Fourth Genre (full text article on Creative Nonfiction)

“The Art of Lying,” (Sp. 2008). Comments on the Form [Creative Nonfiction], Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction – Volume 10, Number 1, Spring 2008, pp. 147-151. | 10.1353/fge.0.0012  Michigan State University. Also archived in Project Muse.

“THE ART OF LYING — Or Risking the Wrath of Oprah”

By D.K. McCutchen

From certain angles, “truth” is simply a point of view.  From other points of view, truth is an angle.

Remember when that egocentric bad-boy, James Frey, author of A Million Little Pieces, claimed more street cred than he had, and got whacked over the head with it by Oprah?  Frey sold 3.5 million copies of his book, in part, by calling his story “true,” and in part by lying about it.

I studied creative nonfiction at UMass, Amherst, for my MFA. At times, during my studies, I saw little difference between disguised reality in my classmates’ fiction, and some fictionalized “truths” in my own. We were all just studying how to tell a good story well.

The textbook models of composition and storytelling that I use, as a writing instructor now myself, usually acknowledge that while readers like to know what to expect, our society is learning to acknowledge the subjectivity of truth. Search for your own truth, by all means, but understand that others’ truths will not be the same.

Creative or literary nonfiction (CNF) is increasingly interesting to writing programs across the country, bringing up myriad questions of how to define a style of writing that drifts in the gray area between truth and fiction. Mark Twain wrote that the novel was

“a lie told by liars.” Do we perceive nonfiction as being more honest, more truthful, than fiction?

Perhaps, but popular trends in talk shows and reality television suggest that Americans, at least, prefer a spicy blend of fact and fiction that provides a compelling Believe it or Not option.

I’ve heard some pretty strong voices out there try to define CNF as what I would call straight nonfiction, forgetting some of the genre’s most creative experimental forays in America, with immersion journalists like Hunter S. Thompson.  Many nonfiction purists seem to think that truth is a constant. But when truth is defined as belief, it becomes mutable. Created by expectation, memory, audience, it is reliant on context and the viewpoint and experience of the observer. Truth is the coherence of all these angles.  Patrick Chamoiseau’s Solibo Magnifique, is a stunning literary example of truth shifting with points of view.  Each shift illuminates each character’s need to interpret a man’s life through his or her own hopes, culture and perspective.

Our cultural truths are those things we are accustomed to believing, as laid down by family, school, churches, and government. But step outside our borders, and that information, and those beliefs, customs, and truths change.

Several people witnessing the same event will likely remember things differently, from a different angle, and with different expectations, emotions and experiences coloring that memory. It should be a surprise when there is a consensus.

I believe that agreement only happens when we create stories about events, and then the story becomes the memory. That doesn’t necessarily make the story more true —

or less. When one writes down those memories, one records a unique point of view. The very act of memory is an act of fiction.

In my first book, built from the journal of a sailing trip in the South Pacific, I used fictional techniques to better evoke the smells, thoughts, sounds and images that help create an intimate description. As with most life-changing events, I was left with impressions and imperfect records, not an exact script of what people said. So I invented their words, working hard to make each character sound like the person I remembered. I narrated the story not only from details briefly recorded and thoughts half-articulated while sailing, but also from those memories I recreated afterwards, from my comfortable desk, with more time to linger on story and craft. The irony is that it is the artifice of taking time to find the best words that often renders a momentary feeling or fleeting event most truly.

As a writer of creative nonfiction, I began with a real event, and described it using the tools of fiction writing: scenes, dialogue, concrete details, shifting points of view. I also used figurative language – metaphor — comparing a sunset, for example, to an egg breaking — the first step in using pretty words to tell lies. To me, the sun did look like an egg, broken and leaking into the ocean. But to be perfectly, accurately, non-fictional, should I have described the process of light bending through the atmosphere to bounce off our retinas in varied colors?

My first mentor in graduate school, John Edgar Wideman, had warned me early on to keep my cast of characters small, or I might lose track of them. That was good advice for a beginning writer. And so to compound my writerly sins (and there are so many),

I collapsed timelines, combined characters, swapped names around (to disguise identity in some cases, sometimes just for sound). It worked. The alternative could have been a “truthful” day, recording every minute detail, from opening my eyelids, to brushing my teeth, to cleaning out earwax. Contemplating the sheer magnitude of what would surely be the most boring, longest, detail-burdened tome in history, helped me understand that one chooses details which will advance the story, just as one chooses metaphor to create images and themes and evoke feeling.

