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Robert's Rules of Writing #37: Skip the Truth

[Rule quoted from Robert's Rules of Writing: 101 Unconventional Lessons Every Writer Needs to Know by Robert Masello (Writer's Digest Books, 2005). See my original post for the rules of this discussion.]

When I started this commentary project, I didn't realize how relevant some of Masello's rules were going to be to current events.

With "Skip the Truth," Masello makes a point I've heard often before. Imaginative narrative is not the same as nonfiction. There are some writers who base their fiction on real events, and the inherent problem with doing so can be summed up by taking the converse of the maxim "Truth is stranger than fiction":

"Fiction must be more plausible than truth."

You can't defend a story's implausibilities by claiming that it really happened. That works for a news report, but not so much in fiction. Fiction must have a dramatic narrative, a flow, or a plot. It should not just be a series of incidents listed one after another but rather it should be a series of connected incidents, where the first one leads to the second, then to the third, etc. I think most people would tend to agree with that.

However, Masello also says something in the essay accompanying this rule that takes on an odd tone in light of recent events. To quote him directly:

"But if you're writing an imaginative work -- a novel, a story, a screenplay, even a memoir -- the most dangerous thing you can do is worry too much about a silly old thing like the truth." (italics mine)

I have a feeling that Masello might choose to reconsider that sentence in light of the controversy over the book A Million Little Pieces by James Frey. (Not to be confused with James N. Frey, the excellent novelist and writer of books on writing.) I haven't said much about the Frey controversy because it doesn't really affect me that directly. But since I have an opening, I might as well share my thoughts.

Memoir falls into a far different category from fiction. There is an implied contract between a writer and a reader as far as a memoir is concerned. The contract states that the writer is presenting the incidents of his or her life as true to the best of the writer's knowledge and recollection. It's one thing to remember an event differently from the way others around you recall it; it's another thing to lie.

I'm bothered by the idea of lying in a memoir for the same reason I'm bothered by people lying about history, or in news reports. As Robert A. Heinlein's character Lazarus Long once said, "What are the facts? Again and again and again - what are the facts? Shun wishful thinking, ignore divine revelation, forget what 'the stars foretell,' avoid opinion, care not what the neighbors think, never mind the unguessable 'verdict of history' - what are the facts, and to how many decimal places? You pilot always into an unknown future; facts are your only clue. Get the facts!"

If a writer claims something is true that he or she knows demonstrably to be false, that simply adds one more lie to the many lies that have been piled upon us throughout history. And lies can be dangerous, as recent battles with Holocaust deniers have come to show us. If a writer of a work of "nonfiction" is shown to be lying, it becomes a lot easier for us to become less trusting of the next writer who claims to be telling us the truth. And eventually we'd reach the point where once again our trust in people is reduced to that tiny circle of friends and family that we relied upon as children.

I know, I've strayed rather far from discussing Robert's Rules in this post...but in the end, it's all still about writing.

Comments

Fictional works about real people are a tricky case. The movie The Brothers Grimm strays so far from truth that no one could ever confuse them. But what about one like Amadeus, where it's close enough to the truth that some people mistake it for history? Or Richard III? Is the author misleading the audience? I don't think so, but it's a tough call.
Most people tend to accept those as dramatizations, meaning that we don't necessarily expect them to be completely accurate. But yeah, a movie or a play can become the common vision in our cultural history, even when the facts are off.

When someone presents a work as a memoir, however, I do believe they're setting up a different expectation, that what they describe is the truth, or as close to it as they can get.
It's an interesting rule. A book club I belong to just read I, Claudius. One of the members of the group found it very slow going because she wanted to know exactly how much was real and how much was fictional.

My favorite bit in the book was the conversation between Claudius, Livy, and Pollio on whether history should be written based solely on what happened or to expound on a theme.

"[T]here are two different ways of writing history: one is to persuade men to virtue and the other is to compel men to truth. The first is Livy's way and the other is yours: and perhaps they are not irreconcilable."
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