Is This a True Story?

When you sit down to write, how much is truth and how much fiction? If you’re writing a personal story, should you call it a memoir or a novel?

Or, to put it differently, what constitutes truth in creative writing?

I gave this matter some thought after completing a short piece about Chernobyl during a writing workshop in 1995. I had been to the site of the nuclear accident in 1987, one year after the explosion and fire, and wrote about it then as a news agency reporter for Reuters. It was the usual wire service dispatch – a description of the exclusion zone created by the disaster, the tall pines withered by radiation, clothes still on the line because the people who fled had no time to bring them inside. Factual, dispassionate, newsworthy – and true.

Eight years later, the workshop leaders asked us to write a piece using long sentences. For some reason, the Chernobyl experience came back to mind. This time it was a different story. More true, I felt, because it better conveyed the emotion of the experience – our dread upon entering the radiation zone, the unspeakably sad beauty of the silent Ukrainain spring. To my mind, it was a far stronger piece than the news article. Creative, but not fiction.

What I learned from this experience is that there are different ways to tell a true story. By setting aside journalistic objectivity, I had allowed a more subjective reality to shine through.

The question of truth came back in a different way last year when I was finishing a memoir, Desperate to Be a Housewife, about a young journalist on the trail of a story with a happy ending. Ahead of publication I was handing the manuscript out to friends for comment – and a number of them testily informed me that I couldn’t call the book a memoir because I’d changed the names of all the people portrayed, including my own (in order, I like to joke, to protect the guilty). Here’s a comment from one of them, a writer himself:

‘Thinking about your magnum opus in the middle of the night, I felt that it really is against the rules for someone writing a memoir to then hide under a pseudonym. The purpose of a memoir is exposure. If it is a book by Meg Bortin about someone else with another name, then it’s a novel, not a memoir.’

We argued about the possible merits of changing the genre to ‘autobiographical novel.’ And there were pros and cons, given the content.

It’s the story of one woman’s path through the minefield of changing roles for women at a very specific point in time – after the pill and before AIDS. The sexual freedom we enjoyed came at the price of casting aside many of the values we grew up with, and many of us struggled to reconcile our lives as independent women with our longing for happily-ever-after.

Because the heroine is a journalist, the story is set against a backdrop of historic events, from the Vietnam War protests in America to the Soviet Union and … Chernobyl. It’s also packed to the gills with sex (more on that in my next post). Because the story is so personal, I didn’t feel I could write honestly about my misadventures with men if I used their real names. So why not call it a novel?

Well, for one thing, it’s a portrait of a world-changing era, and I wanted the events recognized as fact. As a journalist, I wanted the power of a true story. As a woman, I wanted to pass along to younger generations an account – warts and all – of the struggle of my generation to forge new possibilities for ourselves as women. Of the passion, the heartbreak, the obstacles, the joy, the many mistakes we made along the way.

In the end, I decided to stick to Plan A and call my book a memoir. My own name I changed to Mona Venture – a play ‘my adventure’ in French and, in that sense, true. But was I right to make that choice? So many novelists use true stories and tweak them only slightly, giving themselves more literary freedom in the process. So which genre to choose?

As creative writers, we all face this dilemma. When sitting down to write, I concluded, the main thing is to remain true to oneself. And how that truth is expressed depends on the story.

Memoir or novel? Tough choice. How do you see it?

4 thoughts on “Is This a True Story?

    • Thank you, Ben! Abe was a familiar figure to Mona when she was growing up, and helped her not only to tell the difference between a true story and wild invention, but also to learn some important lessons in life. Perhaps you’d like to share Abe’s experience with the $100 red alligator shoes? If so, please email it to me and I will post it. Many thanks, Meg

  1. As a reader, I definitely feel that fiction can be more true than fact. I read mostly novels, but enjoy memoirs, too. I have no problem with a memoirist changing names and creating composite characters as long as it serves the story and as long as the writer is up front about having done so.

  2. As I writer I believe I can tell it any way I want. Which is mostly “slant.”I believe it is only incumbent on journalists to find and tell truth, if it exists. And I wish there were more of it, in journalism…But mostly, I’m a poet, and so mostly I prefer telling it slant, as Dickinson did. But here are two of my favorite quotes on the matter:

    “There are three types of lies — lies, damn lies, and statistics.”—Benjamin Disraeli
    “The tongue can conceal the truth, but the eyes never! You’re asked an unexpected question, you don’t even flinch, it takes just a second to get yourself under control, you know just what you have to say to hide the truth, and you speak very convincingly, and nothing in your face twitches to give you away. But the truth, alas, has been disturbed by the question, and it rises up from the depths of your soul to flicker in your eyes and all is lost.” [–Mikhail Bulgakov in ‘The Master and Margarita’]

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