Your comment reminded me of some of the criticism surrounding Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. Both the author of the book (John Barents) and the film director (Clint Eastwood) took liberties with the story for the sake of narrative. It annoyed me with the book but not with the movie (which, by the way, is a rare case where it is better than the book, in my opinion). I’ve often asked myself why that is, and I think it’s because of the “and-then-this-happened” scenario. We know Hollywood has to cram a silly amount of entertainment into 90-120 minutes. An author, theoretically, has no page limit. (Laura Hillenbrand certainly didn’t in Unbroken, which is remarkable but also a bit long.) I think I might explore that dichotomy in another post.

  10. I take their work as the memory in which they remember it; I loved This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolf; I though James Frey’s work was great until I heard of his subterfuge, same with Augusten burroughs, in his book about Leonard; not believable; i think we must state the truth as we see it, and hopefully not malign; as far as images or colors, i think we have leeway on that – make it up, but keep it correct according to the cultural time period.

    • I love this: “i think we must state the truth as we see it, and hopefully not malign;”

      I wrote in a comment above how CNF works best when the writer isn’t seeking vengeance. We all understand memory is subjective; if the writer appears to be trying to be as true to the story as they can, we buy in more.

  11. I agree with others that there really is no such thing as absolute truth in memoir writing because what we say is always tainted by our own perspectives, including blind spots and omissions. I think ultimately, you have to look at intent. Where you are presenting facts that you believe to be true, probably no disclaimer is needed, even if someone else would disagree with your version. If you polish dialogue, compress time, change names to protect others, or otherwise knowingly manipulate the text for readability or ethical reasons but do not misrepresent the general accuracy and significance of what happened, that should be stated in an author’s note. If you manipulate the text with an intent to fabricate a story that you, for some reason, prefer to what really happened, then that’s just fiction and should be presented that way. But attempting to capture absolute truth is a lost cause, I’m afraid!

    • All, you might want to check out Sue’s site “An Untold Story: Write That Memoir — It’s Time!” http://anuntoldstory.com/

      Sue, thank you for this thoughtful comment. In one paragraph you have provided me a guidepost for my own memoir and what to include in my author’s note.

      It would seem we should forget the notion of “absolute truth,” which the Greek philosophers would tell us doesn’t exist anyway; we’re all in a cave watching shadows on the wall, and everyone sees a different shadow based on where we’re sitting in the cave. We write the truth as we know it–as Tobias Wolff sought to do–and trust that the reader understands the bigger picture.

      • Thanks Patrick …most excellent analogy about the cave. It is the same within a family; my 6 sibs & I have different memories largely due to where we were “sitting” within the family. I’m onto Sue’s site, so thanks for that also. I am still researching info for a memoir, so this is very timely.

  12. It’s difficult to define the very lines of “truth” in writing, despite what your definition may be.

    I look to authors like David Foster Wallace, who mingles very facts with ambiguous and often superflous fantasy elements, but he does so in a way that makes you think: this isn’t true, but he meant it to be that way.

    Reading some of his essays in “Both Flesh and Not” is a great example of this. His re-telling of the July 9, 2006 tennis match between Federer and Nadal is full of truthful tellings (how the tennis court looks in real life vs on television) but is sprinkled with exaggerations and time-warping details that make you take a second look.

    The point: it’s possible to be dishonest when writing without betraying readers, as long as the dishonesty adds to the flavor of the truth. At least, that’s what I like to read once in a while.

    • Hello Tanner, long time no hear!

      I’m curious how much a reader who didn’t know the details of that tennis match would know what Wallace is making up and what he is detailing accurately. Does he give clues to the reader? I’m thinking of the controversy surrounding David Sedaris, where he was accused of gross exaggeration in his stories, but most fans shrugged and said yeah, but they’re so good, what do we care? The question then became if David should give more clues as to when he’s exaggerating. A wrinkle to that is that exaggeration is part of being a humorist, and I don’t think of Wallace as first and foremost a humorist (although he can be funny).

  13. You really expose some of the hard choices a writer must make when deciding on creative non-fiction, Patrick. What a lot of work to wrestle with all these! I sense the mental muddle it must create.
    Reading about these famous – and respected – authors, who chose to ‘pretend’ what they’d written was the unaltered truth, I couldn’t help thinking of James Frey being shamed by Oprah for his liberties when writing A Thousand Little Pieces. I don’t like the novel, and have never been able to finish it, I find the writing so annoying, but I felt sorry for him, and frustrated that anyone, especially a nonwriter – who seriously doesn’t have a clue – could be so ‘picky’ about the truth, or nontruth, of every event.
    If a novel has emotional honesty, and we like it’s meaning, are moved, enlightened, or entertained by it, does it really matter if it’s not technically true? Speaking for myself, I’m not sure it does.

    • “If a novel has emotional honesty, and we like it’s meaning, are moved, enlightened, or entertained by it, does it really matter if it’s not technically true? Speaking for myself, I’m not sure it does.”

      Cynthia, I think that’s a very true statement. As to Frey, I haven’t read the book, but I think it’s interesting you found the writing annoying. That leads me to believe that what Oprah embraced was more the story and less the writing, so when the story proved false, what Oprah had embraced was no more. I know he portrayed himself as having spent months in prison, even undergoing dental work in there without anesthetic, yet he actually only spent a few hours in a holding cell with no dental work performed. So that’s a pretty big stretch of the truth. Now there’s also the place in which Oprah has placed herself in society and in literature jurying, which could be the topic of an entirely new post!🙂

  14. Right before I began this comment I saw Cynthia Robertson had addressed emotional honesty nicely. I offer spiritual honesty since that is what makes the difference for me-it is the thread that connects us to all other experience and makes it whole. Authenticity is a word bandied about but without it, what remains? I posted a poem this week about an experience I had with at risk youth as an addictions counselor.It was critical to me to capture what actually happened years ago. I had written some of it shortly after it occurred. But the core of it all, the essence is what makes the story right, not the exacting details my senses recorded those moments. Truthfulness will make a beeline to our mind/heart/spirit.
    Thanks for a fascinating post!

    • I like your focus on the “core of it all,” along with the literal details. You’re talking about emotional authenticity, which only the writer knows. Another party in the incident may have their own interpretation of what happened, but they can’t speak to what the writer experienced. Spiritual honesty is another good phrase for it. Thank you for your valuable comment, Cynthia!

  15. Really interesting post, Patrick. I hadn’t heard the term ‘truthiness’ until this, however I really like it and may use it myself upon a time. I agree with a reply you made to a comment above, that perhaps Steinbeck should have just committed and written a novel. For me, if the author states the book is a memoir, then I want to read about actual things that happened to that author; that and that alone honours the contract between reader and writer. If it’s fiction, then that’s fine as well. But, don’t say it’s true life and then write fiction. It’s dishonest.

