Fiction in Truth


One of the biggest challenges of writing non-fiction pieces is embellishing the story without altering the truth. As a fiction writer, I’m always tempted to twist mundane details about actual events to make the story more compelling. To me, writing should entertain more than inform. I suppose that’s why I didn’t do so well in the first journalism course I took at NYU. My professor was very adamant about the idea that journalists need to find and reveal the truth more than anything else. On the first day of class, he showed us this 911 article in which the writer used the “wrong” word to describe what happened to the buildings. He wrote that the buildings “toppled” over, meaning that they fell sideways instead of straight down, which is what actually happened. For homework, he made us pick the correct word to replace “topple.” I think I chose “demolish,” same as many other people. Others said “obliterate” and “collapse.” He rejected all those words, coming up with a specific reasons as to why none of those words fit. In the end, he said only “destroy” works, because apparently that’s the only word that grammatically fits in the original sentence without “distorting the truth.” Anyway, for someone who writes short stories and almost only reads novels, that kind of “truth before all else” mentality is just very hard to adopt. Do we really have to sacrifice all the creative and quirky elements of storytelling just to represent every facet of the truth? Isn’t it enough as long as the main ideas of the piece remain faithful to the actual events?

Blogging is interesting. I’m writing about stuff that happens to me, so technically it’s non-fiction…right? But I don’t hesitate to change little details here and there if it makes the story a more enjoyable read. Like, if I say I met this person at “exactly 3.31 a.m. in Downtown Manhattan right after I went to pee for the 20th fucking time of the day,” I’m probably exaggerating. Probably. And you’d know it, right? So I’m not trying to intentionally deceive you or whatever. It’s purely for drama. Tension. Comic effect. Gimmicks and shit. If I had written it the way it actually went down, you would have stopped reading straight away because it’s so fucking boring. Janet Malcolm said something really cool in The Journalist and the Murderer. She imagines the truth as a furnished house to which the journalist has temporary access. She can rearrange the furnitures as long as she takes nothing away. My journalism professor disagreed with that. He said the truth can’t be tampered with in any way. But I don’t see why not. I think writing should be both entertaining and informative. And the challenge of non-fiction writing is finding a balance between the two.

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