In a crowded auditorium in Walla Walla, Washington’s Whitman College, a student raised his hand and asked Tim O’Brien why he wrote fiction about his war experiences. O’Brien said, “To tell truths that I can’t tell in nonfiction.” Ernest Hemingway, Albert Camus, Pam Houston, Flannery O’Conner and others have made statements in that vein. I was once asked by a student who contacted me about an essay of mine that appeared in The Southern Review, that if writers wrote fiction because they hadn’t done anything exciting with their lives. I laughed as not only do I write fiction, many writers who have led exciting lives write fiction as well. The Roman a Clef (a novel in which real persons or actual events figure under disguise) was the form most writers used from the 17th Century until the rise of the memoir I told him and indeed that term could still stand in for some “memoirs,” those thinly veiled fictions passed off as real life.
Fiction does have its own special way of getting at truth. Historical fiction the writer may take some liberties, but that is still a different beast from novels like The Sun Also Rises or short stories like “A Good Man is Hard to Find.” What truth are we seeking in the creation of fiction? We strike at something in our core. Some things to work out from our inner selves to the wider world. What is the cost of war on a generation or the possibility to find grace in darkness? What is the nature of grace?
We have been telling ourselves fictions or stories based in truth since storytelling was invented. Some critics of recent films that were based on actual events have taken umbrage with the loose nature of their accuracy. One, Lincoln, another Zero Dark Thirty and yet another Django Unchained, which isn’t based on a historical event at all but comes under fire for its depictions of slave culture and the Antebellum South. I loved Lincoln and Zero Dark Thirty not for their historical accuracy, but in how they told a story of emotional depth and intensity and dramatized events that allowed me to sink into that world. That world also made sense I was never pulled out of the story because of some discrepancy in the storytelling. I don’t think Django Unchained’s flaws have anything to do with history, storytelling sure, but not facts. Why? Because they were released as motion pictures and not documentaries. It’s as simple as that. They told me right up front and my expectations were as such. So warned, I suspended my history critic, but with my truth critic intact. Sing in them Muse and through them, tell the story. And make it a good one. Make me believe.
Tim O’Brien also told the audience that sometimes Vietnam veterans became aggravated with him, not for his inaccuracies as some have criticized other writers and filmmakers, but because the people and events weren’t real. They were all imaginary. He said, “It’s right there on the cover. It says fiction.” (I can’t help but think of the people who go to the Louvre to look for proof of a secret society). O’Brien told a story so well that he struck an emotional chord with his readers and as writer, I look to that as a guiding principle. Render the story so that it is true on its on accord in its own world and readers believe you, factual or not. That to me is the truth of it.