Thursday, May 30, 2013

Okay, I Lied, but Only So I Could Tell the Truth

Author Tim O'Brien wrote an incredible Vietnam War novel: The Things They Carried. In it he has a fascinating chapter entitled "How To Tell A True War Story" in which he writes, "All you can do is tell [the story] one more time, patiently, adding and subtracting, making up a few things to get at the real truth."

O'Brien is talking about war and trying to convey the realities of war to those who have never experienced it. 

I think, though, that this is a truism of all story-telling. I may tell a story exactly as it happened. But if I do that, then the authenticity of the story may be lost. The audience will know the facts and miss the experience. Or I can make the choice to embellish, alter, or, as O'Brien advises, make up a few things "to get at the real truth." Therefore, by changing the facts, the audience will know the true story.

(I know, I'm dog-paddling in deep water at the moment, paddle with me a little longer.)

To give you an example, the story I posted yesterday about the Night of Terror had a total of 8 characters in it (minus the deer) and only 3 characters actually introduced: me, Jackie, and Nicki. However, I altered the story. 

  • In reality there were 12 of us, not 8.

  • I chose Nicki to embody about 4 different people whose words and actions I wadded together and combined into her character.

  • Truthfully I did a whooooole lot more moaning and complaining about the spiders than yesterday's story accounted for.

So why did I change these things? Why not just tell the story as it actually happened?

Well, it seemed irrelevant to have to explain that 4 girls slept in another room down the hall. It didn't enhance the story's appeal or momentum, so I just left it out. Thus, that part of the story, for all posterity, never happened. Not that these 4 girls aren't important, they just aren't important to the story.

Additionally, it felt cumbersome and boggy to introduce 4 separate characters so that they all might perform their small cameos. While Nicki was not actually the one to flap her towel at the deer, she was the character already familiar to the audience who seemed the best vehicle to convey the culminating event of the story. 

Finally, I trimmed out my pathetic moanings because I'm the one writing and I didn't want to come off like a whiny nincompoop. Plus, I think my few moments of interiority and reflection fully conveyed my depth of loathing toward those wretched spiders without belaboring my point and irritating the readers. (See, I do write with y'all in mind!)

While this is just a meager explanation for what actually happens in story-telling, it's important to study and understand these few droplets in the ocean of decisions that a writer faces each time she sits down to write. 

Tell the truth (what actually happened) or tell the Truth (what the audience needs to understand happened)? It's only a fine, dusty chalk-line between these two ideas--easily erased, easily shifted. Which makes you wonder if you can ever fully trust anything you read. Well, O'Brien has another 2-cents on this: "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way." 

So, yes, you can in fact trust the stories you read because even what isn't true is possibly more true than the truth. Aren't you glad I cleared that up for you? (I think I need to get out of the water before I drown.)

PS: O'Brien has far more than 2 cents to add to this whole discussion. I highly recommend getting your hands on a copy of The Things They Carried or at least "How To Tell a True War Story".  Enjoy!

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  1. As a fiction writer, you and Timmy O. can get away with the "truth telling" that you do. It's a slipperier slope for us in nonfiction. We're held up to certain binding agreements or else we're boiled alive on Oprah. It's such a rich and interesting area for discussion. I am leaning towards embellishing and trying my hand at fiction, just to see how it feels. It works for David Sedaris! The truth is - as O'Brien stated last week at his talk - not always that interesting.

    Let's discuss this more!

    1. You're right, Amy, nonfiction does carry a greater weight of truth-telling. But I think again there's a fine line between what is literally true and what is literarily true (I may have just made that word up)--obviously the guy who wrote "A Million Little Pieces" told a bold-faced lie in his memoir. No one's gonna tolerate that. But like my story yesterday, I didn't have the space to have each individual person act out their part or it would have been an 8000 word blog post that no one would bother reading. So does that make my story any less true? It's a tricky business, especially when, as you pointed out, the truth is entirely uninteresting.

  2. Ooh, I love this topic! Your'e right that bald faced lies by writers, like A Million Little Pieces are not going to be tolerated, because there is a difference between telling a truth and committing fraud and deception. A Million Little Pieces claimed to be factual, and it wasn't. There was a more recent case of a 'documentary' maker, Mike Daisy, who claimed to have witnessed first hand a whole bunch of wrong-doings going on at Apple factories in China. He claimed to have gotten interviews that he never did, and spoken with people he never met and seen the insides of factories he never visited. The unfortunate thing is that the things he was 'reporting' and 'uncovering' were indeed happening. So what was the truth? Truth 1 was that He completely discredited and disgraced himself as a reporter and did more damage to the larger story he was trying to help because Truth 2 was that Apple was in fact doing what he claimed it was doing. So what is THE truth? The way I see it, truth is not fact. Fact simply is. It doesn't have inherent significance. Truth is the significance woven out of evidence points of fact. What was the truth of your posting? The truth you were painting wasn't dependent on the number of people in your party or the exact unfolding of inconsequential actions or on any of the things that you tweaked and embellished. Facts can be disregarded or tweaked if altering them doesn't change the veracity of your asserted truth. At some point, I think all stories have to be 'true' or else they lack significance, and at some point, all stories have to be 'fiction' because narrative is necessarily an artifice, since it's the deliberate creation of significance out of little bits of data and/or fact.
    That said, I think my head is spinning, and I will graciously take my leave.

    1. Okay, so I'm thinkin', Liza, that you probably should have been in charge of writing this post. Your explanation is far more eloquent than mine and I think you hit the nail squarely with "all stories have to be 'true' or else they lack significance, and at some point, all stories have to be 'fiction' because narrative is necessarily an artifice." Dang, girl. You're brilliant. And I'm so glad you agree :)

  3. I am thoroughly enjoying this discussion. My head is spinning a bit too, but somehow this is comforting to me. When I recount a story or memory, somehow the fuzzy details are filled in to create the essence of the experience. I have never stopped to analyze that I do this, perhaps because I have little to no formal training in writing. I just do this instinctively. Phew, Anna, I'm so glad to hear I'm not a liar!

    1. I think if you do this instinctively, Stevie, you are a born story-teller. I have always done the same. And, as far as I'm concerned, it makes you a Creative, not a liar. I'm so glad you are enjoying the discussion--it gets a bit heady at times, but I think it's worth digging deeper into. Thanks, Stevie!


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