When I went on tour with my first book, a collection of short stories called Cowboys Are My Weakness, I was asked, more than any other question, how much of this really happened to you? “A lot of it,” was my honest answer, night after night, but the audience grew dissatisfied with that answer and seemed, more than anything, to want something quantifiable, so I began saying, also honestly, about 82 percent.
Eight years later, when I published my first “nonfiction” book, and went on tour with it, I would often be introduced in some version of the following manner: “In the past we have gotten 82 percent Pam, and now we are going to get 100 percent,” and I would approach the microphone and feel the need to say, “Well, no, still coming in right about 82.”
I had some very strong feelings while reading this (excellent) essay (available online). I enjoyed it very much – which added to my feeling of discomfort, because while it’s exactly the sort of writing I most enjoy – meandering around while still pointing to a central theme – it may be saying something I feel is very dangerous. Or I may be misreading. Or I may need to rethink just what it is I find so dangerous, and boy, is that dangerous.
Houston’s essay – listed as non-fiction – is in essence about the blur between fiction and non-fiction. She calls it a companion piece to her recent fiction collection, Contents May Have Shifted, a series of 144 short pieces.
I have no trouble at all with a novel that’s 82% true, or 99% true or 14% or any other figure. Much of my favorite fiction, in fact, is i% true. I have no trouble with fiction that uses the author’s name (Maine author Ron Currie Jr. does something similar in Flimsy Plastic Miracles; hey, The Bell Jar was so thinly disguised, Plath published it under a pseudonym).
But if you’re writing a memoir, an autobiography, essays, or anything else that falls under the heading of non-fiction – is 82% good enough? Isn’t this where we get into Truthiness territory? If it’s ok to be Truthy in essays, why not politics? Or Science? Or math (I just pulled some truthiness out of my ass when I used the term “i% true” since I have no idea if that’s a mathematically valid concept, but it sounds good in the context, doesn’t it? And now I’m disowning it, so it’s ok, right?)?
Maybe this is where Truthiness started; once it became widely known (to everyone but me, apparently) that Truth doesn’t really exist and it’s all about a good story, we ended up with politicians (and witnesses before Congress, for pete’s sake) who will say anything with a straight face in service of the Message: Congress is overrun with Communists, tobacco isn’t addictive, the NSA isn’t spying on you.
Houston explores the question of where truth and fiction run into each other from a variety of angles, all of them interesting, and she does it against a backdrop of the blend of fictional nonfiction that reality itself has become: a Las Vegas of gondolas and pyramids, where a cultural critic comes to analyze and a writer comes to feel suicidal; a corn maze that still claims to be the largest in the world though that was in 2008; and a childhood growing up as a child of alcoholics, where reality is what the person with the raised fist says it is. It’s great stuff.
But when she starts talking about writing fictionalized nonfiction, my skin starts to crawl. Because… shouldn’t nonfiction be nonfiction? Shouldn’t truth be sacred somewhere – or at least, clearly indicated as not?
The reason I have been afraid, until very recently, to make any kind of general, theoretical, or philosophical statements about women, writers, westerners, environmentalists, academics…is that I have never felt comfortable speaking for anyone except myself. Maybe I had been socialized not to make declarative statements. Maybe I thought you had to be fifty before you knew anything about the world. Maybe I was afraid of misrepresenting someone I thought I understood but didn’t. Maybe I was afraid of acting hypocritically. Maybe I have always believed it is more honest, more direct, and ultimately more powerful, to tell a story, one concrete and particular detail at a time.
So I did. I put my boat into the river, some things happened, and I took it back out on the other side. In time though, I began to suspect that linear narrative was not doing a very good job representing life as I experienced it, but I still tried to stretch the things I originally conceived of as Slinkies into straight lines. I don’t mean to suggest that I was unique in this. There are so many of us out there, trying to turn Spyrograph flowers into rocket ships. In time I began to gain confidence in my Spyrograph flowers and Slinkies.
I speak as someone who rails against The New Yorker every time they include a novel excerpt as “short fiction” and, especially, against One Story, my hands-down favorite literary magazine, when they sneak in an excerpt from an upcoming novel that’s probably terrific for circulation figures, but is not, in fact, one story. So I’m familiar with the concept of cutting certain people some slack. And then there’s my own history of untruth, which some day I’ll need to deal with… but not today.
Houston tells a fascinating story of a couple of articles she wrote. One was early in her career; she had to interview women about adventure vacations, and the three quotes she got were boring and repetitious, so she made up three other women and gave them more interesting quotes.
She doesn’t say whether or not the article was printed, with or without the bogus quotes, or whether she was ever hired as a writer by that magazine again. Maybe I’m ridiculously naïve to think that a writer would do such a thing, even on a fluff piece. I assume most of the supporting quotes made in “soft” articles are, let’s say, carefully selected, maybe even encouraged and cultivated, and I’m pretty skeptical of anything I read or hear anywhere. But come on, doesn’t someone see something wrong with this?
The second incident is even scarier, because the editor of the article subtly solicits a trio of nonexistent kayakers and more pleasant weather than occurred in the subject event. It seems Houston wrote the hell out of that – I bet she did, she’s a fantastic writer – and when the article was selected for anthologization, a chance comment gave her the opportunity to explain the situation, and the editors of the anthology removed the section – but added nonexistent fog. I may cry.
When it was decided (When was that again, and by whom?) that we were all supposed to choose between fiction and nonfiction, what was not taken into account was that for some of us truth can never be an absolute, that there can (at best) be only less true and more true and sometimes those two collapse inside each other like a Turducken. Given the failure of memory. Given the failure of language to mean. Given metaphor. Given metonymy. Given the ever-shifting junction of code and context. Given the twenty-five people who saw the same car accident. Given our denial. Given our longings.
