Friday, July 02, 2010

The Truth?

“This story is true. If things didn’t quite happen the way I describe them, they should have.”

I’ve been reading an issue of Writer’s Digest which is devoted to writing memoir and over and over I am reading people trying to discern the difference between fiction and memoir. Many maintain that there is no place in memoir for anything but fact.

It has made me consider once again just how true is true.

I have a friend who worked in Germany for years teaching at American schools for the children of the military. When she came home on vacations, we were regaled with stories about her life overseas. The first story was how she had a run-in with a parent and how she successfully had changed their viewpoint and won them over. The next story was about how she had a run-in with her principal and how she had made him realize that he had been a fool. Then came another with her conquering problems in her classroom. Finally came a story dealing with her problems with a neighbor who she finally bested.

It didn’t take a rocket scientist to realize that my friend sees herself as a mighty David versus constant Goliaths.

From that experience I began to develop the idea I call “mythifizing” which I maintain all of us do to some extent or another. We all have an image of ourselves that appears in the stories we tell if our listeners pay attention. We become the archetypal heroes of our own daily dramas. [Charles Dickens begins David Copperfield with the thought, “Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show.”]

How does this need to mythifize influence our concept of “truth”? In Maus, a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman which I teach, Vladek’s son Artie begins to question his father’s veracity. In every story about the Holocaust that Vladek says he lived, he is a Polish Odysseus, surviving incredible trials by his cunning and resourcefulness. His stories might be totally true, but how do we know? Artie realizes that if only had his mother’s diaries from the same years, he might see what the real truth was. Or would he?

A common writer’s device from the Victorian Period was to claim that the story was true. [How many books and movies can you think of which start with “based on a true story”?] Most often the Victorian works were fiction disguised as truth, but the Victorians still loved imagining that they were real. We seem to do the same. As one writer in the Writer’s Digest points out, Oprah touted the work of James Frey until it was made public that some of the things in his book were fabrications or distortions. Then he was villified for being dishonest. Did his book suddenly become poor writing because it wasn’t “true”?

I no longer worry about whether a story someone tells is true or just one from their imagination. I just want a good story. After all, it’s their myth. If I want facts, I’ll just stick to the newspaper. Oh, wait… never mind.

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