    • You know, Yvette, I think I also mentioned in one of the comments that often a writer will write a novel first based on a true story, but if it was emotionally powerful enough, the later memoir is a more inspiring piece of writing. I think in Steinbeck’s case, the trip was more of an extended vacation and less of a life-changing experience, so that affected the writing. Mine was in fact life-changing; a novelization of it wouldn’t be as inspiring, even if I had the remarkable fiction skill of Steinbeck.

      Your breakdown of reader desire for memoir vs. fiction is dead-on.

  16. I must quote Isabel Allende who was quoting an old Jewish proverb.
    What is truer than truth? asks the seeker.
    The story, answers the wise one.
    A memoir is not a journal. In THE WOMAN IN THE PHOTOGRAPH, a memoir of my search to uncover my mother’s hidden past, I first wrote a journal for myself. Then I needed to allow the reader to have his or her own emotional experience. As a hypnotherapist, I have found that even in our own minds, truthiness might be as good as it gets. thanks for great subject.

    • Thank you for sharing the story of the writing of your own memoir. You’re right, a memoir, like any writing for publication, must honor the reader first, and you do that with a story well written and authentically told.

      How fascinating to have a hypnotherapist’s perspective on this! Our brains are tricky little buggers, aren’t they? It’s probably a combination of things–too many details absorbed in a day, a mind’s own instinctive desire to protect and rationalize, and a tendency to conflate just as we put multiple notes from different meetings into one folder.

      • Yes, working with people as a hypnotherapist certainly has given me insight into the characters of my book, who are real people but also formed by the lens of my own mind. At the same time, being a writer open to the reflections that appear in our writing makes many writers fabulous observers of behavior and motivation. It goes both ways.

  17. Corey Barenbrugge Reply March 28, 2013 at 6:09 pm

    Many accomplished fiction writers only attempt memoir when they think they’re ready. Richard Russo finally wrote a memoir last year. It took John Irving a couple of decades of writing fiction to come up with one. I think this issue partly gets to why. If you truly care about the truth, or at least consistency in your approach to it, it takes time to decide what that approach should be.

    I like the excerpt from Tobias Wolff. It seems to me that chasing down memory is a tricky business, seeing as memory has a mind of its own and can chase you down just as well.

  18. Very nice article Patrick. Lee Gutkind is a guru of mine too. Here’s my take on memoir, specifically. I write memoir and am confronted with many of these issues every day. I believe when writing memoir my duty is to write the truth “as best remembered”. No one can recreate the exact reality at the time, but as long as the writer is honest in presenting the story (even the word implies fiction) and the events and characters (again real people) as can best be recalled, memoir in its purest form is being created. Anything that is fabricated, condensed, stretched out, or compressed introduces fiction into the narrative.

    Describing something from memory, even if I get it wrong, is memoir. That inaccuracy is part of the process. It’s not fiction. It’s color. Inventing dialogue instead of presenting it as best as you can recall it is fiction based on memory, and that’s not memoir. Combining characters is fiction. Good memoir might be inaccurate, but better inaccurate than made up. If I’m writing an autobiography, I must be as accurate as possible and my job is to not get it wrong. If I write that an event occurred on Halloween and it actually occurred on Christmas, I’ve failed on that detail. If I’m writing memoir and an event that took place on Halloween actually took place on Christmas, I’ve done nothing wrong. If that’s how I remembered it at the time I wrote it. The detail must be an important part of the writer/story if it survives all the rewrites and the editing process. I believe getting it wrong in memoir is part of the emotion “as I remember it” and that’s important in memoir. The accuracy or inaccuracy of my memory becomes part of the process, part of the beauty of the process, part of the story. It’s not to say one can’t use certain techniques used in fiction. For instance one can do a lot in terms of the story by what is left out.

    Writing dialogue is the hardest for me. But if I can’t convince myself that what I recall is as close to accurate as I remember it. I find a way to present the material without dialogue. If I can’t do that, I might say, “I don’t remember what he said, but I didn’t trust him. It was about blah blah and he became angry.” Something like that. It might be inaccurate, but at least I’m not making things up. I think unintended inaccuracy in the form is part of what makes the form so wonderful. It says something about the writer. Why remember the wrong holiday so often? There is something in the subtext there.

    Thanks for hearing me out.

    • What a valuable and thoughtful post, Dennis. Thank you for bringing your own experience and insight to the discussion.

      Your focus on telling it as best as you remember it, and having that be what is authentic as defined in a memoir, reminded me of an anecdote I heard last year at a writer’s conference. I wish I could remember the author, but it was about a memoirist who had his book fact-checked by an editor. He wrote of a night where he was transfixed by a full moon, but the editor looked up lunar charts and said no, it was definitely not full that night. The author was adamant that it was, that the memory of that full moon had haunted him for years and defined that memory. But he couldn’t argue with the lunar charts. So he rewrote that passage to say he now understands it was not full that night, but his memory still tells him it was. That disclosure allows him to still build the significance of that full moon into his narrative, because to him it is “true.”

      You discuss something similar with your “I don’t remember what he said,” etc. I did that at times in my September 12th memoir. There’s a critical scene at a woman’s house where I confess I can’t remember much of any detail of that evening. In my MFA workshop, a student objected, saying I couldn’t write about something I didn’t remember. A faculty member (who is now my current advisor) said no, he’s presenting it honestly, and besides, his lack of detail of that particular memory after his laser memory of moments before and after actually is part of the story. It lends more emphasis to those other parts.

      So much to consider here!

  19. Ha! What a great post, Patrick. I laugh because I share your pain… excuse me, your challenge of finding the way. There are some terrific comments here, mostly in writing memoir – by definition, a memory and therefore imperfectly recalled through the filters of time and experience. But your work shares a lot with my WIP in that it’s based on interviews. Recorded ones, at that. Is it journalism or is it memoir? Some kind of hybrid, I think.

    I use quote marks to show *their* words, not my thoughts. Did they say these words? Yes. Did they say them in exactly this order? Yes, no, yes. No, not always. Do I clean it up with editing? Yes. My first book had one interview, which I included as (almost) unedited transcript. My subject and I had an exchange trying to outdo each other in coming up with a description of the zany action on stage, and after some back and forth, he shouted out “prepos-toc-ity!” Months after publication, I had a scathing email from him – someone had told him it made him look stupid. I’d thought it was fun… but I didn’t *explain that* to readers, none of whom were there. So inside jokes (aka memories) don’t work in what I’m doing.