Who cares really if she hung herself or slit her wrists when what really matters is that James Frey is secretly afraid that he’s the one who killed her. Dear Random House Refund Department: If they were moved, then they got their twenty-four dollars’ worth.
Yes, there’s a blurred edge between what happened and what we think happened; it’s fascinating territory, and non-fiction writing can accommodate that (and always has). I think it’s editors/publishers bent on presenting “enhanced” fiction – the extra tug on the heartstrings, the detail that make it real and concrete to the mass market reader as opposed to the connoisseur of ambiguity and nuance – that can’t.
Maybe I’m a hardass, but come on, you can’t make up kayakers in your essay about your vacation. You can have a fantasy or dream passage about what that would be like, or what you wish had happened – that’s marvelous. The James Frey debacle is at the center of this essay, and I’m sorry if it makes me a jerk, but you can’t make up a prostitute who hangs herself then decide she slits her wrists before you give up on her entirely and then fall back on “It felt like I killed her and that’s what matters.” Yes, that matters: and you can say “I don’t remember if she hung herself or slit her wrists or just disappeared from my life and I assumed she died because that’s the path she was on and it felt like my fault” – and isn’t that more powerful anyway than a rope or blood? (I haven’t read Frey’s book so I’m making things up here – but I’m saying clearly my reliance on supposition and other sources, so it’s ok, right?).
Did I mention that when James Frey was an undergraduate, I was his creative writing teacher?
Note: Because of the rest of this essay, I assume this is not true. See, that’s what happens when you lie to people. Maybe she was his teacher; maybe she feels like she was, or that she was his teacher in a metaphorical sense. It’s fine to say it’s 82% true, but me, if I don’t know which 82%, I’m not going to believe any of it, and if you tell me which 82% is true, why not just tell the truth in the first place? Or call it fiction, write a contributor note that says it’s based on real events, and do anything you want with it.
[By the way, I’m copying a couple of huge paragraphs from a blog comment I left for Ken Nichols, one of my favorite bloggers, at Great Writers Steal – yes, that’s the name of his blog, it’s a common writing truism, adding to the surreal feeling of this whole subject – so I’m perhaps plagiarizing myself. But I’m also not trying to hide it. So it’s ok, right?]
Time for a personal story. When I was nine, my mother died. I remember watching President Kennedy’s funeral on TV, and crying because he died and my mother died, and his funeral reminded me that she died. Throughout years of therapy between the ages of sixteen and 30 or so, I’d tell every new shrink that story. Except… my mother died in January 1964. The President died in November, 1963. My mother was very ill with breast cancer for a couple of years, with multiple hospitalizations; perhaps I cried in anticipatory grief (or perhaps I cried because someone died and there was sad music and horses and I didn’t really understand it but everyone was talking in very sad voices) but I spent twenty years with a memory that simply could not have happened. Now let me ask you this, which is more interesting: a 9-year-old girl crying at a televised State funeral because her mother just died, or someone who later conflates those events and reverses the actual order? I’m pretty sure I did in fact cry; I remember being embarrassed and talking about something else to cover my tears and my brother became angry at me since he, at age 14, had a better grasp of how serious the televised funeral was. Except maybe he, too, was fighting tears, and as I used distraction, he used anger. in any case, to add another layer of untruth: I don’t really know for sure my mother died in January 1964. She died when we lived in a certain place, and we only lived there for a year – I was only there for the school year of 1963-1964 – so that narrows it down a bit, but I don’t really know the date. Now which do you think is more interesting: a 9-year-old crying over a televised State funeral because her mother just died, or an adult who lost her mother when she was in fourth grade but never knew the exact date?
One thing I am sure of, having spent the last five years inside a shattered narrative, is that time is a worthy opponent. It does not give up quietly. It does not give up kicking and screaming. It does not, in fact, give up at all. Time is like when you break a thermometer and all the mercury runs around the table trying like crazy to reconstitute itself. Or like the way PCB can start out in a glass transformer in Alabama and wind up on the island of Svalbard, inside a polar bear cub’s brain. A shattered narrative is still a narrative. We can’t escape it; it is what we are.
There’s truth, and there’s not-truth. Yes, there’s uncertainty, and overlap, always has been, always will be. And then there are the most interesting cases of all: when we’re sure we know exactly what happened, but it turns out we simply must be wrong. The notion that Houston’s childhood was like that – spectacular! And there’s the world that tries to convince us appearance is reality, like the gondolas of Las Vegas. A whole industry of “reality TV” has spun out of control, and you’ll never convince me that Project Runway isn’t pre-arranged. The absurdity of staged reality shows up in movies from Willy Wonka to Postcards from the Edge. Again, terrific material. And there’s stuff we are wrong about but we don’t know we’re wrong, and we can’t know we’re wrong. When someone tells us – when we figure out the date our mother died, because the internet, duh – that’s pretty cool in itself.
But not making up quotes to give punch to an article, or inventing kayakers (even if the editor, shame on her, does strongly hint she wants the fictionalized version of reality). Not just saying, “82%” and figuring that covers it. No (and if I do make things up and call it truth, I’ll have a good reason to justify it, right?). Then again, writing that raises strong feelings and brings up important issues can’t be dismissed. And, by the way, this essay has been included in the craft anthology Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction edited by Jill Talbot; and as my writer friends who keep asking me if I’m ever going to try writing again keep reminding me – I’m not a writer, so what do I know.