Thursday, March 8, 2012

The Lifespan of a Fact

There was a fascinating story on NPR this morning, about embellishing the truth in writing. Most of us here, in the writing and publishing blogsphere, write fiction, so truth is of little consequence, unless it comes to properly researching the correct airspeed velocity of an unladen swallow. But in non-fiction, narrative or otherwise, facts and truth, become a bit more paramount.

I'm sure you all remember James Frey, and his "memoir," A Million Little Pieces. If you don't, he's the author who was publicly called out on Oprah Winfrey's show, for falsifying many of the key details of his autobiography.

Anyway, this post isn't about all that. It's about the two gentlemen in the photo, and the new book that they're involved in. The Lifespan of a Fact is a new book getting talked about for defending an author's right to embellish facts, even in non-fiction. The two men in this photo are Jim Fingal (left), a fact-checker turned software engineer, and John D'Agata, who teaches nonfiction writing at the University of Iowa, and is the author of About a Mountain.

The Lifespan of a Fact focuses on an essay D'Agata wrote about a boy who committed suicide 16 years ago in Las Vegas, by jumping off the Stratosphere Tower. In the essay, D'Agata wrangles several dates, and twists the facts for dramatic effect, into an essay that while it may not shatter the truth, certainly bends it.

This new book contains the essay, and some correspondence between the two men, who had to work together for the essay to be published in The Believer, after it was rejected by Harpers. You can read the article at NPR, here, but the audio from the piece on Morning Edition will not be available until 9 AM.

What do you guys think? Have any of you ever written non-fiction? Even if you haven't, do you think a writer has the right to embellish certain things, for dramatic effect? What if, writing about your own past, you simply can't remember every detail?

41 comments:

Laura Pauling said...

I think it depends on the story subject matter. I'm definitely not against it as long as there is an author's note at the end. Movies do it all the time when it comes to biographical movies.

Miranda Hardy said...

A writer has every right to embellish. Of course, I put as much facts into my stories as possible. Sometimes, fact is better than fiction. Lol

Jamie Gibbs said...

African or European?

Academia is rife with truth bending; peopel twisting facts to suit their hypothesis. Ancient languages more so - a word can be translated in so many different ways that you can easily put your own spin on a particular passage to suit your own ends (not that I've ever done that ....)

Natalie Aguirre said...

I'm an attorney. I don't change facts to untruths. I think it's wrong. I do focus on the favorable ones and try to be a bit more dramatic now that I write fiction. I guess it depends on what the nonfiction is and if it's being used in fiction, then it could be okay.
But if it's straight nonfiction, like reporting a story, then no, the facts should be told accurately.

Alex J. Cavanaugh said...

I've never written non-fiction, but I know movies bend the truth for dramatic effect all the time.

Rusty Webb said...

I don't write non fiction, but when I write autobiographical items in blog posts I'll sometimes leave out certain facts if it muddles the point I'm trying to make... Or if I am trying to condense a 10 minute conversation with someone into a single line, I'll say they said something they never said, even if that's what they would have said if they didn't beat around the bush for 10 minutes.

However, I would hope that my posts are not taken as 100% gospel truth by folks.

Em-Musing said...

I think it's wrong, wrong, wrong to change facts. Just call the book what it is, 'a novel based on the truth'. Then I know I'm reading an author's spin. I don't like being duped into believing something only to find out later it's all bogus. It happens a lot when I get certain emails on politics or something. I'll check it out on FactCheck or Snopes and learn it's baloney. And I'm not sure if I can even trust those two fact checkers either. As far as Hollywood movies go...well, it's Hollywood.

maine character said...

I'm okay with it as long as it's to get across the story in a better way. Like if they play with the timeline to show the larger truth of a situation behind the facts of a particular story.

But if it's just laziness, or to put a political spin on something, or self-aggrandization, then no, it's not non-fiction but a fiction they want you to believe.

welcome to my world of poetry said...

As a poet my poems are written of my life's experiences so I write the truth, but I suppose writters who write novels and short stories have a different code of practice for writing.
This is a very interesting issue, and good to read.

