I have been thinking lately about the concept of story truth—the truth Tim O’Brien talks about in The Things They Carried. Is truth the same as reality? Does something have to have really happened to be essentially true? Memories may be flexible; they change over time, or else they impact differently on different participants. When I write a childhood memory, I’m writing from a place of feeling, of emotion, of sensibility. My recollections are, invariably, colored by those sensitivities. As such, they may not be entirely and accurately “true.” For example, the incident being described might not have happened at dusk but in mid-afternoon. The participants may have included my sisters and not my friends, or my friends and not my sisters. I may not have been eight but ten. Do the details matter?
The current political debacle that is the 2016 Presidential race is replete with outright lies. What does this have to do with “story truth”? I despair that voting citizens buy into narratives without caring about their accuracy. When I write a memory piece, I’m not seeking to change anyone’s point of view. I’m attempting only to express a moment in time that is intrinsically real and true. I fear that this is not the case with our candidates. Politicians have a way of distorting truth to appeal to an emotional core in order to sway votes. The fact that such distortions have been successful is a worrisome thing for a democracy. Words matter. Truth matters.
I continue to write my stories. I continue to share them as well. Yet, I am increasingly worried that by doing so, by knowingly coloring “facts” to achieve a desired effect, I am contributing to a culture of acceptable lies. Is a kernel of truth enough to justify embellishment? It’s not likely that Politifact will check out my writing (!) but if they did, I’m thinking they’d classify my work as “True” or “Mostly true.” That’s certainly not so for at least one of the candidates who is mostly “Pants on Fire.”
So, I guess I’ve come to a conclusion about my own quandary. It’s okay to change details for effect (so long as I’m not publishing a memoir), but it’s not okay to write a work of fiction and pass it off as true. James Frey’s A Million Little Pieces taught us that. Too bad the candidates can’t learn that lesson, and too bad we citizens are, for the most part, too lazy to check things out for ourselves.