    All this discussion prompted me to post on the topic – figured you didn’t want 500 words in a comment box! – but it’s a challenge to convey all this. The only person who wants to read a verbatim transcript of the interview is the person who was involved. As much as I love recalling the conversation, it’s not telling the story – constantly reminding myself of that.

    Thanks again for sharing the process – most helpful. Cheers,

    • Martha, this comment means a lot to me. It’s great to hear that my approach is used by someone experienced in this type of writing. I particularly like your note that only the interviewee wants to read a transcript. (I was surprised by how many of the artists I interviewed wanted copies of my raw video for I’m not sure what purpose; as a journalist, I always declined.) And yes, it’s about telling the story. Lee Gutkind says CNF is true stories, well told. We owe it to the reader to tell it well.

      And OUCH on the email. I’ll track down your post.

  20. Patrick, I’m a writing coach (www.artofstorytellingonline.com). I’ve worked with dozens if not hundreds of writers on memoir, in long form and short story. I also work with novelists and am a novelist myself. Absolutely, the memories in memoir should be called creative nonfiction, not straight-up truth. I worked as a journalist for many years, and believe this about journalism too. We simply cannot tell the story of our childhood without seeing everything through the filter of our personality and the filter of time. As a journalist in newsrooms in Tokyo and London, I never believed in objectivity. I’m a white liberal middle class woman from America, that in itself affects the “truth” that I’m seeing in the world, and in life.

    • Thank you for your insights, Caroline! They come from someone who knows what she is talking about.

      You reminded me of one of my VCFA faculty and my mentor, Sue Silverman. She writes in “Meandering River,” an essay on the spectrum of CNF, that biography and autobiography, even when sticking to the “facts,” naturally reflect the bias of the author, so it’s appropriate to place them on the CNF river. I think we journalists get that.

  21. Patrick, what you said in one of your comments is sheer brilliance: “CNF works best when the writer shines the brightest interrogative light on his or herself, and struggles to be as understanding as possible of others.” Thanks for a thought-provoking piece which has stimulated a lot of great discussion!

    • You bet! Yes, that was my biggest takeaway from my MFA critical thesis, and it is what drives my editing of my memoir. First drafts aren’t always true to that approach, but I force it in during rewrites. Thank you for your compliment.

  22. I really liked this; it explains a lot. I am not a professional writer by any stretch of anybody’s imagination, but I like to think I do okay. I am in that ‘yes, but….’ category of writers. Thank you for posting this, and congrats on getting Freshly Pressed.

  23. I’ll never be able to look at Tobias Wolff’s “A Boy’s Life” the same way again.

  24. hahaha…thank you patrick…a lovely post. congratulations!

  25. Well done! I have always been a fan of “Road” reads and “Road” films as well. Your note on Steinbeck and Travels with Charley was enlightening. With that in mind, I seem to recall that he wrote that Chevrolet “sponsored” his camper. Wasn’t it a prototype? I remember his description of the washing machine. (ha-ha)

    I must say that I have decided to be skeptical about most memoirs. For example, T.E. Lawrence was propped up by the British Army and politicians and much of what was described as his single-minded purpose was in fact master-minded from higher-levels and signed off. We’ve found many biographies over the years that dispel myth and legends about our heroes. Time and diligence = Truth – “iness”

    • Love this: Time and diligence = Truth – “iness”

      I didn’t know the back story on T.E. Lawrence, but that doesn’t surprise me. More recently was the story about Greg Mortenson, who in a biography titled “Three Cups of Tea” falsely claimed he had built schools in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and was exposed by 60 Minutes. Tragically, his co-author, David Oliver Relin, committed suicide a few months ago.

  26. Reblogged this on no such thing as normal and commented:
    Never avoid the truth!

  27. This has been quite informative. Now that I know there is something called truthiness, I will be on the look out for it when I review my as yet unpublished memoir next time. I do not see anything wrong with putting in dialogue that may not be remembered exactly, but whose message remains the same. This I certainly have done, albeit in only one place.

    Thank you for the lesson.

    • You bet! Again, I think as long as you look at your work with a critical eye, and let the reader know what decisions you made, you’re good. This works with biography as well as memoir.

  28. Life is all perspective isn’t it?
    If I were to write about my favorite childhood memory it would be about going to my Grandparent’s cottage every summer.
    As a child the trip took hours. My brothers would fight, my father would put his arm over the car seat to swat someone. We would stop for homemade doughnuts, always hot and delicious. We would sing and play games.
    As an adult I moved out of state but those memories always seemed so fresh in my mind.
    If you had asked me how far away the cottage was I would have said at least 4 hours.
    On a trip back one year I got to make that drive. 45 minutes. That’s it. 45 minutes.
    It was at that point that I realized how different perspective is from childhood to adulthood (and person to person).
    It was a whole new world for me at that point.
    If I read a memoir now I try to look at it from the writers perspective and am always delighted when the memory is grand, big and bold because I know that is the child within that is telling that story and that a child’s memory is full of “truthiness”.

    • That is a fantastic example. As a father who has taken kids on plenty of road trips, they (especially my son) seem to think 45 minutes takes four hours!

      On that last point, a memoir really works when the memoirist can take us to a past incident, particularly in childhood, and capture that voice and perspective while simultaneously slanting the details to bring in the perspective the author has now.

  29. Found this via freshly pressed. Enjoyed it🙂

  30. I sometimes write personal stories on my blog, and I’ve discovered two things in the process.

    1. My life has not unfolded in neat story arcs. Sometimes I have to bend things around a little so that events can be told as stories.

    2. Memory is a tricky thing. Where other members of my family have been a part of the stories I’ve written, frequently they’ve remembered events differently. I have to be true to my memories, but recognize that they may well be faulty.

    I figure that as long as I’m not telling outright lies — things that simply did not happen — in these stories, I’m all right.

    • Thanks for this, Jim. On #2, that is absolutely the case with every writer I’ve spoken with or heard speak on the subject. It can even be what one might think of as trivial details, like remembering a father had beer in the fridge when the father insists he rarely drank the stuff (I heard an author give that example).

      As to #1, David Sedaris took some heat recently because someone argued his stories were too perfectly crafted to really be true, that life does not unveil itself so neatly. But I think most people when listening to him know he’s playing with things a bit, as humorists do. I still like a story told as best it can be told.

