Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Was That True?
The awkward and hilarious (awklarious?) comedian Mike Birbiglia, who has transformed his true stories about amazing (and dangerous) sleepwalking adventures into a successful off-Broadway hit, "Sleepwalk with Me," often tells this story:
"All the stories that I tell in my show are true. And a lot of times, people will come up to me after the show and they'll be like, 'Was that true?' and I'll be like, 'Yeah' and they'll say, 'Was it?' And I don't know how to respond to that. I guess I could say it louder, you know, like, 'YEEEAAAAHHH!' and they'd be like, 'It's probably true; he said it louder.'"
As a nonfiction writer and editor, I come up against this problematic issue of questionable "truth" nearly every day. "Truth" in its various philosophical forms is a common buzzword among all of the genres. But, only in nonfiction is truth, in its "factual" form, a make-or-break proposition. With public debacles like the one surrounding James Frey's "A Million Little Pieces," where fact is utilized almost as a weapon (perhaps rightly in some cases) to strike down the work outright, the stakes for truth in nonfiction can leave a writer in a state of nervous paralysis, where it's safe to avoid risk, imagination and experimentation; or alternately, the nonfiction writer, like Birbiglia, is forced into a position of defensiveness, mirroring the anger of the "mislead" public back to them in turn.
This conception of truth as merely factual is utterly restrictive, ignoring the swirling, random quirks of personality and memory, the felt experience of living as an imaginative human being. In a class presentation a few days ago, a perceptive student asked me if I've ever had to reject a piece because the narrative was so unbelievable, the narrator so unreliable, that I couldn't possibly pass it off as nonfiction. In my time as editor here, this has never been a major issue for me. Sure, there have been "unreliable" narrators and "unbelievable" stories, but I've always chalked this up to the belief that on some level, especially on the level of remembering, we are all unreliable in the stories we tell about ourselves--and boy, do we all have stories to tell. This is not to say that outright lies should be permitted; I think we can all agree that propping up your life experience to add drama or marketability--and this seems to have been Frey's most unforgivable "crime"--should be denounced. But, it's equally important to acknowledge a truth in memory and experience that exists not against "factual truth" but rather outside of it in a realm that is much more human...even if we have to yell a bit to have our side of the story heard.
P.S. Thank you to everyone who supported our 2009 Indiana Review Poetry Prize. We are busy reading away at all of your submissions, and we expect to be able to publicize the results by mid-June. Also, be on the lookout later today for our 2009 AWP Conference photos, posted to our Facebook page.