About a month ago, sitting in on a writers group, I set some kind of world’s record for making a woman hate me. It was all because of something Orson Welles said in a movie called F for Fake.
Me in a writers group—bad idea, of course. I’m pretty much irrepressible when it comes to offering advice, when of course what most writers really want is praise. I know this because that’s what I want. Would you like to help keep me at work on that novel of mine? Picture yourself on a steam locomotive, shoveling coal into the firebox. It’s hard, sweaty work, endless, tedious days. My novel and I are the train. Your praise is the coal. Keep shoveling!
The woman had visited a temple in Tibet and come back to write a short story about it—more like a sketch, actually. She placed herself in the plaza outside the temple, watching the tourists and the pilgrims, saying something to the effect that it was hard to know what each was searching for. She described some colorful locals. Then she got back on the bus—or merely wandered off, I can’t remember—saying in so many words that she didn’t know what she was looking for, either.
She finished reading and looked up. Any comments? Well, I had one. I said that I thought she had—perhaps—short-changed herself by not shaping the story to include some revelatory moment. After all, this is a colorful, far-away place into which a thoughtful person has ventured for the first time. It must have made a dent in her, no? Don’t we need to see the experience change her character, or reveal something new to her? Something that will make reading the story an experience, too?
“But this is how it happened,” she said. “I mean, when I was I there I really didn’t arrive at any great conclusion or anything.” And I said, “Then make one up.” And she said, “But then it wouldn’t be factual.” And I said, “Who said it has to be factual? It just has to be true.”
She said nothing, so I dug a deeper hole for myself. “If your goal as a storyteller is to get under the reader’s skin, then the facts don’t matter; the truth matters.”
Whereupon her eyes flashed at me. “Fine,” she said. “Let’s hear your story.” We took a break. She returned to say that something had come up and she had to leave. Everybody got a warm good-bye, except for the rotten son of a bitch who didn’t like her story—him and his smart-ass advice.
I dunno. I’m not famous for my tact so perhaps I could have been more adroit. But the smart-ass advice is sound. I have to tell my beginner writers this all the time: It’s fiction, not history. You may use the facts of your life as a starting point for your story, but once it’s a story, you’re no longer bound by what happened—or, I should say, by what you remember as having happened. It’s fiction.
There’s a broader fallacy one can fall prey to—that even memoirs or histories are, in fact, fully factual. They are not. They are filtered through the brains of writers who pick and choose and interpret and express with varying skills and intents. If it were not so, we would need only one good history of the Civil War or one good biography of Ulysses S. Grant. And we could read someone’s autobiography and trust every word.
Joseph Mitchell, who for decades wrote brilliantly for the New Yorker—mostly sketches and profiles filled with color and telling detail—said in an interview: “You can pile up facts, but it won’t be true. Inside a fact is another fact, and inside that is another fact. You’ve got to get the true facts.”
I think that even in a work of fiction, where the “facts” don’t have to be real facts at all, they still have to be what Mitchell calls the true facts.
But I wasn’t really thinking of Mitchell at that writers group. I was thinking of something Orson Welles said in his last movie—should it really be called a documentary?—F for Fake. Welles would probably have laughed aloud if you’d asked him a question about the “facts.” Here’s what he said:
“What we professional liars hope to serve is truth. I’m afraid the pompous word for that is art. Picasso himself said it. Art, he said, is a lie—a lie that makes us realize the truth.”
Remind me to tell you more sometime about F for Fake.