    • Great points, Jim. I’d like to gently take issue with recognizing that your memories may be “faulty.” I’d say your memories are what they are, with the filters applied of age, emotional state, general knowledge and amount of time since the event. At the same time, other family members’ memories are also what they are. Neither is “wrong,” unless this is a court of law (and even then there are huge issues with eyewitness accounts, memory and agendas, but that’s another topic). How dull things would be if our lives were a court transcript…

      In one of Julia Cameron’s books there’s an exercise about writing your story in 5-year batches of memory; she gives a bunch of parameters to limit it, since it’s an exercise not an autobiography. But one of the tasks is to write it as *you* remember it, not what “family legend” has instilled into you. I found myself going back to that notion many times.

  31. This post was very thought-provoking. Thanks!

    I read a lot of non-fiction, which of course is a very broad category. But I think there’s a distinction of “truthiness” (great word to choose, BTW) between memoirs and between works that are more journalism/reporting. I’m fine with truthiness in memoir writing, because I’m pretty sure that most readers realize that the past is interpreted through whoever is remembering it. I’m less OK with truthiness in the context of more journalistic non-fiction writing. In my mind, anything inside the quotation marks should be words that the person actually said at some point. (My blog has a couple of posts about problematic writing involving this issue, among other points involving accuracy.)

    I really like your explanation of how you work with quotes in writing up interviews: “I am careful to not alter meaning and to keep true to their particular voice. I have also here exercised a bit more flexibility with chronology, i.e., moving elements of the interview around.” This is very fair and honest, and the chronology shift is not a problem because the person still said those words. Order is only an issue if the quotes are collectively re-ordered in a way that conveys a different meaning from what the speaker intended.

    • Fiona, thank you for stopping by, and thank you for your feedback, from someone who clearly understands the subject and has given it some thought. You are right about the distinction between memoir and journalism/reporting. I’m trained in the latter and am learning the former. Bottom line is there’s no harm done if the journalistic sentiments bleed into the memoir writing (as long as it doesn’t make the work dull) but more of a problem when a memoir truthiness blends into journalism.

      • Thanks, Patrick! My training is also in journalism, so I appreciate reading a thoughtful post about these kinds of writing issues.
        Incidentally, I read Gutkind’s book as well, and although the ideas in it were very useful, I was disappointed to see that he misspelled several names in it. My journalistic side wasn’t too impressed with that🙂

        • I’ve read some other works by Gutkind. To be honest with you, it appears to be kind of a hodge-podge of various essays and articles he’s written in the past, combined with some writing exercises, so it’s possible not as much care was put into that particular book as some of us might have liked.

    • This really hits home, as I’m knee-deep in transcribing interview tapes for my work in progress. Top priority is accuracy, then keeping the subject’s voice, even with mistakes. That’s for the transcripts… Next phase is deciding which parts to use and how to use them and for this, my top priorities are keeping the subject’s voice and then telling the story – but it’s almost a tie.

      Anything that will appear in quotes (or a pull quote or a page of transcript format) will be exactly what was said… tidied up a bit to take out ums, ers, or odd things. Definitely not sanitized down to a sound-bite. Chronology shifts? absolutely, but as you say, not changing the meaning.

  32. Congratulations on being FP’d and thank you for this thoughtful post. I encountered many of these ‘Truthiness’ situations last November when I participated in the NaNoWriMo challenge and decided to write a memoir. At the end of 30 days I was blown away that I only covered 7 months of the 47 year block of time that I started out to write about. I was also torn with the concept of what I remembered about situations and conversations that happened so long ago and by what really happened. How close was I to the real truth?

    I finally decided to write what I remembered and leave myself open to gathering more facts during editing. I am not a writer, I am just a guy with some spare time and a word processor. I have worked with my hands my entire life (I am an electrician by trade) so to spend time mining the info in my head has been an interesting project. I am following your blog now and look forward to learning what I can from your example.

    Thanks,
    Allan

    • Thank you, Allan, for the comment and the congrats. And let me begin by saying that clearly you are a writer. You demonstrate it in this comment, but also by doing NaNoWriMo and putting thought into what you were learning. I would imagine that to practice the electrician trade there are certifications or authentications one must do to officially work in that field. There is no certification test to be a writer. It is about intent, and you seem to have that.

      Your question about the “real truth” is a universal one, not just for someone writing memoir but for anyone who wants to look back at their life with honesty.

      You decided to cover a 47-year-block of time? Ambitious! My book covers six weeks, albeit with mini-flashbacks that cover key points of my life.

  33. What are your expectations when reading a work of creative nonfiction? To what extent are you willing to accept an author’s truthiness in pursuit of a great read? And what choices do you make as a writer?

    “Creative nonfiction” for me, would be at least the writer does indicate the events and what was said did happen. A writer does have to edit an interview and of course, this is where what gets omitted sometimes is debated.

    I hope that the author will not stoop to purple prose too much in nonfiction writing. If s/he wishes to say something as a personal reflection, then say that it is one’s thoughts.

    My blog gives the impression that I don’t think about /care about controversial topics. But in fact, I feel strongly about racism, feminism but have not yet written blog posts in these areas and they are areas that have affected me. So again, omission of subjects in a personal blog tend only define parts of the author. I might add, simply facets of a person.

    • Jean, your last comment really nails something I teach in my blogging class. I model a lot of what I teach on what I’ve learned about the art of the personal essay. That lesson is that if you share a vulnerability in one area of your life, people invest in your honesty and bravery. Meanwhile, you can keep another part of your life completely private, but the reader doesn’t feel you’re shutting them out. It’s not dishonesty. it’s an acknowledgment that we never are truly showing all of ourselves in any context, and that is true in writing as in life.

  34. I loved the way you expressed your thoughts. You are an amazing writer. You inspired me to work and practice my writing skills!

    loved the topic and I’ll definitely read your next post.

  35. As a writer I try to be as honest as possible when writing about my travel experiences. Weird things tend to happen to me so I’m never short of an anecdote. A little embellishment is allowed as far as I’m concerned.

    • If you’re writing about “weird things,” then I suspect you’re working some humor in there. If you study the masters of the humor craft–I mentioned David Sedaris in a comment above, but you could fold in other writers and oral comedians–exaggeration can help land the story. There’s a long tradition of that, including a guy by the name of Mark Twain. That’s pretty good company.

  36. A very good post.I personally think narrating your personal story is not as captivating as creating story from your personal life and that inevitably will include ‘truthiness’ to some extent.

    • Ah, thank you for this! Yes, that’s a conversation I had with my current MFA instructor, who was reminding me that no reader wants a “narration” of this happened then that happened. Ugh! Thus, in picking and choosing what to string together, the overall story arc may not fit perfectly with the literal timeline due to some omissions, but it is far more interesting!

