Vern's Verbal Vibe

Singer-songwriter/multi-instrumentalist and purveyor of folk 'n' roll: spirit-filled sad songs made better.

January 26, 2006

More on Fiction vs. Non-Fiction

After reading about Mr. Frey's tumultuous TV appearance today, I wish to reflect further on the subject of memoir. Though the truth is blurry and at times elusive, it’s never irrelevant. Bending the facts is a risky business.

As an example, my memoir is set in the context of a cross-Canada trip. I weave occasional anecdotes and flashbacks into the day-by-day travelogue. What if in fact I had taken no such journey, that I’d concocted my travels as a device through which to tell my tale? Describing such an account as non-fiction would in my view constitute an ethical breach, an unacceptable deviation from actual events.

So, how far can one stray from the truth? Let’s imagine that my stops in New Brunswick were Fredericton, Moncton, and Saint John. Suppose further that nothing of interest took place during my time in Fredericton. I slept in, did my laundry, ate dinner, and went to bed. Am I obliged to offer a blow-by-blow account of these events because they really happened? Absolutely not. Instead, I may skip this humdrum day when I sit down to write because as it went down, it’s not worth writing about. (Believe me, boring the reader is a worse sin than lying.)

But simply omitting the mundane is not my only option. I might spice up the thrill of washing my clothes by pasting in an incident that occurred weeks later. For instance, I could drop the drunken lout I met in North Bay into the laundromat in Fredericton, thus allowing the story, not chronology, to dictate the wino’s rightful place. However, if I were to invent the character as an excuse to liven up a nothing day, I’d be crossing the line into fiction—and doing so at my peril.

A memoir cannot achieve one-hundred-percent accuracy. Despite that, a good autobiography ought to be true in its substance, plausible in its shady, grey areas, and above all, worth reading. In any case, the uproar over James Frey’s work has given authors and readers alike food for thought. Is there a line between truth and fiction? Yes, there is—and Mr. Frey has perhaps been cavalier in toying with it—but it’s fuzzy and not the great chasm it appears to be. When a story beckons me to, I straddle that line with great care, balancing the needs of the narrative with its integrity as a work of non-fiction. I’m allowed some latitude in tweaking the facts, but it’s a rather short leash. My job is to convey the essential, substantive truth as I perceive it. When it comes to creative non-fiction, veracity may be a slippery beast, but it’s no mere plaything.


Blogger Ralph Smith said...

Congratulations on the new blog, sir. :)

For my part, I think I've finally mapped my way around the family versus science versus horrible secret versus whatever obstacle...meaning, I've placed a link to your blog here:


10:22 pm  
Blogger vern said...

Many thanks, good sir. Have done likewise after a series of brain cramps (i.e., I wasn't sure which of your blogs was the active one).

Am happy to report that it only took a few hours of tearing my hair out to acquire the basics. One day, I'll figure out how to post pictures, but for now, it's words, words, words, those confounded words!

7:33 pm  
Blogger Ralph Smith said...

Sorry about the 'blog shuffle', if that's responsible for any amount of cramping. After a necessary 'sorting' phase (which I won't try to explain), I retired the additonal blogs (now focused in the home page). And did grin.

Damnable words. Indeed. [snort] :D

9:39 pm  

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