My favorite thing to see at the beginning of a movie when I was a kid was the phrase “Based on a True Story”; somehow, those 5 words got me invested immediately. My favorite section of Reader’s Digest, which was always on the back of the toilet in my house, was “Drama in Real Life.” I just adored stories about people’s actual experiences.
This fascination in “true stories” is part of why I write creative nonfiction now – I find actual life infinitely more fascinating to write about than anything I could make up in my own mind.
So when I hear that someone has purported a story to be “true” but has actually fictionalized part of the narrative – as has recently come to light with Truman Capote’s masterpiece In Cold Blood – I tune in and read the background. I did it when James Frey’s nonsense happened, and I take a look when someone, again, criticizes David Sedaris. I feel a sense of responsibility to my craft, so I get informed.
Yet, I’m also so very weary of this conversation. We have it all the time – at every major writer’s conference, on blogs, in newspaper articles. Somehow, we seem unable to lay this conversation down, and maybe that’s a good thing. I’m just tired of it because I know where I stand.
For me, creative nonfiction is based in fact, plain and simple. I don’t make up things. I don’t collapse time intentionally, and I don’t add or take away characters for the purpose of serving my narrative.
That said, there is nothing plain and simple about writing creative nonfiction. I don’t make things up, no, but I do rely on my memory and my perspective on a situation to tell my narrative of events – this necessarily means I don’t notice some things, that I may misremember, that I leave people out because they were simply not part of the story as I saw it.
Every piece of writing requires that choices be made – what to leave out, what to include, what order to tell things, what dialogue will be approximated. To pretend otherwise does a disservice both to the art and to the artist.
But that does not mean that creative nonfiction writers get to invent things or leave out details purposefully, as Capote seems to have done when he ellided the 5-day wait between the KBI’s tip and their investigation of the actual murderers. When we read that something is nonfiction, we expect that the facts – as it is possible for one person to know them – are accurate.
Still, we must know that no one knows everything, and no one can tell the WHOLE story for even the one minute in one room. Things will always be ignored or excluded. That’s just how the human brain works.
So, am I disappointed in Capote? Yes, a little. As skilled as he is as a writer, I am confident that he could have used all the facts and still spun a powerful tale. But will I dismiss In Cold Blood from the rank of masterpiece because he left out some things? Absolutely not. The truth of that book is far more complex than that.
Just as the truth of what is true in a book is so infinitely complicated . . . and why we will continue – wearying as it is – to have this conversation about creative nonfiction over and over again. I’ll just have to bear up.
What about you? What do you expect when you read a “true story?”