  37. I’ve written about this topic often, beginning with a long discussion on my “About” page. Many blogs are forms of memoir, but no one can see themselves objectively, no matter how good your notes and recordings are. At best, we write about a character based on ourselves. Even with a photographic memory, we will create a hierarchy of events that will portray us favorably, no matter what “really” happened. Everyone has things they simply can’t face except over time, in dreams, or otherwise indirectly.

    So what’s the responsibility of a memoirist who wants to present truth (as opposed to accuracy)? TELL A GOOD STORY. It’s the best way to illuminate universal truths, and connect to and be useful for readers. That’s why Steinbeck’s approach was correct.

    • I like this: “Even with a photographic memory, we will create a hierarchy of events that will portray us favorably, no matter what “really” happened.”

      And I really like this: “TELL A GOOD STORY.” Thank you for bringing your thoughtful reflection on the topic to this post, and for sharing your thoughts on Steinbeck’s approach. I will confess I likely would not have wanted to read the literal version of his story (“and then my wife and I checked in to the Ritz Carlton, and later that night enjoyed some delicious mushroom risotto with a nice Cabernet”).

  38. I am a visual artist, not a writer. That is how I think of myself. I have had a rather difficult life, and through a friend who teaches writing in LA, I have started perhaps two or three stories – 1 fiction, and 2 memoirs. I am working on a 3rd memoir that I think will fall into the “truthiness” category, for the sake of the story. Nothing wrong with embellishment. My visual art is never confined to exactly what is in front of me, so I am used to this concept.

    As for writing the truth, the truth is “my truth”, no one else’s. It is how I remember what happened, not how someone else remembers it. They can write their own memoir, in which I possibly may not be included. Who knows? My journey, my path, my writing. It took me a while to go from third person to first person, but I find this helps, even if recounting something difficult. Your post was interesting for a beginning writer. Thanks.

    • Thank you for this comment. You describe yourself as more focused on visual art and a newbie to writing, but wow did you nail an insight here:

      As for writing the truth, the truth is “my truth”, no one else’s. It is how I remember what happened, not how someone else remembers it. They can write their own memoir, in which I possibly may not be included. Who knows?

      I’m glad you found the post of interest!

  39. I think everyone wants to avoid having truthiness in their stories, but people can’t help but change their stories a bit. They do so in order to create a more interesting story than what actually occurred. I feel whenever someone retells a story, there are bits that get changed until there is only a grain of truth in the story. One time, I had a talk with a teacher about not going on a field trip. By the time I heard my story again, I was told I punched the teacher and that was the reasoning behind me not going on the trip. I can see how things can escalate into legends and myths.

    • Wow, now that is a story that morphed! It must have been difficult to know people thought you had done that. It reminds me of that old telephone game where one person says something to someone else, and it keeps getting passed along, and then at the end everyone finds out how much it has changed.

  40. A great post. I’m in the process of trying to learn to shift from academic writing to a more narrative style. Your post is helpful in this regard. Thanks.

  41. Reblogged this on The Almost Daily Squeeze and commented:
    Quite interesting! Good thing to know.

  42. “More Real? Art in the Age of Truthiness” is the title of a current exhibit at the Minneapolis Institute of Arts. The promo for the exhibit states, “Over the past century, a period of unprecedented technological change and global social upheaval, once agreed-upon beliefs, or ‘truths,’ have been cast into doubt, changing and shaping our understanding and experience of reality.”

  43. I really enjoyed this, and am very glad to have found you through your having been freshly pressed – congratulations! I’ve just ordered the Thoreau book from my local library – thanks for the inspiration! Personally I don’t mind if writers of creative non-fiction take a few liberties, but I would agree that it demonstrates openness and respect to the reader, and those mentioned in the book, to acknowledge this.

    • So glad to have you here, Harula! Thank you for the kind words, and on behalf of CNF writers who want to tell a good story within reason, thanks for being okay with liberties taken when disclosed.

  44. A really interesting topic! I guess we can never trust our memories as facts anyway, firstly because our view of the world is totally dependent on our own view (we don’t see the world the same as others). So perhaps even in the moment that something happens, it is already distorted ‘fact’. Then as you say, add memory and the process of writing itself…

    I guess what I am saying is, how can we really know what is fiction and what is fact in our writing? But as you say, if discoslure and honest intent are in tact, then isn’t that the beauty of self-writing in itself?

    Thanks for a great post! Really got me thinking.

    • Thank you, Kirsty! Getting people thinking is a key goal of this blog. I like your notion that the fact is distorted even in the moment, because of course there is no such thing as a “moment”; it’s changing and evolving the second it “happens.” I think we need to ask a writer who is presenting something as true to do the best they can to differentiate fiction and fact when writing. If they have done so with sincerity, that’s good enough for me.

  45. Arrrgh, I just don’t know and in the end I think it may come down to honesty (and transparence as was mentioned above).
    In the end I do want a good read…… A number of years ago I bought a memoir called ‘Where Did It All Go Right?”, thinking how clever. My goodness, good time after good time is, unfortunately, dead dull for a non attendee. I hoped for misadventure, imagined or otherwise, but had to admit defeat around page 77.

    Thanks for this post, you’ve really got me thinking about this again.

    • After 77 pages of sunshine I would welcome a storm, even an imagined one. I don’t blame you for admitting defeat! (And what a great way to word it.)

      Thank you for the encouragement.

  46. As a painter who works from photographs (the truth, yes?), I have to make it better by inventing (color, texture, space, emotion). The final outcome (written or painted) is all that matters. : ) Liked your post.

    • Interesting. I have interviewed painters who start with a photograph and then interpret from there with their paintings. But my daughter is a photographer, and I think she’d argue that even a photo isn’t “reality” in that it is one perspective. She really plays around with things not through PhotoShop but through staging and lighting and camera angles. But yes, it’s all about the final outcome!

      Glad you liked the post, Anita!

  47. i don’t only enjoy reading this, but also it is gives new insights and very related to what i’m doing as a hobby: writing non-fiction about my travel experience with first person point of view – i do this all the time – as i don’t have any other way to share it.
    the “truth” of my story has been the top priority for me besides quality content, and still learning both until now.

    i do my best not to do what you call “truthiness”, but sometimes i wonder if i have unintentionally done it. i have traveled long before i decided to blog and i only start blogging for the past one year. therefore i didn’t think of taking notes, but i’ve had a habit of taking pictures and brochures as many as i can to recall my trips. even until now, i occasionally take notes, may be 3 lines max.
    suppose i write some of my paragraphs according to what i remember (without taking notes) and i’m very sure it’s true as my memory is kinda strong in particular way for things i love.
    but i dare to say, “yes” (not “yes, but…”) in all cases if anyone asks me if it’s true.
    i decided not to include things that i don’t remember that much or not sure it’s the truth.

    in your point of view, is it still called “truthiness” or “truth”?

