“Did that really happen?” It’s a question every memoirist and personal essayist faces. Ideally the writer will answer “Yes.” It gets awkward when you have to say, “Yes, but…”
In the October 2005 debut episode of his influential TV show, Stephen Colbert gave the world the word truthiness. He said truthiness is when you’re talking about something that seems like the truth that you want to be the truth. That sounds a lot like the way memory works. I know a little bit about that as a journalist, piecing together different participants’ own truthiness of an event in an attempt to find the real truth.
I am now in my third year of learning to put the “I” on the page after years as a fact-obsessed journalist. I have learned a lot and am still learning, but my touchstone philosophy on writing about my life comes from Tobias Wolff’s author’s note from This Boy’s Life: A Memoir:
I have been corrected on some points, mostly of chronology. Also my mother thinks that a dog I describe as ugly was actually quite handsome. I’ve allowed some of these points to stand, because this is a book of memory, and memory has its own story to tell. But I have done my best to make it tell a truthful story.
In that short snippet, Wolff touches on two challenges for the memoirist–time and character. I’ll examine those challenges below.
1. TIME COMPRESSION
Most of us would view Henry David Thoreau’s Walden as a work of influential and lasting creative nonfiction. It is a diary of sorts of a year spent connecting with nature, except that Thoreau actually lived at the lake for two years. He compressed time for the purpose of story. Jump ahead a century, and we find Edward Abbey doing the same thing in Desert Solitaire, compressing two summers spent in Arches National Park into one.
A few months before beginning my MFA program in the summer of 2011, I took a class at The Writer’s Center on memoir and personal essay. I wrote two short essays in that class, both of which have since been published. When I look back at them now, I would say there is an element of truthiness about them. Both relate incidents I remember to be true, but both combine disparate memories into one scene. It increased the drama in each publication. But now I have to say “Yes, but…” if asked if they’re true.
I’ve had two more personal essays published that I’ve written in my MFA program. I did not compress time–and thus did not combine one memory with another–in either essay. I’m finding that as I learn more about creative nonfiction under formal study, I fall more on the side of not compressing scenes. The challenge for me as a writer, then, is to find a way to select details to make the actual scene sufficiently dramatic.
In Travels with Charley, John Steinbeck allows us to join him and his French poodle on a cross-country drive. I read it for craft in my first MFA semester, as my memoir-in-progress also is a cross-country road trip. But I’ve since learned that journalist Bill Steigerwald has determined that much of Steinbeck’s story was pure fiction. Steinbeck spent most of the trip with his wife in fine hotels, not sleeping under the stars next to his truck camper he named Rocinante. And many of the people he had extended conversations with didn’t exist.
I am being hyper-focused on accuracy with my road-trip memoir. Everyone depicted in it is real, and I met them at the time the book says, in the order it says. Steigerwald has concluded that Steinbeck didn’t take notes on his trip. I did, in the form of hours and hours of recordings I kept in a audio diary; hundreds of photos; and dozens of hours of video footage. But that leads to another interesting question regarding scene, namely…
3. REMEMBERED DIALOGUE
In the craft book You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction–from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between by creative nonfiction guru Lee Gutkind, he writes that “[t]he use of quotation marks traditionally signifies authenticity.” Yet most of us don’t “carry around a tape recorder or video camera to record every memorable conversation in his life.” I’m here to say that even when you do carry both of those things, you can’t capture everything. Some of the most amazing conversations I had on that 2010 cross-country trip were spontaneous encounters with strangers–the kind so vividly portrayed by Steinbeck, albeit mine were real–or discussions with the artists I was interviewing after I turned the camera off.
So how do I portray dialogue I can’t be sure of precisely? As a journalist you summarize. I did that with my essay “September 12th,” a lengthy recollection over a two-day period that contains so few instances of quotation marks that their very presence alerts the reader to the importance of the words. But I’m finding that so much of my book is dialogue-driven, by dialogue I actually did record, that it is jarring if the only quotation marks that I use are in instances where I have the speaker recorded. “I like using quotation marks in recreated dialogue,” Gutkind writes. “Since my readers know it is recreated, it’s clear I am not trying to bamboozle them–and I think quotes make text read more smoothly.” So I’m okay with my use of quotation marks on the opening page of my memoir-in-progress, a conversation with a homeless man in a small town in Massachusetts. But what if I want to take liberties with the quotes of the artist I interviewed shortly after that?
4. POLISHING DIALOGUE
It is a long-standing convention in journalism that you quote a person exactly as they spoke, complete with incomplete sentences, incorrect word choices, and rambling asides. Sometimes you extract a portion of the quote and summarize the rest if clarity is needed, but you don’t put words in their mouth. What I found as a reporter, however, is that sometimes a source would have preferred that you clean up their prose a bit. We don’t speak as eloquently or concisely as we would like.
Much of the dialogue in my travel book from artist interviews is done in summary. But for awhile there, when I would include quotes, they were unaltered. My MFA advisors would trip over the dialogue at times, sometimes even saying it didn’t read like dialogue. I now have, at times, done a bit of clean-up to the interview subjects’ words in a way I think they would appreciate. I am careful to not alter meaning and to keep true to their particular voice. I have also here exercised a bit more flexibility with chronology, i.e., moving elements of the interview around. A good Sunday feature article never progresses in the exact order of the interview, so when I have found it necessary, I have reordered the conversation. This is a chronology twist I am okay with given its long standing in journalism. This leads me to my final point.
The journalist who exposed Steinbeck wrote that he would have felt better had Steinbeck been more up front about the fact that the book was part fiction. And in fact the publisher, after this has come to light, now includes this in the preface: “It should be kept in mind, when reading this travelogue, that Steinbeck took liberties with the facts, inventing freely when it served his purposes, using everything in the arsenal of the novelist to make this book a readable, vivid narrative.”
Steinbeck’s opening author’s note is a fantastic read, but it doesn’t tell me what choices he made as a writer. Wolff’s opening, paraphrased above, doesn’t go into detail but gives me an essence of his intentions. I don’t know to what extent I will go into detail in an author’s note on my choices. It may not be to the level of detail above, or it may be more. But when I read a nonfiction book, I am in essence entering into a contract with that author, forming a trust relationship. So I will present in that author’s note whatever is necessary to win that reader’s trust.
What are your expectations when reading a work of creative nonfiction? To what extent are you willing to accept an author’s truthiness in pursuit of a great read? And what choices do you make as a writer?