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The Art of Lying—Or Risking the Wrath of Oprah
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The Art of Lying—Or Risking the Wrath of Oprah

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 and Norman Mailer. Many nonfiction purists seem to think [End Page 147] 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...