Issue #5, 1996

What's the Story #5

Permission to Lie?

Lee Gutkind

What's the Story #5

For a memoir about her family, a novelist and former journalist whom I know manipulated the transition from fiction to nonfiction. When she began her book, she felt blocked by the perceived conflict between the two genres, unable to comfortably employ the novelistic techniques of scene, dialog and description. And so, in order to get started, she granted herself permission to lie.

The author did not intend to make up facts or tell stories that weren’t true, a violation of the promise inherent in all nonfiction. But the narrow range of creative options traditionally granted to a journalist inhibited her. Giving herself “permission to lie” allowed three-dimensional thought and scenic expression in a novelistic context. She did not permit her writing momentum to be interrupted by the literal truth.

After her first draft was completed and the revision and rewriting process was launched, she removed or repaired the “lies” she had inserted. At that point, the book was as true and honest as she could make it. She then submitted complete drafts to the people most involved in her story over the years. They returned the manuscripts without any significant changes or suggestions. Giving herself permission to lie led to as true a document as possible—from all characters’ points-of-view.

It is important to point out that this author was working from memory; during the year of crisis about which she had been writing she had been unable to keep a journal with regularity or take all the necessary notes. It’s not certain that the people who “fact-checked” her manuscript actually said exactly what she remembered that they said and whether the conversations, scenes and surroundings were exactly as she had recreated them. But according to the characters involved in her experience, her version or “reconstruction” was as correct an approximation as possible.

Sending a draft of an essay or article to people about whom you have written and asking them to review it for factual discrepancies is touchy. A writer never really knows what aspects of conversations, ideas or incidents will touch a nerve. I am often amazed at what people actually complain about. I was once telephoned by a heart transplant surgeon about whom I had written. I was wary when he identified himself on the telephone and I heard the serious tone of his voice.

I had previously passed along sections of my book in which he appeared. As it turned out, of the many scenes I had recreated—dozens of pages—he objected to only one expletive, which he used quite frequently. He asked if I would delete that word (or substitute it with a more benign alternative) because his mother would read the book, and he did not want her to know that he swore. I complied.

The fact that my observations of the heart transplant world resonated with the surgeon doesn’t mean that we concurred about every single detail along the way. We saw the plight of his patients and the motivations behind his actions somewhat differently. This difference in perception is expected in literature, however; the absolute essence of truth is always debatable. Imagine putting a video camera on the shoulders of each participant of a dispute, game or debate. Even though experience and location are shared, each interpretation will be skewed.

All of this is especially relevant in memoir. The authors’ recollections and responses in the five essays about fathers collected in this issue may not always reflect reality as others see it, but that doesn’t make them any less true, or certainly, any less compelling and dramatic. (It is interesting to note that four of the authors of the five “father” essays—Bret Lott, Hilary Masters, Phillip Lopate and Moritz Thomsen—are by writers who initially wrote fiction, primarily.) This divergence of opinion and perception is what makes memoir so special. We view the past through translucent layers of resentment, anger, love, misunderstanding, stubbornness, respect—and a multitude of other emotions and beliefs. Writing a memoir is the most personal and frightening of all forms of literature because it reveals layers of memory and reflection so biting and painful that the writing of it can radically change the entire reality—past, present and future—of a writer’s life.

*** 

A final note: The fifth “father” essay, “Daddy’s Loss,” is Anne Morgan Gray’s first nationally published creative work. Also a first is Pam Widener’s reflection about two men who inspired her writing, her former teacher and the author, James Agee. “Off Islander” provides a rare glimpse at poet Linda Pastan’s prose. 

Author Bio

Lee Gutkind

Lee Gutkind, recognized by Vanity Fair as “the Godfather behind creative nonfiction,” is the founder and editor of Creative... read more

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