Yvonne.

Summer Frey said...

I think some artistic embellishment and tweaking is fine, and most often needed. When I retell funny stories to friends, I usually add some humor or dramatic flair--because it makes a better story. And mostly-true or not-true-at-all, anything with pages and a spine is still a story.

Kristen Wixted said...

It's so funny you mention this today, because for the first time ever I have been writing memior-ish essays, thinking what will I do with them? Because to turn them into a book, I would have to bend some facts. To make it interesting. And I wasn't sure what the rules were, at all.
I will listen to/read this NPR story.
Thanks!

L.G.Smith said...

That's what is meant by the phrase "The truth inside the lie." If the bending of certain facts helps arrive at the moral or emotional truth, then it's up to the author's prerogative to do it, in my opinion.

Angela Brown said...

Purpose and perception. Those are the two things that seem to be at odds when it comes to the question of embellishing or not embellishing a fact.

Let me make up a tragic fact:
Jane Smith, age 55, died from blunt force trauma to the head experienced during a sexual assault on 3/4/2012. The suspect is still at large.

That's not sensationalized. Just the facts. But for dramatic effect, a non fiction writer making this an autobiographical telling of Jane Smith's last moment might add some of the emotion Jane may have experienced.

Now, if said author then tried to say that Jane was aged 40 (though the facts give a different age), found with drugs on her person, etc., you see, embellishing or changing the date, then who is the author writing about, because the moment they took an actual fact and so-called bent it, then it isn't a fact anymore. That's no better than taking two statistics and forming a correlation to make your opinion a fact and failing, miserably, to include all the different factors that should be considered.

As a reader, I expect non-fiction to be about facts, otherwise, make it fiction so I don't feel I'm being lied to.

Shain Brown said...

By the mere act of retelling a story isn't it your story?

Bryan Russell said...

I don't know... If they're open about it as a sort of interpretive account, that's one thing (e.g. the non-fiction novel). But if they're stating it as clear fact and then changing the clear facts... Not so sure about that. There's always going to be leeway in non-fiction about how things are interpreted, or with conflicting accounts and pieces of information, but changing concrete facts merely for dramatic purposes and then presenting it as fact rather than drama? Doesn't seem as kosher.

Makes me interested to read their book, though, I must admit. Curious to see where they think creative license ends (or starts, for that matter...).

Bish Denham said...

If one bends the facts then it's not non-fiction. It's something else like historical-fiction. Non-fiction does not have to be a boring list of facts. Truman Capote opened up the whole genre of true-crime stories with IN COLD BLOOD. I doubt, meticulous as he was, that he had to embellish or twist any of the facts.

I just finished reading EMPIRE OF THE SUMMER MOON which is about the rise and fall of the Comanche nation. The author didn't need to embellish facts to describe the horrors committed by both the whites and the Comanches.

My point is, good non-fiction writers will be able to set the mood through the choice of their words. Good non-fiction writers don't need to bend the facts for dramatic effect. If they do, they're either being lazy, or the story (the facts) aren't all that potent and/or worthy of being told.

Marsha Sigman said...

How many times have we retold stories and added a little embellishment to make it better? Or twisted it just a bit for effect? If we forget a detail don't we just automatically fill in another? I'm betting the majority of us have after a few beers at the last family reunion.

We are storytellers and it's in our nature. If we were reporters/journalists then that's a different beast entirely.

Tonja said...

If you are presenting your writing as non-fiction, it should be factual.

Angela Ackerman said...

Well, I think it depends if we're talking about non-fiction or creative non fiction. With the latter, certainly there is room for some embellishment or tweakage to make a story or event more compelling, but I think with non-fiction, there is an expectation on the reader's behalf that the content is true and factual to the author's best ability.

Angela Felsted said...

Along with what Angela says, I think it also has to do with what facts you are embellishing.

If you get the color of the living room couch wrong simply because you can't remember, that is a drastically different thing than saying someone shot you in the leg when in reality you tripped down the stairs.

Michael G-G said...

I'm a total embellisher. (Just ask my wife!) That's why they won't let me anywhere near "non-fiction."