    • Ooh, a travel blogger! Welcome!

      My “yes, but” was in cases where I know I did some conflating; it was conscious. I say “yes” to my September 12th essay, which takes place in 2001 but was written in 2011 not based on notes, because it is as true as I can remember it to be. So if it is true to you, then I think it’s a “yes.” Were Steinbeck to have been honest at the time he wrote Travels With Charley, he would have had to say “yes, but.”

      As to notes, etc., on the 2010 trip I’m writing the memoir on, I have photographs, video with audio, and voice recordings I made (an audio diary). But even that doesn’t come close to capturing everything I want to depict (and it includes a tremendous amount of stuff not worth including). William Least Heat Moon kept notes while on his trip that became Blue Highways, but he worked on the book for a couple of years after the trip, and cut it down significantly (to a still sizable book). It isn’t possible that everything in Blue Highways was literally captured by him while on the trip. So you have to go a bit easy on yourself!

  48. Who cares about truth, really? Life is lived in the perception of those perceiving it. What is the color blue? Well, it’s blue. But not everyone sees the same hue.

    As long as it is not a flat out lie – in journalism especially – how it is remembered by the story teller is the most important part.

    And the most exciting because no one sees exactly as another. Thank you for this post!

    • My son is blue-green colorblind; I’ve always wondered what his blue looks like!

      And yes, the important thing is how it is remembered, and of course then that the memory is told well.

      So glad you liked it!

  49. Aside from the philosophical concerns here—and there are many—is the idea (and I’m not sure exactly where I read this, but I’m recalling it to the best of my ability) that scientists now believe that each time you remember (call to mind) an event, you actually re-store it in your memory. So the more you think about something, essentially, the further it can get from the truth.

    • Wow! The re-storing idea is interesting. Yes, if we keep writing over the old memory, then there is a chance for data degradation with each pass. (I usually resist comparisons of computers to the brain, because many of the digital utopians who analogize that way truly lack a comprehension of how remarkable the brain is, but it seems to fit here.)

      There’s a lot to think about, Evelyn!

  50. Very interesting and insightful post! I just did a course on creative-nonfiction which I found quite eye opening. I used to think of non-fiction as totally fact based, but it is not necessarily completely this way. We add to truth what our memories are and our personal views of those memories as we perceive them. Great to read about your journey in writing and your thoughts at this point in time! Looking forward to following more of your writing!!

    • Thank you for visiting and contributing! Well, you could think of creative non-fiction as being like bread. Bread is yeast-based. It isn’t bread without yeast. But you can add a lot of other ingredients and still call it bread. You can cook it in different ways and still call it bread. But once you remove the yeast it’s no longer bread. Now I’m not a baker, so I may not actually be factually correct with that metaphor, but it just popped into my head, because “fact-based” made me realize CNF is based in fact, but offers more.

      • Wow, interesting how you came up with that metaphor out of the blue. I am no baker either, but as I understand it, bread needs yeast to rise and therefore the yeast is necessarily regardless of the rest of the process. That being said, fact is part of non-fiction which cannot be done without. However, things within the narrative of CNF can be made up or altered by the mind either unintentionally or intentionally to fully create the best piece of writing, or at least create something that might be more interesting than the cold facts. It may be unintentional to alter facts too, which might mean there is no intention to make the story better by avoiding some of said cold facts.

        • Ah, I think you’ve hit on the key concept, intention. I think the writer can be called into question when intentional; it can be defensible (to fully create the best piece of writing), but is subject to questioning. When unintentional, you can be unhappy with it, but you can’t fault the reader.

          • I never really grave thought to intentionality in my last comment in the way you have. Interesting. Often times, when telling a story based on fact it would seem that details might be unintentionally changed rather than intentionally, although the intention can come in when confidentiality is desired or if a writer adds to a piece more interesting details I suppose. You raise good points.

  51. I am not really a writer, but I recently scanned my children’s baby books on the occasion of the oldest turning 20. As I flipped through the notes and pictures, many memories came flooding to mind. Over the years some of the key family members of their childhoods have died. I have dutifully entered their vital statistics and obituaries to the family tree, and added some of my memories to their comment sections on Ancestry.com. I feel compelled to share this bounty of memories as little stories in extra pages for my children’s books, even if they are compilations and distillations, because it is how I remember their great grandmother, and my uncles, my grandmother, and my brother. Otherwise, all that’s left of these wonderful people are their date of birth, date of death, and a name on the family tree. In my memories, some of the details are forgotten, but they remember the kinds of things that person was always saying and doing, and communicates their strengths and humanity.

    • Lucy, how beautiful that you have chronicled these loved ones who have passed. Even what you’ve done to date is more than many of us may receive. Wanting to help them carry on more is admirable. With that mission, I don’t think it’s the details that matter, but what the people meant to you. In that light, even if the memory isn’t accurate (you remember her loving lemonade, but actually it was iced tea) the real truth remains, namely your feelings on their “strengths and humanity.”

  52. I recently read an article in Creative Nonfiction magazine, “Journalism equals facts while creative nonfiction equals truth? Maybe it’s not that simple.” The author interviews three journalists and gets their takes on reporting, journalism, and creative nonfiction, and at one point he asks about “some ‘nonfiction’ writers… changing facts … to get at a larger truth.” The author and his subjects thought that was “utter bullshit,” that “facts can’t be changed. There can be no fictionalized scenes or composite scenes or or characters. Period.” This, of course, made me want to crawl into a hole because that’s what I do with my own creative nonfiction. Rearrange. Compress. Recreate dialog from memory. I have no journalism training, and do not aim to be a journalist, but after reading that article and your piece here, it really makes me think about truthiness. Is there a difference between the truth of facts and the larger truth we interpret and absorb from those facts? Is one more true than the other? If we write a truth we’ve learned from facts that we’ve rearranged, are we still able to call it “One true sentence,” as Ernest Hemingway advises we write each day? Perhaps journalists present truths for others to interpret, and creative nonfiction writers present interpreted truths. Either way, you’ve given me a lot to think about. Thanks so much for this insightful post.

    • Thank you for this thoughtful post, Andrea. That Creative Nonfiction article is part of an ongoing–and never-to-be resolved–debate in the CNF world. People come down in different places. It’s easy to criticize “A Million Little Pieces,” harder to fault “Walden Pond.” I’m trying to figure out the in between. The comments in this post are making me feel even more strongly that everyone has to pick the place that is comfortable for them as an artist, and as a person of integrity. One person’s “utter bullshit” will be another person’s inspiring read.