Once I attributed a comment to a crewmember, which had actually been made by a researcher who was on our sailboat only briefly, and was that one character too many for my story. When I sent the crew their dialogues — to make sure they felt what I had written was in keeping with their own perspective and voice — this fellow responded, “I forgot I said that.” The point being, of course, that he hadn’t.  But it was so clearly something he could have said. And it helped establish — my memory of — his character as ironically humorous — a way of creating a reality through art. One dictionary meaning of art is, after all, “[t]he ability to achieve things [truths?] by deceitful or cunning methods.”

Because of the subjectivity of memory, and the necessary artifice involved when translating amorphous thoughts into literal writing, I purposefully stated my intention of being an unreliable narrator by using the Liar’s Paradox for the first line of my book: “Everything I tell you is a lie.” Others have crafted this sort of thing far more subtly. Stephen Fry, in his novel Liar, has his readers wondering what to believe. Tim O’Brien, in the searing, memoir-like The Things They Carried, names himself in third person as a character in the story.  No one yelled at him on Oprah.

However, I’m not condoning what James Frey did, because he didn’t do it well.

If Frey had been half the writer he claimed, he could have prepared his audience to expect prevarication, and then they wouldn’t have felt cheated and turned on him. Heck, any half-decent mystery writer will give her audience enough information so that even the surprises feel reasonable and “true” within the story’s reality. Writing is all about audience expectation, about the writer’s intention, and about craft. Frey disappointed audience expectation. And that is a writerly sin.

Recently my book was reprinted by a press, in the United Kingdom, that had started a new category: “real-life adventure.” Horrors. They even changed a cover quote by a fellow author, inserting the word real. Clearly they intend to market my carefully crafted experimental nonfiction as “truth” in the traditional nonfiction sense, which was never my interest or claim. I can’t wait to see where this leads (she says hopefully). Oprah, are you listening?

Creative Nonfiction is most often defined by what it isn’t. It isn’t quite fiction, not quite nonfiction. What it is, is still in debate.

All writing draws from, and bends, experience in the service of story. From early collegiate readings of Kerrane and Yagoda’s Art of Fact, I came to the conclusion that beginning with the earliest pioneers in nonfiction, such as Boswell’s Life of Samuel Johnson, and Daniel Defoe’s The True and Genuine Account of the Life and Actions of the Late Jonathan Wild (a 1725 prototype for the “true crime” narrative) humans have maintained an interest in writing down “facts,” and have demonstrated an equally human instinct to play with those fact to tell a good story.

The Egyptian Pharaoh Ramses II evidently had it carved in stone that he had defeated the Hittites single handedly, after his troops deserted him, an impossible and unlikely feat, the archeologists assure us. It is an interesting interpretation of events. Ramses’ writings give us far more information on his inner visions and interpretation of his world than an objective recounting of facts might have done. Objectivity becomes suspect in any written record. From Margaret Mead to Hunter S. Thompson, the lens of the observer becomes as important as what is observed.

From Witi Ihaemara to Walt Whitman, Andrea Barrett to Loren Eiseley, Bharati Mukherjee to Barry Lopez, or Thoreau, Dillard, Carlos Williams, Paley, Hurston, Crane, Hulme, Woolf, Wharton, Carter, Tan, Kingsolver, McPhee, Wideman, Matthiessen, to Stephen J. Gould, Ursula LeGuin, Maya Angelou, or Toni Morrison — a huge diversity of writers from multiple genres struggle with the real in essay, poetry, and story. As fads in literature cycle, creative interpretations of fiction and nonfiction blend the exotic with the mundane. With every shift, as we become more introspective about what it is we do — and as this understanding impacts our work — writers are taking the form nearer to art and farther away from more rigid models promoted by those who insist on fact over point of view.

The antithesis of an absolute truth seems to be the intentional lie, but if we look for more subjectivity in truth, it becomes less obvious how that differs from the camouflage or perceived deception of an ingenious lie.  If Frey had created an unreliable narrator, for example, he might have counted on some audience expectation of subjectivity, which could have given more verity to his narrative voice, and seemed far less misleading in authorial intent.  Maybe next time. Certainly his audience will have some novel expectations now.

My own interest will always be in that foggy gray area, where language struggles with perceptions around what we call truth and lies. “Art is a lie that makes us realize the truth,” Picasso once said. Of course, he also said, “Artists copy. Great artists steal.” But that’s another story.


Also See:

• “A Ten Year Plan” written 5 years ago for a local paper (pdf, pg 5). The issues are coming back up (never went away).  A Ten Year Plan (p.5) from 2007 \”ViewPoint section

•  “Sunchasers,” in ISOTOPE: A Journal of Literary Nature & Science Writing, Utah State University

Inviting Pollution WithinNew Zealand Science Monthly

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