I think there's a distinction between journalism and narrative non-fiction. If my newspaper starts making things up about a home invasion in my neighborhood, I am enraged. However, I can give the narrative nonfiction writer more leeway because, hey, who can remember word-for-word a conversation they had twenty five years ago?

If I remember the Frey incident, he fiddled with so many things that it really was more of a novel. (Which it actually was in the first place, except someone--agent or editor?--figured it was easier to sell a "memoir" rather than a debut novel by an unknown scribbler.)

Laurita said...

Embellishing does not necessarily mean untruth. Writers should be honest, but embellishing for dramatic effect makes the truth more interesting.

Wine and Words said...

Interesting questions. I wonder if non-fiction writing should come with the same disclaimer as film. "Based on" yadda yadda yadda. Facts alone are pretty boring. If you publish a timeline, chances are it won't get read. And if someone has an interesting story, but can't remember every little detail, does that mean the story shouldn't be written or should be written with gaps? I don't think so. That's just my opinion.

Heather said...

Amazing that you should mention that book! I just had a lecture about it on Tuesday o.o

Lenny Lee* said...

hi mr matthew! for me i dont think you should change up the facts but i think you could write them more different so theyre not boring. you gotta be pretty good with words to make a boring fact lots more interesting.
...hugs from lenny

Carolina Valdez Miller said...

Hm. I don't know.

There's "Based on a True Story" and "True story." I suppose there's really no such thing as TRUTH when people are involved though, as history/facts are often subject to interpretation. But knowingly bending dates and accepted 'truths" for dramatic effect (while also knowing the audience believes the "truths" to be just exactly that), seems rather like manipulation to me. We all want a good story, but let's be honest, a good story painted as nonfiction is all the better because we believe it to have actually happened as depicted. Otherwise, you'd just write a work of fiction and call it "based on a true story but tweaked for dramatic effect." Not nearly as impressive as "TRUE STORY YOU CAN'T MAKE THIS SHIT UP."

Really I'm just playing devil's advocate. I embellish my own stories all the time just to get a laugh out of people or an OHMYGODYOUDIDN'T.

Although, I usually add, "I'm just kidding, it wasn't that bad." Sometimes.

Amber said...

My next story is going to be my auto-biography. It'll be a tragedy to triumph kinda story, but I will be splurging the exact details. First off these events happened thirteen years ago...who can remember every detail from then? Second thing is the details I do remember- I don't exactly remember in any specific order. So the plot/ heart of the story will be fact, but yeah, I may create a teacher who didn't exist for some humor and I don't think there is anything wrong with that.

Who would read non-fiction if it was perfectly correct? It would be 15% interesting and the other 85% would be boring!! I say as long as the main focus of the story is true...the supporting details can be splurged for entertainment.

Christina Lee said...

GREAT question!

I write for a newspaper so that would be considered my only foray into non-fiction. I think you can embellish your emotional reaction surrounding the facts (isn't that where the "effect" comes from anyway--emotions) but not the facts themselves.

Andrew Leon said...

Not even history is just about the facts.
The truth is that facts are boring. They're a list of data to memorize. There's no story there.

Now, I'm not one for -changing- facts (like in the movie Gladiator, which I hate, because they made crap up that I can look up and see was wrong), but making "facts" larger than they were to be able to tell a story is essential to, well, story-telling.

Jessica Bell said...

This is the exact reason I stopped writing my memoir. I found myself embellishing things I simply couldn't remember properly. I'm sure every memoir writer does it at some point. For example, it's impossible to remember dialogue word for word from 20 years ago. And there is plenty of dialogue in the memoirs I've read. Sounds like these guys are doing a great thing. But I guess there is a line someone has to draw. Otherwise fiction and non-fiction will eventually become blurred!

David J. West said...

I have a non-fiction ghost writing project going right now (along with my own fiction) and it has come up that there are a few things that I have said-Thats OK for dramatic license-that's not OK for dramatic license.

It has ended up being a very "I'll know it when I see it kinda thing", the problem is where do you draw the line at emphasizing a certain point in a tale and delving into fiction. Some people like Frey probably don't have the moral compass to do the right thing.

