Apr/May 2006 Salon

Tell Me a Story

by Paul Sampson

Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--
Success in Circuit lies
Too bright for our infirm Delight
The Truth's superb surprise

As Lightning to the Children eased
With explanation kind
The Truth must dazzle gradually
Or every man be blind--

          --Emily Dickinson

Earlier this year, the publishing world was agitated by a great question of Truth. Specifically, is James Frey's bestselling addiction memoir, A Million Little Pieces, truthful? If so or if not, in what sense or senses?

By the time you read this, of course, the world (and even the "publishing world") will have moved along to some other great question, probably concerning gay divorce. (Gay marriage is so 2005.) In any case, the Frey memoir will have (as all books do) slid down the sales lists toward the remainder bin. And also in any case, this little essay has very little to do with that book, which I have not read and in which I have nearly no interest. Read it, don't read it, believe it, don't believe it—suit yourself.

What does interest me is the general question of "truth" in memoirs. One section of Eclectica publishes "nonfiction." I am listed on the masthead as the "Nonfiction/Miscellany Editor," and while I do not know any more than you do what is included under "miscellany," I have a few notions about what constitutes "nonfiction," and even "creative nonfiction."

I'll start by saying that I have a bias in favor of accuracy. I have worked in one form of journalism or another for most of my working life. Before that, I was an intelligence analyst in the Army. Before that, I was a grad student who had to write research papers. In all these roles, I was expected to distinguish clearly between verifiable fact and any kind of speculation or opinion. (In some cases I could speculate and opine all I liked, but I had to say I was doing it.)

I joined the working world as a journalist in the early 1960s. Coincidentally, Tom Wolfe published his first version of The Kandy-Kolored Tangerine-Flake Streamline Baby in 1963; throughout the 1960s, Esquire Magazine was regularly publishing astonishing pieces of reportage in which the author was one of the characters in the story, or felt free to tell us what the people he wrote about thought, not just what they did or said; In Cold Blood came out in 1966 (and remember, it was a magazine piece before it was a book), and before our delighted eyes, the "New Journalism" was born.

Well, it seemed new. Various people have since pointed out that Daniel Defoe had written a few similar pieces in 18th century London, and that Mark Twain was a working newspaperman at one time in the 19th Century, and Ben Hecht's pieces in the Chicago newspapers early in the 1900s were hardly standard inverted-pyramid examples of textbook reporting. Finley, Peter Dunne didn't invent the invented quotable citizen, but his imaginary friend Mr. Dooley [no relation to the editor of this publication--ed.] is still quoted a hundred years after he appeared in print. (He was the one who told us that the newspaper is supposed to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.)

So were these old anthology warhorses writing "creative nonfiction"? Sure, why not call it that? More provocatively, how about these passages: "A certain man was preparing a great banquet and invited many guests..." (Luke 14:15-17) And this: "A certain man went down from Jerusalem to Jericho, and fell among thieves, which stripped him of his raiment, and wounded him, and departed, leaving him half dead." (Luke 10:29-31) Really? Names, please. Which "certain" men? How many guests? What injuries? Broken bones? Bleeding?

Now, since we are accustomed to saying that the Gospels are true, and written (at however many removes) by the Creator, I suppose the Parables of Jesus have to be called "creative nonfiction." Or maybe we had better uppercase that: "Creative Nonfiction." Can't be too careful. Still, the Gospel parables are a special case. Let's leave them in their own category.

Going back before the Gospels, in fact before any written literature, we find another kind of narrative: myth. These archetypal tales of gods and heroes and animals and ghosts and other eternally interesting matters are not "true." But they are not "false," either. They can be neither verified nor falsified, and they seem to survive because they are true to something in our experience--or maybe just in our wishes.

But true or not, I can't call them "nonfiction," because they don't claim to be reporting actual, specific events, no matter how factitious their style may be. I remember a line in one of Andersen's fairy tales: "Now, this is a true story," says the narrator, and even a child knows in what sense that's true. It truly is a story.

Reporting is different, whether it's a who-what-when-where-why news story or a memoir. In daily journalism, the presumption is that all stories are interesting. We keep taking in stories until we fill up the paper for the day or the broadcast for the time slot. We put the most lurid ones first, but we put it all in: murders and club news, scandals and traffic reports, the City Council and the weather.

But we've always distinguished between "news" and "features." Feature writing—which includes the kind of personal essay that we call memoir—uses novelistic techniques that go beyond reporting. Nevertheless, we distinguish it from fiction. Fiction is news of "a" world, and memoir is news of "the" world, as seen through the memoirist's eyes. A memoir must be verifiable by checking the facts that are asserted. A fiction's truth is checked in the reader's heart.

There can be real and very serious consequences for forgetting this distinction. Say whatever you like about yourself, but try to tell the truth about others. Even if you have no scruples, you may not be able to afford a really good libel lawyer. And if you get a popular daytime TV talk show hostess on your case, God help you.

The question, as I see it, is this: what does the author claim for the piece? If it's reportage, it had better check out, down to the color of the getaway car. If it's memoir, it's okay to say, "This is how I recall it." It's probably okay to say "This is the sort of thing that happened, the style of things that were said; don't make me swear to every word that appears in quotation marks; it's homogenized a bit, but it's a good portrayal of the people and their doings."

In other words, it's like a painting, and not necessarily the kind of painting that attempts to be a photographic likeness. In fact, even a photograph may be "creative nonfiction." Just framing the subject in the viewfinder ought to be a creative act. What we decide to leave out may be as revealing as what we include.

As to what I'll accept as "nonfiction" for this magazine, I have one really strict rule: no libel. If you say something unflattering about a real person, it had better be true, and you had better have a good reason for saying it in public. If you want to become famous for being dragged through the Tort Court, leave the rest of us out of it. Beyond that, I have no particular interest in fact-checking your memoirs.

The trouble with most true stories is simple: they're boring. If your True Adventure is interesting to other people, fine, send it in—even if your memory is somewhat kinder to you than strict accuracy might require. If it's of interest mainly to you and maybe your therapist, leave it in your journal. And if you think, even for a moment, that you might wish you hadn't said it—don't. This magazine will not be responsible for broken marriages or other fallout from unwise disclosures.

There are some "nonfiction" categories that get an automatic pass on strict factual accuracy. These include humor, satire, burlesque, pastiche, parody, spoof, and just plain goofin' around. Such submissions will be judged on whether they make the Nonfiction Editor laugh, not on whether they are something the author would swear to. I do not intend to segregate such pieces in a "humor" section. I trust you to get a joke without being told it's a joke. Here's a clue for the clueless: if you don't understand it, it's probably funny. Pretend you get it, smile knowingly, and change the subject.


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