      Interesting you bring in Hemingway and his one true sentence, because when he gave that advice, he was a novelist, but he had worked as a journalist. CNF wasn’t really his thing, so he wouldn’t have had to answer your question.

      As for your feeling that journalists present truths for others to interpret, and creative nonfiction writers present interpreted truths, it’s beautifully phrased, but again I think the line is not as clear as the journalists in the article you read would have us believe. Listen to an NPR story, and based on the way the story is structured, the facts given, and the narrative crafted, you can tell what the reporter wants your interpretation to be, even if all sides are presented. And a creative nonfiction writer may not know what their ultimate interpretation is; Montaigne would boast in his writing that he hadn’t figured it out.

      That’s probably more than you needed, but you triggered some reflection in me!

  53. When confronted with my reflection in the bathroom mirror first thing in the morning, absolute truth is not my friend. The image that I see and the one captured by the mirror are not mutually exclusive, they are a blend that allows me to present myself to the world. The truth is still there, but sometimes a deeply etched wrinkle is smoothed a bit, an extra pound or two is dropped and gray hair becomes “highlights”. My approach to written reflection is much the same, and your excellent post has given me different perspectives to consider. Thank you, Patrick!

    • Yes, my increasing gray hairs are definitely “highlights”!

      Thank you for this comment. With the interview subjects I’m writing about in my memoir, I am smoothing some wrinkles, so to speak. I am also trying to do something that great memoirists advocate, namely shine the most honest mirror of all on myself. Readers are more forgiving of “truthiness” if you are brutally honest in your own betrayal. That is of course not the way we choose to present ourselves in other aspects of life!

  54. I hardly ever log into my PC which means I dont often look at freshly pressed, but I am really glad I didt today! Love this post and how spot on! Recalling our life or experiences can be quite “different” to how they actually were. Really looking forward to checking out your posts in my reader from now on. Just awesome!

  55. Reblogged this on My Infinite Balance and commented:
    To all my followers…really a very worthwhile read!

  56. Some very interesting ideas in your post and in the comments. Having a book novel come out the first of May that is what my publisher has dubbed “the near-history novel” I struggled with many of the elements you’ve discussed and chose to preface my work with a guide to what was and was not historically accurate. It is a challenge.

    Oh, if you’ve permanently elected to abandon journalism for other pursuits… it’s a loss any time a fact constrained individual leaves the field – there so few dedicated to that level of honesty.

  57. Thank you for this. I mostly write about thoughts and feelings going on in my head, but I do occasionally mention actual events. Aside from changing or leaving out a few details to keep things anonymous, I try to keep things as true to memory as possible, but I still rely on remembered dialogue.

    I agree that quotes make reading easier and also use them, even if I am sure I do not remember the exact wording.

    Following!

    • Yay to following!

      You’ve opened another door, changing details to protect either the author or some of the people portrayed in the book. That is another good topic, and one I think I’ll blog about soon. There is a wide spectrum of opinion on when that is appropriate or necessary.

  58. wow, this is great! I don’t do much CNF (if for the reasons you’ve posted), but when I do, I do agree with your points. Problematizing the “truth” or “reality” of CNF as an occurence vs CNF as a retelling of that incident. Le sigh.

  59. mmmm…tasteful. bookmarked for later readings.😀

  60. Thank you for this. I am an aspiring journalist and struggle with the balance between writing as a journalist and writing about myself. I’ll definitely keep all of this in mind!

    • It’s a delicate one, but as I’ve spent more time exploring both, they’re not as different as we might think. Both require you to be authentic, to you, to the reader, and to the subject matter. Best of luck with your pursuit of journalism; it is a noble calling and I love to see people inspired to join the ranks!

  61. Reblogged this on Writes101 and commented:
    A must read for anyone who feels the urge to write for a client or just for himself. It is worth mentioning that after reading this post, I too have had many thoughts clarified and now I can write more easily knowing that I am on the right path.

    A great article by Patrick Ross! Salute you.

  62. To answer your question, what do I expect? I don’t really know, i just like that your piece seems to say something about the flexible nature of reality. That to some extent ‘truthiness’ is a creative act. Thank you.

  63. You’ve got some excellent writing skills, my friend!

  64. Reblogged this on jesscvt and commented:
    Truthiness.

  65. I expect the truth as seen through the writer’s when reading creative nonfiction. I function as a truthiness writer but my stories don’t always include from here to there guides. In creative writing I want get the reader to hang on my every word, but I don’t want to lose the experience.

    • I like this: “In creative writing I want get the reader to hang on my every word, but I don’t want to lose the experience.” That has two angles, it seems to me, the experience you’re conveying and the experience you want to evoke in your reader. It ties in with what some of the other commenters have noted, that there is an authenticity to the greater story beyond the relative truth of any anecdote or detail.

  66. Reblogged this on Spectrum of the Mind and commented:
    I actually agree, at some point.

  67. Hi Patrick. I really liked this post and will follow your blog.

    I did a lot of things you mention in this post. I wrote a blog about musicians, and many posts were long interviews. This was in a place called Sabah, which is a Malaysian state on Borneo island. I just turned my recording device on (originally a clapped-out mp3 player, then later my mobile phone) and we would chat. I was curious so always had plenty of questions, but I hated to have prepared questions because I didn’t want to influence the direction of the interviews. People would talk to me in English, (there were a few friends to translate at times) and Sabah is a very multi-cultural place – so they might be ethnic Malays, Chinese, Indians, Kadazans and other indigenous races. They all spoke English to me, but in very different styles.

    When I listened back to my recordings, I shaped and led my stories depending on what was talked about. Almost every sentence was understandable but gramatically totally incorrect. I paraphased where necessary, but my sentences didn’t capture the flavour of the person interviewed. Also, these musicians were translating in their heads from their mother tongue. I was sure that someone else reading their sentences (with the same mother tongue) would recognise what the guy was thinking in his own language, which would be nice! So I did “correct” quoted sentences, but only when really necessary. This way the conversations were understandable (I hope) although still with the taste of the local lingo.

    Later, the blog became a book. When I saw all that bad grammar in hard copy, I baulked a bit and poured over everything again. I did sub a bit, to tighten and smooth out the dialogue, but tried very hard to retain the genuine colour of the stories.

    • Joanna, thank you for this insightful comment. You have blazed the trail I currently am traveling. Kudos on your adventure and turning that into a book. You of course had an additional variable, the complicating aspect of interviewing someone not in their native language. I would also think that might allow a bit more of the poor grammar and syntax to survive, if you made it clear to the reader that this was not the interview subject’s native language. I think most of us would imagine ourselves being interviewed in a language not our native tongue and would be extremely forgiving! But I like the sensitivity and care you brought to your subjects in terms of how they would be portrayed.

