All Truth Is Fiction, and All Fiction is Truth

Over the past couple of years, a number of scandals involving fake memoirs have rocked the literary world. The latest broke right after Christmas 2008. This time the topic was a love story with its roots set at the fence of a Nazi concentration camp during World War II. The author was Herman Rosenblat, a bona fide survivor of Schlieben, according to a report in Salon.

These controversies raise a flurry of questions, including many about where memoir writers should draw the line between creative license to convey the essence or personal truth of their memories. They call into question the very nature of memory itself.

With these questions in mind, my mind went on full alert when I belatedly thumbed through the October 2008 issue of Writer's Digest and found Jordan Rosenfeld's interview with Isabel Allende, "A Woman of Letters." One question and answer read:
"You've said that in writing memoirs, you work with the truth and then end up lying. Can you explain what you mean?

"A memoir is my version of events. My perspective. I choose what to tell and what to omit. I choose the adjectives to describe a situation, and in that sense, I'm creating a form of fiction. I realized this when I showed the manuscript to the people in my life before it was published. Everyone had a different version of the stories because their feelings were different. If you and I witness the same accident in the street you'll tell it one way, I'll tell it in another and maybe one of us won't remember it in a week.

"There's basically an element of fiction in everything you remember. Imagination and memory are almost the same brain processes. When I write fiction, I know that I'm using a bunch of lies that I've made up to create some form of truth. When I write a memoir, I'm using true elements to create something that will always be somehow fictionalized."
Perhaps the difference between what Allende is talking about and the incidents that have rocked the memoir world of late is a matter of both degree and intent to deceive. James Frye admitted he embellished the truth to add spice to the story. He was purposeful and deliberate about it. Herman Rosenblat admitted that he told his story to "bring happiness to people," and that there was nothing true about it at all. In each of the scandals, the authors admitted awareness of distortions and intentional deceit.

It's one thing to agree with Allende that all memory is somewhat fictional, and that my memory of a room being painted rosy pink is just as valid as my sister's memory of the same room being yellow. It would be quite another thing to say that I rode the super killer coaster at Cedar Point when all I really did was hold the cameras while others did the riding, but the latter doesn't make a compelling story, and who will know the difference if I pass the purposely embellished version off as real and true? I'll stick with my rosy room, but I won't claim to ride the vomit comet unless I can rely on first hand experience to describe the resulting ... never mind. You get the idea.

I will continue to develop my descriptive skills so I can give the most poignant picture possible of sincerely held memories. I’ll stick as close to the truth of my perceptions as I can, but a little creative license is okay in the sense of describing things as I think they must have been. And as a reader, I'll keep in mind that all truth is fiction and all fiction is truth so I can read with compassion and generosity, listening for the inner Truth with less concern about the literal.

Write now: grab pen and paper do some Writing Practice about your personal Truth boundaries and your feelings about deception as practiced by other writers.


Pat's Place said...

I wrote a story on my blog about my boys growing up and soon afterwards both boys involved in the incident called and said, "Mom, that is NOT the way it happened." But both boys had different versions of the same incident. My husband was of no help at all because he said he only vaguely remembered the incident. So, you see, we all had a different version of the same incident that happened when my middle-aged children were really children. Sigh! Where does the truth lie??

Ritergal said...

Pat, this is so typical. Maybe that's why it's so helpful to write our stories, because even if we were in the same room at the same time when something happened, we were "watching different channels."

The Truth? Aside from the obvious, like the dog ate the cat and you have it on video, what really is the truth? The eternal question of philosophers and memoirists!