I can’t help myself. I got another one of those glurgy chain emails today, intended to be heartwarming but really just a steaming pile that came from another part of the body. And because I’m me, I sent my friend the Snopes page debunking the story behind it even though I know, I know, I know, no one wants to know the truth when the fiction is more interesting.
You know the one about Mariah Carey saying she’d like to be as skinny as starving kids, just not with the flies and death and stuff? Never happened. Except in a satirical article that got picked up by legitimate newspapers who didn’t recognize the satire. Bill Gates won’t give you money depending on how many emails you forward, either.
But it’s more interesting to believe Mariah Carey is just that stupid and insensitive, or that we can get a slice of the Microsoft pie. And interesting too often trumps truth, even when we’re framing it as reality.
After the exposed fraud of Misha: A Memoir of the Holocaust Years, the latest to be revealed as pure fiction was Love and Consequences by Margaret B. Jones, purportedly “a half-white, half-Native American girl growing up in South-Central Los Angeles as a foster child among gang-bangers, running drugs for the Bloods.” In reality, Jones is the pseudonym of Margaret Seltzer, “who is all white and grew up in the well-to-do Sherman Oaks section of Los Angeles, in the San Fernando Valley, with her biological family.”
In university, my favourite set of courses were in creative non-fiction writing. In one, my friend Bonnie made a terrible confession to our professor, a stern Icelandic-Canadian author whose measured praise was prized and off-hand dismissals feared.
Before I’d ever heard of the Internet, these classes were terrific practice for blogging. We read aloud our stories and awaited the comments from classmates, some thoughtful, some adding their own interesting though perhaps tangential perspective, some so completely out to lunch you wondered if they’d been listening to the voices in their head instead of the words being read to them. Too polite was dismissive. Too cutting was easy to dismiss. We treasured those comments that really got what we were trying to say but offered insight into how we could come closer to an emotional truth.
Bonnie’s confession came after a round of particularly effusive and uncommonly unanimous praise for her story of attending a recently unsegregated school as a child in the US. She told our professor that sometimes, well, quite often, she – not lied, but embellished the truth in order to make a better story. Not to make it more dramatic, exactly, but to give it more shape, to bring out the meaning more clearly. Now she was feeling guilty for the undeserved praise.
The professor laughed and told her – later told the class – that was where the creative part of creative non-fiction comes in. Today, we’d be having the conversation about the difference between William S. Burroughs and James Frey, and ponder the question: why didn’t Margaret Seltzer write a novel? Instead, we discussed where the line is between non-fiction and fiction, and opinions were varied, but all fit loosely within the standard non-fiction disclaimer of altered details.
I was less inclined than Bonnie to purposely embellish, though memory is a tricky guide. But the beauty of creative non-fiction is in shaping the story. We can choose the details to include and to exclude. There’s the trivial: we can choose to change names, like “Bonnie,” or withhold them, like the name of a certain Icelandic-Canadian author. There’s the more profound: we can choose where to end. We can stop at the bike ride to school with a new black friend or continue to the nasty names in the cafeteria that make it a story less about hope. We can stop at the marriage rather than the divorce, the baby’s birth rather than the terrible twos, the death rather than the grief.
And we can choose our own personal meaning for the events we’re writing about, which might seem contrary to telling the truth but is really the essence of it. Much as I love fiction, there is a beauty in truth.
But that’s also the mundane reason why Seltzer didn’t simply write a novel: incredible but true stories sell better. It’s silly to personalize it, but to a lover of literary non-fiction writing — Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking is a personal favourite — the actions of these fraudulent memoir writers seem like a betrayal. Because our professor was right, there’s a creative part to creative non-fiction. But there’s also a non-fiction part to it.