Susan Flett Swiderski said...

If a piece of writing is being characterized as non-fiction, I think it should in fact, BE non-fiction, and not "enchanced" to make for a better story. ('Course, I'm also naive enough to believe the "news" should be factual reporting, and not slanted opinions.) Autobiographical stuff, in which the writer genuinely doesn't remember exactly how something went down, leaves some wiggle room for improv, though. But if the improv ends up stronger than the facts, the work crosses the bridge into the realm of fiction.

Marta Szemik said...

Luckily I write fiction so I embellish a lot. As far as non-fiction, that's hard to say. IMO, if you don't remember the true events too I think the author should specify so in the notes, footnotes or by other means.

Sarah said...

I've only written fiction--pure fantasy, no need for fact (except for accuracy in my research for plausibility purposes)--and scholarly articles or psychological evaluations. And for those, facts are important, and you get in big trouble if you fudge them. Nobody ever has a monopoly on objective truth--the best we can do is the closest approximation we can manage. I'm not saying it's ok to make shit up in nonfic, but that if we're really thinking about the nature of truth ... oh, wow. It's late. Suddenly I feel like I need a nap.

Joe Lunievicz said...

I'm with Jamie above - African or European swallow?

After reading all the discusion on this I'm left in a quandry myself. Memoir is non-fiction but remembered fact as opposed to a story in a newspaper which is perpective fact (ie: the facts through the authors and newspaper's lens). And then there's historical fiction which takes most of history and maneuvers it to fit made up characters to interact with what was a reality. I think as long as you let people know your bias (memoir, facts as I know it, embellished fact, etc as a way to reference your work then you're okay. It's when you do not do this - as Mr. Frey did not, that the posse goes out.

Great discussion.

Jemi Fraser said...

Very interesting. We all have our own versions of the truths of what we experience every day. Our truths are coloured by our backgrounds, our belief systems, our morality, our personalities...

But to knowingly bend the facts and call it nonfiction? Doesn't seem right to me. Which is why I'll probably stick to fiction :)

Shannon Lawrence said...

I know a local lady who writes what she calls creative memoir, which gives her the license to embellish parts of the work. The problem is, when writing a memoir, either personal or about someone else, certain information has to be filled in, embellished, etc., because, like you said, they can't remember everything. And if it's about someone else, well, there are a billion details you're not going to get by interviewing someone else. So you fill in the blanks to make it an interesting story. Otherwise it's dry and dull, so no one wants to read it.

I don't write memoir, but I can see why things have to be filled in. I think, though, that if you're going to exaggerate for dramatic effect only, you should be safe and call it "creative" somewhere in the tag.

Shannon at The Warrior Muse, co-host of the 2012 #atozchallenge! Twitter: @AprilA2Z

Michael Offutt, Tebow Cult Initiate said...

In non-fiction, I think it is a writer's duty to portray things as close as possible to how they really are. I'm tired of spin and tired of people lying. I want truth. If you can't give me truth then I don't want to listen to you.

Ted Cross said...

I think any biographical stories have to be taken as partly fiction, as few people have perfect recall. I know I couldn't write about myself and get every fact correct.

farawayeyes said...

Interesting debate. As usual I'm a day late...I took yesterday off to goof off,. Anyway...are we talking lying or embellishing? There is a difference.

Non-fiction. Changing facts, figures, outcomes, and omitting important information that would be lying. (check your kids history textbooks. Look especially for US wars, conflicts, aggressions etc.)

Now on my blog, if I told you I was 25 or even 30 I would be outright lying, but I always refer to myself as a 'dumb blond'. While I am blond (pretty much,) nobody really thinks I think, I'm a 'dumb' blond, do you? BUT it is funnier if I say it first (I know you all think it sometimes.) When I tell stories, especially my own, I am the queen of embellishment.

There is a time and a place where embellishing is funny and dresses up things, even in non-fiction. There NEVER is a place for outright lying.

Just my opinion.

DL Hammons said...

Non-fiction should never be knowingly embellished! That's a hard line in the sand for me.