Lately, there have been many fights over what constitutes truth. This relates most to nonfiction and poetry but can also relate to the writing of fiction–what is written, no matter what genre, should be based in some sort of reality, with aspects to which we can relate.
However, this isn’t a post on sci-fi writing; it’s a post on truth. Why should you care about the truth when you write, and why do audiences care so much about writers with messy truthfulness such as James Frey (A Million Little Pieces), John D’Agata (About a Mountain and Lifespan of a Fact), and, most recently, Mike Daisey, who wrote fictitious accounts of meeting with workers outside of an Apple factory in China and labeled his account journalism (http://tinyurl.com/7wzsqah).
Basically, Daisey stood outside a factory and did a “word on the street”-type interview, many of which go nowhere (see above link to Danny Westneat’s column in The Seattle Times article from 3/21/12). Westneat’s opinion is clear when he says the following: “I cringed when Seattle’s Cornish College of the Arts, which is about to give Daisey an honorary degree, excused the scandal as ‘the understandable confusion … between art and journalism (para. 17).’”
The deal with D’Agata is that he wrote some “facts” in About a Mountain that were disputed, so he basically wrote a reaction along with a fact-checker, creating the book Lifespan of a Fact. D’Agata teaches writing at the University of Iowa, which has a renowned creative writing program.
Discussion of D’Agata is a hot topic in the CRW community these days, as evidenced by discussion during a panel on the lyric essay at the Association of Writers and Writing Programs conference in early March 2012.
Panelist Jocelyn Bartkevicious from the University of Central Florida noted that the facts given by Virginia Woolf, Frey, and D’Agata were messy. Ned Stuckey-French, from Florida State University, ended the panel with a letter to John (which is a fun play on the old “Dear John” break-up letter), ending his relationship with D’Agata’s work: http://tinyurl.com/7ak9ueo.
Last, if you’ll recall from about ten years ago, James Frey was verbally and emotionally whipped by Oprah after it was discovered that some events from his “memoir” A Million Little Pieces was published. The consensus (from my point of view)? The book should have been marketed as fiction, but then it would not have had the same success.
Why? Part of the appeal of nonfiction is not only in the way it’s written and the story it tells but what it suggests about the author. It’s like listening to your favorite band’s music–you want to feel connected to the musician, as if you’ve been through the same things. This is because we all want to feel connected to someone or something, and music and writing are both emotionally strong. They help forge that connection. We want to believe in the musicians and writers.
However, the connection is often fictional and superficial. It turns out the musician is really on drugs or that the writer doesn’t want to be seen for who they are. Both put up barriers. Both hide themselves.
The goal of the creative nonfiction writer is not to relate spectacular events (unless they have happened to the writer) but to share insight and emotion in the way the work is written. Often we know the ending from the first page of a memoir or from history, but we’re interested in how the writer and person got to that ending. We’re afraid that the same things may happen to us, and we’re also hopeful that the good things will happen to us. We want to see how to prevent the bad things and bring on the good.
I write creative nonfiction. I write it because I love finding value in the small moments that often get thrown away. I love to connect seemingly unlike events and observations.
That is the truth to me. What I see, hear, and feel–that’s my truth. What’s yours?