One semester in grad school we read for a nonfiction class two memoirs. One was Geronimo’s Bones and the other was A Million Little Pieces. It was quite a coincidence that during that semester they were both uncovered as frauds to one degree or another and that fired the debate about the truth in nonfiction. It seems pretty straight forward, if you didn’t go to jail for several months or if you’re not a half-Navajo kid being abused by his father, then it’s fiction. Some argued about the combining of characters or events to help shape narrative. If you didn’t go to jail for several months or if you’re not a half-Navajo kid…. Some writers continue to say, they’re pushing the boundaries of the form and trying and pass it off as art in which case it’s still fiction and it’s not pushing the boundaries of any art, but a conscious effort to dupe readers so the writer can make money and/or feel clever. (Or get called out by Oprah to admit that they had been doping their piss poor lives to gain popularity).
Now in the cases of events that a writer misremembers or had a different reaction to, then that is a where we can say, okay what about that? Kim Barnes one time told us a story of an uncle who approached her about her memoir, the Pulitzer Prize finalist, In the Wilderness saying something to the effect that they didn’t mean to make her feel the way she described. She told him that was exactly how she felt and if he wanted he was free to write his own memoir about it. Now see I have just repeated a conversation that I had with someone and yes others were in the classroom when this took place. But because I don’t have a photographic memory, I can’t say that’s exactly what she said, but I can say that’s the exact gist of it and we weren’t cooling our heels in rehab either. What I took from it was that no one can tell you how to feel about what you lived through, regardless of their intentions or designs. That is emotional truth.
We also can have that imagined truth of what we think things might have been or how others feel. Like I imagine my mother thought or my father thought a particular thing at a particular time because I know them well enough. The reader knows this if I signal to the reader “I imagine Mom was disappointed that I never….” and in the still working in what I know to be true. Or admit to misremembering, “I used to drink a lot in those days…” But of course no one will drink enough to forget that they’re a white guy from Michigan and not a half-Navajo kid from Arizona.
We can also use exaggerated truth to comedic effect and most comedy works just this way. But then the reader is set up in say, “The SantaLand Diaries,” that we are getting a true story, but we are attuned to the fact that when Sedaris is telling the kid that Santa doesn’t really traffic in coal anymore and the monologue that follows, might be a little more than what really happened. Do we care? No we don’t. David Sedaris wasn’t claiming to had done hard time with gangsters or being dragged state to state by his abusive father. Sedaris isn’t passing himself off as some guy who overcame great odds to succeed, giving hope to junkies migrant kids everywhere like those poseurs.
No the elf had it much worse trapped in Macy’s as Santa’s helper in the swirling mass of holiday expectations and disappointments that are the snot and tears of children. It’s funnier too and the Truth.