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.