On Telling the Truth, Sort Of

Yesterday my daughter, Charlotte, was talking to me about churches. She’s away at college, and beneath our conversation I was pray-hoping her speculations might indicate she was thinking about attending church there one of these days.

“I hate churches where the preacher tells those fakey stories,” she told me. “You know, the kind that starts out, ‘A woman once said to her husband…’ or something like that. I mean, it’s obviously made up and just wrecks his credibility.”

Our conversation went on—to the endless sermons of the church we’d attended in her youth and her preference for the brief, strictly Bible-passage-focused homilies of Catholic masses she’d gone to with her grandparents—and then moved on to other subjects, but I’ve kept thinking about this business of the fakey stories preachers tell.

They arise, I’m guessing, from a problem nonfiction writers often confront. I mean, I told Charlotte, it’s not like the guy can actually tell a true story from his own life in church, especially one about something sensitive, like meanness or covetousness or lust—a story, that is, about something truly relevant to the people he’s addressing—with his wife and kids sitting right there among his listeners. If he wants to tell a story from real life—which he likely does, since that’s the best way to interest an audience—he must take pains to remove its realness.

Whenever I go to writers conferences, there are nonfiction workshops dealing with precisely this problem, because publishing a story from one’s actual experience is likely to upset the people involved. (More important, at least from your publisher’s perspective, is that upsetting the people involved can get you, your editor, and your publisher sued. Most publishers have lawyers on staff to prevent such eventualities. That’s how problematic telling true stories can be.)

At the conferences, writers are advised to do everything from changing the names of the people involved in a story to getting permission first to waiting to tell a story until all the people in it are dead. In my experience, the permission solution is best…unless, of course, you have a story you really want to tell and you’re certain someone involved will never grant you permission to tell it. Like when it’s about your kids, who must be legally fair game, since I’ve never had a publisher demand I get their permission for any of my daughters’ many appearances in my writing.

Which is good, as getting permission from them would have been impossible. What kid is going to want you writing about her spate of evil tantrums at age eight? Or your terrors as a parent when she started developing pubic hair?

When my other daughter, Lulu, at age six or so, figured out what I was up to when I sat at the computer, she flat out refused to be written about.

That stymied me a bit. With only one daughter’s foibles and my own to plumb, what could I write about?

“You’re the daughter of a writer,” I finally told Lulu. “It could be worse. You could be the daughter of a preacher and never allowed to do anything wrong. Or the daughter of a soldier and always worried about my being killed. There are worse things than being in the public eye.”

But I’ve trodden carefully since then. I opted not to write about Lulu’s potty training trials when the idea bounced through my consciousness the other day. And I have decided to put the sketchier of my daughters’ college experiences (that I know about) on literary hold until after they graduate. When I just can’t resist, I make up fakey stories that probably damage my credibility. But, oh well.

17 Replies to “On Telling the Truth, Sort Of”

  1. I think this idea gets too much emphasis sometimes. Or maybe it’s just me, spending too much time thinking about it. The obession of the truth is an illusion- even the most honesty recorded realities get a little twisted by what we choose to leave out and the story angles we apply to them. We we write we make moments beautiful in a way that feels more true than reality itself may have. And I think that’s just fine.

    1. I agree that even the most honestly recorded realities get twisted by what writers leave out and how they decide to arrange them on the page. That’s why my burgeoning subgenre of nonfiction is commonly referred to as creative nonfiction, as I’m always telling my students. I’m leery of beautifying truth, though. Or, in any case, of generalizing or sanitizing it into something safe for all audiences, which is to say interesting and convincing to none. That’s most often where the fakey feel of the sermon stories that my daughter objects to comes from, I think.

      1. I agree, Patty. I think the most beautiful accounts showcase true emotions (and facts, as believed to be.)

  2. Patti—This issued has been constant in my creative nonfiction writing life. And you’re so right!! Every writing conference treats this question and packs out the room with people looking for a way through the truth/fiction thicket—and others, lots of others, who care little about the line between the two, arguing that “emotional truth” is much more significant than mere fact. While I try to discern the best way through this issue one book at a time, I find this issue fascinating on another level: how we respond to our obligation to the “truth” is a kind of epistemology test revealing our deepest assumptions about reality, the know-ability of truth, the presence or absence of God, etc. Thanks for bringing this issue to the fore–and,making it fun!

    1. I love this metaphor of a truth/fiction thicket nonfiction writers must negotiate their way through. (Puts me in the mind of an essay I love by Brenda Miller, “Growing Up Game,” about eating wild meat–most recently republished in the anthology In Short, if anyone’s interested.) And I think you’re right that our writerly decisions about what constitutes truth invariably reflect our views about Truth, whether we like it or not. I find it so fascinating (and, often, frustrating) that God–being invisible, inaudible, intangible–does not make himself real to us via the trappings of what normally constitutes reality for us. And yet we use, have to use–just as the biblical writers did–those trappings of reality to recreate him for ourselves and others effectively.

  3. Patti –

    I’m in the middle of writing a memoir and am dealing with all you spoke about. Thank you for this very timely post.

  4. I find this subject fascinating. Sunday I spent time with a Christian friend that made a commitment to only read that which is true for the rest of the year. She feels she was addicted to fiction. Then she hurt her ankle and had to do a lot of resting. Which put her into the word in a deeper way than before.

    I can’t say her commitment was wrong . . . for her. But I hope she doesn’t feel the need to continue past the end of the year.

    I feel a mission to tell the story of Story. Story is powerful. And reading the wrong things can be harmful.

    But I did tell her that studies have shown that children who read fiction are more well balanced in living in the real world and then I mentioned the parables that Jesus told.

    1. Hi Sharon,

      Nothing whatsoever against fiction. I love it. (Just wish I could write it better.) And some of my favorite truthwriters write fiction.


  5. I know what you mean. There’s a story I have always wanted to tell, but it would embarrass my son. No can do. Fortunately, there are plenty of other stories…

  6. Since patterns and commonality are frequent in our society, I mostly compile characters out of a few people I know, and/or have observed, to build the stories I use in my creative non-fiction books. This way I can show the reader examples of my exposition without hurting the people who spurred the idea in the first place.

    Good article, Patti. Thanks for sharing.

    P.S. Your daughter sounds like one sharp cookie. 🙂

    1. Yes, Lulu’s smart. Actually, both daughters are. Lulu’s at Harvard; Charlotte’s at MIT. They’re probably my most demanding readers.

  7. It’s fun to see the non-fiction perspective, Patti—thanks for sharing! As a fiction writer, it’s usually a real life incident that triggers a story idea, though by the time I’m through even sometimes I can’t recognize it, and though I never start out to write a real-life lesson, I always seem to end up with something resembling one. It’s hard to separate the two, and I think that’s what makes people connect to good stories.

  8. When I wrote my family humor column decades ago, my older son (12 at the time) said if I wrote about him, he’d sue me. I took another route – I’d just say ‘my son’ instead of using his name, and told him that readers who knew us couldn’t be sure which son I was writing about! But yes, being sensitive to others when you write nonfiction (about them) is essential, and I confess I did tread on some toes, albeit unknowingly. That’s one reason I get a kick from writing fiction – I can always say “oh no, that’s not you in the story – this is fiction!”

    1. Even fiction writers can be, and have been, sued for characters too closely resembling real life sources on whom they are based. That isn’t really a concern of mine, as a writer of nonfiction, nor was it my message in this post. Just thought I’d clarify for those out there who might think calling it fiction actually does fix the problem. It doesn’t, from what I understand.

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