I have been skimming the surface of what it means to devote one’s life to writing — especially memoir — and find that it is easy to dive into a thicket of truth, fiction, and everything in between.
Because I used the word “thicket” I am reminded of the tar baby but have the vague recollection that the tar baby is not an appropriate metaphor and that Uncle Remus is super racist. I haven’t read the books since childhood (I also had an Uncle Remus board game, as I recall) and can’t really comment. Nevertheless, I feel like a child made of tar. I grab for the branch of truth but little bits of me gloop off and land on fiction and pretty soon the thing that I am writing seems more true than whatever was objective fact because I have literally shed my body on this tree of fictiony-non-fiction and created not just a run-on sentence but a new truth. This truth seems “better” and “improved” by the fictional elements only because it is new. Let it sit for awhile — I usually find that whatever was closest to objective truth is actually much more interesting, if for no other reason than that it has the sheen of fact.
I am writing this because, of course, This American Life has had to broadcast an entire hour of retraction over their episode “Mr. Daisy and the Apple Factory”. Mike Daisy fabricated a tale to make a point but labeled it incorrectly as non-fiction (or, in his mental gymnastical terms “allowed it to be labeled journalism by This American Life”). Note that the previous parenthetical is not a direct quote — I made it up! But he did say something like that…
Hey man, there’s a great tradition of muck-raking fiction. I still remember Sinclair Lewis and The Jungle from high school. How about that Soderbergh fictional movie adapting the non-fiction book Fast Food Nation? There are other, better examples I am sure — the point is, labeling the thing “fiction” and framing it that way doesn’t necessarily make your point less valid, only more honest.
Which brings me to my favorite topic: me. I recently published a personal essay type piece in The Morning News (I love that site!) called “How to Officially Forget“. Because it mixes events from twenty years ago, a few months ago, and my own internal reality, there are bits of it that are completely made up. Like, for instance, my friend from Beijing does not actually have wings. But that’s clear, right? In the context? And certainly I tried to introduce some unreliability in the narrative — moments where I question my own recollection — so that those things that happened twenty years ago are properly contextualized as my own faulty memories, not researched fact. I certainly believe that it is all true — but it is quite possible that the order of events is messed up. I’m not sure if my friend gave me that stick of candied hawthorn berries at the movie theater or at a bus stop — in my narrative it’s at the movie theater. Anyway, what is not clearly marked as memory has been researched as best as one guy and the TMN editors are capable of — the name of a book that I saw, a reference to The Color Purple, some things that are a matter of record regarding Tiananmen Square.
I suppose the point is that I feel that I have been on that precipice — teetering towards fiction but hanging back because, really, if you present something as true it better be as true as you can make it. And, further, the truth is more interesting (for me) because I don’t have quite the imagination that Mr. Daisy does. I could not make up my friend — XiaoYing — if I tried. She was an original. Yes, she lived in a hutong. And yes, she was in Tiananmen Square in 1989. And if her wings are actually strap-ons held together with duct tape, I will present them as such. My memory’s angels are imperfect beasts.