Truth or Lie? (Or: A Writer’s Privilege)

Every once in a while, I will hit “publish” on a blog post, and immediately ask myself whether I was actually telling the truth.

It’s not that I’m that forgetful. It’s not that I can’t be bothered to recollect all the minute details. And it’s not even that I want to hide anything from you.

It’s just that the truth doesn’t always make the best story, plain and simple.

For instance, when I told you how during my expat exploits in Johannesburg I kept hoping a traffic cop would arrest me so that I could blog about being in a South African jail, I totally lied. I was terrified every time one of those cops pulled me over and stepped to my window. Every. Single. Time. And, trust me, there were many. Had a cop ever actually arrested me and put me in jail, I would have been a blubbering mess, frantically calling my husband to somehow get me out, whatever the bribe, I’m quite sure of it. Even though I told all my readers not to pay any bribes.

I was prompted to reflect on this “truth or lie” phenomenon after reading a post by one of my favorite fellow bloggers, the Unbrave Girl, about being honest on the internet. Her take on it was that she wasn’t lying, strictly speaking, but just “cropping out the shit.”

And it’s true. We all crop out the shit. You do it too, admit it. How much video footage do I have of four smiling and cute kids? Tons and tons. And how much video footage do I have of tantrum-throwing kids? None whatsoever. Even though, trust me, the actual real-time distribution of footage was much the opposite.

Especially we writers do that cropping thing. You can so alter a story by focusing on one thing and not another. That’s the whole art of it. I will rant and rave while I’m standing in line at the post office, but when I write my cute little expat story about it, it will all come across as quaint and funny and I will come across so above it all, which is a total lie.

I am SO not above it all.

I recently read a column in the NY Times by a writer who argued that you pretty much will never know what actually happened once you start writing about it, because in the end your writing will become more real to you than what actually happened. Or something to that effect. It was actually very confusing and I’m not sure I understood it all, but the essence of it was that we writers can tell a story any way we like and thereby make it true for the rest of the world, including ourselves.

That is exactly the problem. It’s not that you’re altering a few facts to make your story more compelling, it’s that you start believing your alternate story almost immediately after you’ve written it, and just a few months later you can’t be absolutely sure whether it happened this or that way. Simply by the act of writing about your past, you’ve already altered it.

It’s kind of like those experiments they do in physics with electrons (forgive me, I was a physics major in high school). They shoot them at a screen with two slits in it, and the electrons make patterns on another screen behind, and from this pattern you can see exactly which slit a particular electron went through. However – and this is where it boggles the mind, and also the reason I did not continue with a physics career – it is only through the act of measuring the electrons that you’ve made them “commit” to a particular slit. Without measuring them, apparently, each one of them could have gone through either slit and could really be floating around anywhere; in fact – more mind boggling still – it could be in two different places at the very same time. And yet, once it hits that back screen, you know where it was all along. It is as if by recording it you have altered the past. So it is with your own past. Already by remembering it you’ve shaped it into a particular narrative, and when you write it down, that story becomes your past.

Despite all of this, I’ve tried very hard to write my Kilimanjaro book – as of now scheduled for a March 2014 release – true to the facts. Writing them into my notebook almost every night, huddled in my sleeping bag by the light of a miner’s lamp strapped to my head did help. Most of the rest is based on my memory. Helped by some of my fellow climbers and their notes. And, for once, I didn’t crop out the shit. Quite literally, as you will see. Stay tuned!

3 comments

  1. Oh, very true. The same with what you see on the news on TV. What are they leaving out? How are they angling the camera? What is the truth, really? Isn’t there a story about an elephant and a bunch of blind people who touch and describe the animal standing at different parts of its anatomy and each has a different “truth” about what an elephant is.

    I’m in deep trouble with my past because, as you may know, I’ve written a number of Harlequin romances, and they are FICTION. But… I’ve used some of my experiences and corrupted them to fit my character and the stories, which is entirely ethical because the story is fiction and you can play God with it. Only now sometimes I can’t remember a particular true incident correctly because I’ve messed with it in my fiction. Sigh!

    PS: My African jail story is posted 😉

    • I can only imagine that! Haven’t written any fiction yet myself, but as they say, the best stories are those that draw on your own life experiences. So I imagine many writers have this fact/fiction dilemma.

      I saw your jail story and loved it, though you were so cruel to leave us hanging midway. Can’t wait for the second part to find out how you got out again!

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