      And thank you for following the blog, I’m flattered!

      • Thanks for your thoughtful reply, Patrick. Yes, some of those I interviewed really struggled to express themselves accurately, and I was moved that they were willing to humble themselves and trust that I would not lose patience or mock them. A courageous journey for them and a rewarding project for us all. I’m glad I took that opportunity. Now I’m starting a new life in Australia and back on the 9-5 office treadmill. Having the time and opportunity to be creative is hard when earning a living gets in the way. You’ve done splendidly. Well done.

  68. Glad to have stumbled upon your blog via “freshly pressed” Congratulations.

    You mentioned “memory” in your post, something I’ve been discussing lately, and the reason I started writing again.Would love you to take a look at Recollections – a short post – so won’t take much time.

    http://notestoponder.wordpress.com/2013/04/05/recollections/

    • It’s a beautiful post, and as one of the commenters noted, you are very much a writer, just as your mother was. And in just a few words you capture–creatively–the ethereal and elusive that is memory. Thank you for sharing.

  69. Thanks for taking the time to read my post. I post daily on everything from ancient history, to politics and religion Every once in a while – I write. The “truth” in my words flow without effort when the compulsion strikes. I can always sense when something I read is “forced”. Truthfully beautiful or compelling stories leap from experience and conviction of the writer. My pondering mind has no use for overly wordy attempts at literary cleverness – the magic cast by a good story – a product of engaging the reader;through honesty, not dazzling them with pyrotechnics.🙂

  70. A very interesting article, covering some very interesting aspects of journalism.

    Works of fiction are lies by their very nature. Nevertheless,writer still ask the reader to believe them through suspension of disdelief. Having said that, many works of fiction are based on fact, and include real events happening in real places on real dates. So, most works of fiction are a healthy mixture of fiction and fact to a greater or lesser extent.

    But how far this should extend into journalsim depends on what sort of journalism. Obviously, reporting an event as tragic and serious as the recent bombing in Boston should be done as responsibly as possible, avoiding hearsay and rumour. Unfortunately, that was not the case with Boston, and the media needs to go through a period of deep self-examination..

    But there is always room for speculation and opinion, as long as the reader understands they are that.

    When writing humorous journalistic pieces based on the truth, I constantly exaggerate, invent and lie, solely to make readers laugh. But this is journalism as entertainment, with readers aware of what is being done. A tacit contract between write and reader is assumed in such writings.

    But when writing as a travel journalist, I keep myself to the facts, which ought to be interesting enough in themselves.

    I’m not convinced cleaning up dialogue in interviews is ever justifiable, whether the interviewee likes it or not. And I suggest the interviewee should always be informed where this is the case. But that’s just my take on the subject.

    In my mind, the journalist has a responsibility towards the interviewee. If journalists adopt the right to alter the dialogue of others, even slightly, we can imagine they might alter their own dialogue, solely in order to put themselves in a more sympathetic light. People do that sort of thing.

    But what makes it appear better from one person’s point of view, may make it appear worse from another’s. It’s a problem, which has sometimes returned to haunt certain journalists, not least the excellent Johann Hari. His downfall came when he was exposed as having lifted dialogue from other interviews to insert it in his own. Shame, for he’s a great writer. But he has lost the trust of his readers. It’s a bit like heroin, The first time you do it, you change just a word or two. Then it becomes a whole sentence, Before long you’re inventing entire paragraphs. Then Hollywood comes knocking at your door.

    • Bryan, you’ve provided some great insights here based on personal experience, which is of value, as well as a compelling analogy in heroin.

      I agree with you on the notion of a spectrum of journalism. I too never alter quotes in a straight news story. If the wording is clunky or unclear, that’s what paraphrasing is for. I’m taking a slightly different approach with my memoir, although there is a fair amount of paraphrasing of others’ speech in there as well.

  71. Truthiness is not always planned. I know for example that my sister and I speak about our childhood and our perspectives of the exact same event are often miles apart and yet…we both believe that we are speaking the truth.

    • Yes, that’s absolutely right. And you both have a truth, in a sense, in that it is true to your perception at the time and your storage of that memory in your mind. So from a writing perspective, you want to be as true as you can be to what you believe is true, acknowledging that in some cases objective fact-checking is possible (dates, etc.).

  72. As an amateur writer, I was happy to be informed about the proper use of dialogue!

  73. Well said! Thanks for the insights. I’m a new blogger, ….and a writer who has just recently come out of the closet🙂 Looking forward to reading more of your posts!

    • Welcome to The Artist’s Road! My apologies for the delay in responding. Embrace the blogging life; like the art-committed life, it has its ups and downs. And most certainly take full ownership of yourself as a writer!

  74. I found your approach spine tingling — will attempt to iron out some of my truthiness
    bella langoni

    • I am floored at being told my writing is “spine tingling.” Thank you for making my day! Best of luck with developing your own approach to this challenge.

  75. An excellent article followed by an excellent discussion about this issue. As a teacher of writing, I discuss this as a matter of ethics and that ultimately it is up to the writer to decide where s/he stands. I agree with the idea of transparency and saying things like “I remember it this way, though I don’t know if it’s right…” As long as we are not putting these kind of disqualifiers into our work constantly!

    • Hi Alyssa!

      Thanks for contributing, it’s great to see this post still getting some glances, particularly given the value of the comments readers have left. It’s helpful having the perspective of a writing teacher here. And yes, it can slow down the prose a bit if everything is framed with qualifiers!

  76. I just wonder… is the truthiness of a writer could be his truthfulness? What happens in life has different preceptions and different impact on people… to take your exemple… one can find a dog quite awesome and intelligent while the other one, quite smelly or ugly or stupid…

    I had a teacher in grade first who was calling me butterfly… I know she didn’t like me very much as I wasnot very attentive to her teaching and always in “my world”, spaced out… but, talking to an old comrade found on Facebook a year ago, she told me that she thought that I was her “chouchou”, that she loved me and she was jealous of me… so, if in my memoirs I wrote my truth that this teacher didn’t like me too much and this “friend” read it, she will exclaim, maybe, but it is not true… the proof, I was jealous… so my truthfulness would be perceived by her as a truthiness and vice versa…

    So… where is the boundary between truhtiness and truthfulness?

    • Thanks for this comment, and for your anecdote about your teacher. She and you had very different perspectives on your relationship, but the way you perceived it at the time was true to you. Memoirists sometimes will write “at the time I felt this, but later learned that” but if you’re focused on where the narrator was at the time, then presenting the perception that the teacher didn’t like the narrator is completely “true.”

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