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Thursday, April 06, 2006

That 'Truth' Thing Again

You must accept the truth from whatever source it comes.
-Moses ben Maimon, philosopher (1135-1204)

I don't mean to turn into a quote-mobile here; it's just that sometimes we go into a story thinking it will turn out one way and the facts, events, people, whatever, don't take us along the path of our assumptions. You have to stay open--and pay attention, for pete's sake!--to what's going on. Do a person's actions match his statements? What vibes do you pick up, in contrast to what people are saying?

The subject of what is "true" in creative nonfiction comes up a lot. I might not have the patience to lay out the definitions of what gets called "emotional truth" and empirical data--facts you can look up or that everyone at the scene agrees happened.

Memoirs--which I put at one end of the creative nonfiction spectrum--cite "emotional truth" a lot. This sort of truth may not be connected to what happened, but it conveys the impact of what happened. I'm not going to slam this entirely. It is impossible to re-create scenes from a childhood. Everyone sees what happens through a personal perspective. Recalling dialogue is something I can't do a *minute* after I've had a conversation; it would be extraordinary for anyone to do it after more time has passed. People remember *moments,* but setting the stage--what people were doing, what they wore, what the weather was like, the color of the furniture--is vital to a story and excruciating (usually outright impossible) to remember. I read once in the
Washington Post about a guy who kept a minute-to-minute accounting of what he was doing, but let's face it: that's not normal.

Lauren Slater, who was my teacher one semester during my master's program at Goucher, took the stance that her memoirs are telling about
her life so she's entitled to tell it however she wants. She didn't count it a big deal, for example, if she chose details from several similar occasions to create a smooth, well-told scene.

As a straight-arrow journalist, I have problems with that, but I'll grant that sometimes it doesn't seem like a big deal. For example, if one night you looked up at the stars thinking Deep Thoughts, on a different night you were bringing in groceries and your husband hollered out the window what great legs you had, and in the memoir you make it that your husband's yelling brings your Deep Thinking to a close, well, what difference does it make?

OK, I can imagine scenarios when it might make a difference involving how people are portrayed, but can't you just as easily imagine it being no big deal?

More on this later. I hate long posts on blogs.

category: craft


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