That Thing I Wrote That Wasn’t True: On Facts, Memoir & John D’Agata

The challenge, and the art, lies in confronting the facts—all of them, whether you like them or not—and shaping them into something beautiful.

— Hannah Goldfield,  “The Art of Fact-Checking,”  The New Yorker

* * *

I wanted to say I had a romance in the summer of 2002. That my adoration for Montreal grew stronger because of my love for a handsome French Canadian man. But we went on just two dates. And he wasn’t that good-looking. A summer fling didn’t happen.

I wanted to say that when our boat anchored in the middle of Halong Bay for the night—and people stripped off their clothes and jumped into the water—I did, too. But I was cold, I wasn’t in the mood to be social, and I was unhappy on that trip to Vietnam in 2004.

Frolicking in the bay? It didn’t happen.

I wanted to say, at the end of my book about my years in the rave scene, that I figured things out. That I realized what it all meant. But that moment we chased remains elusive. I finished that manuscript five years ago, moving inches forward since.

The realization, the answer, the coming full circle. None of it happened.

* * *

The newest book by John D’Agata, The Lifespan of a Fact, is causing a stir. It documents years of exchanges between D’Agata and Jim Fingal, who fact-checked a grossly unsound article D’Agata had written about a Las Vegas suicide. In my MFA program in creative nonfiction at Goucher College, conversations about D’Agata were heated, and through these exchanges I charted the nuances of the genre, and figured out where each classmate fit on the map: the old-school reporters, the immersion journalists, the narrative nonfiction writers, the literary journalists, the memoirists. Or the straddlers, who didn’t feel the need to label themselves. Or who appreciated each and switched between modes. Or who didn’t know where they stood in the debate.

The Next American Essay, D’Agata’s compilation of lyric essays—experimental, freeing, mysterious, and personal—put a dent in me. For years, I’d been drawn to Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s deliciously dark masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Within its triptych of fragments, much of it nonsensical, I saw an explanation of how I think and how I write: a view solidified after Robert Root, from the literary journal Fourth Genre, lectured at our summer residency and used Bosch’s work as an example to illustrate writing. Pieces that don’t make sense, but then glued together to make a whole. To create meaning. In The Next American Essay, the pieces D’Agata selected didn’t inspire me individually. Rather, it was the buildup of all of them. The rhythm. The way he used fragments—his poetic manipulation of the material.

In What happened in Vegas,” Harper’s reprints some exchanges between D’Agata and Fingal during the fact-checking process of the article (which was later published in The Believer). At one point, Fingal asks D’Agata about the number of strip clubs in the city:

FINGAL: I guess that’s where the discrepancy is, because the number that’s mentioned in the article is different from the number you’re using in your piece.

D’AGATA: Well, I guess that’s because the rhythm of “thirty-four” works better in that sentence than the rhythm of “thirty-one,” so I changed it.

* * *

Through a window

Recounting nights in abandoned warehouses, dark basements, and crowded clubs, when my friends and I were in high school and college, was hard.

There were many nights that were similar, with the same objective, while drawing from experiences distorted by substances and rose-colored glasses was a painful exercise. But I dove in gingerly, and interviewed and gathered detailed accounts from friends, who added dimensions to the moments I dug up. But my handling of one thing in that manuscript truly disappoints me—one huge fact I created for impact.

During a semester when I was generally anxious and confused, I had a conversation with Aki, one of my best friends at the time, in which I asked him if my relationship with my boyfriend was only what it was because of a chemical. We talked for a long time, and we came to no answers that night, but there were tears and hugs and laughs, because—when you’re twenty and naive and reckless and learning—that’s what you did.

Years later, in graduate school, I wrote out this scene. And I didn’t know what I was going to do with it—I wasn’t sure at all where the book was goingbut I concluded that I had loved my boyfriend those years because a substance simulated that feeling, over and over again.

Even though I did not really feel this way, I wrote it. And so on paper, the narrator said it. It was now true. And I made myself believe it—because it created the drama I needed.

Because it sounded so good.

* * *

In one of the email exchanges reprinted in Harper’s, Fingal asks D’Agata about another discrepancy: D’Agata writes that a woman is from Mississippi, yet when Fingal confirms that she isn’t from Mississippi, D’Agata essentially says it doesn’t matter, as “being more precise would be less dramatic.”

* * *

I remember a lecture by Tom French, one of the faculty mentors in our MFA program. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist talked about the beauty of a fact. He said to use facts. To embrace them, to not fear them.

tree

Facts may not create the rhythm that we want, but they reveal the quirks, the gorgeous imperfections, of life.

In “The Art of Fact-Checking,” Hannah Goldfield, a fact-checker at The New Yorker, says from her experience “facts can be quite astonishing,” and that “what D’Agata fails to realize is that not only are these liberties indeed harmful . . . they are also completely unnecessary to creating a piece of great nonfiction.” Real life is often stranger than fiction. And if a writer thinks a fact is inconvenient, perhaps she lacks the imagination and skill needed to write nonfiction.

Because what is creative about changing “thirty-one” to “thirty-four”? What was creative about James Frey fabricating events in A Million Little Pieces? They evade the creative process rather than confront it; they hide behind an “essential truth,” a phrase Frey relied on when explaining himself (as in this CNN interview with Larry King in January 2006). In The Lifespan of a Fact, D’Agata’s replies to Fingal about accuracy being unnecessary also suggest a reliance on an “essential truth”:

What most readers will care about, I think, is the meaning that’s suggested in the confluence of these events—no matter how far apart they occurred. The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as “facts.”

D’Agata acts above everyone and everything else, but has no right to be this way; in “In defense of fact checking,” Salon writer Laura Miller writes that D’Agata would rather hop on his “magic carpet ride of Art” and fall into an abyss of his own ideas than tackle and come to terms with the world as it is. It’s a crucial part of being a nonfiction writer: to observe and record our world’s idiosyncrasies—a challenge D’Agata seems cowardly to attempt. (At least Lauren Slater, in her “metaphorical memoir” Lying, openly questions her reliability. She has auras and seizures, but also a habit of compulsive lying; she tells us she may or may not have epilepsy.)

But D’Agata, as Goldfield says in The New Yorker piece, is not facing or experimenting with facts at all: he simply ignores them.

* * *

books

I often refer to my MFA manuscript as a failed project, not simply because I stated something so significant that was not true, but because it emerged from an unripe perspective. (No matter how ready you think you are, please do not write a memoir at twenty-five.) But oh, that false statement: it was not only hurtful—it made me feel dirty. And for what? It’s not as if any piece I finish is truly “complete.” To come full circle in memoir writing is to experience satisfaction, but only for a moment.

I tend to think I have control over the “facts” of my own life: events that happen to me, people I know and am close to, emotions I felt at a certain moment. But something happens as time passes—as I drift further from a memory, as a fact is dislodged from the place it had once made sense. I begin to play with a fact: I pluck it out, examine it, and let it stand on its own. It is vulnerable: the context that hugged it is stripped away.

And so, as inexperienced and thirsty as I was, I took a naked fact and abused it, deceiving my reader (and myself), too.

* * *

Since I completed that book, the number of half-written essays I have, both in notebooks and my WordPress dashboard, has noticeably increased. Perhaps I’m scared to finish these stories, or I’m not ready to figure out how best to tell them. But the pieces I have finished thrive on uncertainty and ephemeral moments—I did write about the French Canadian, but told it like it was: fun, but quick and insignificant. And yet that led to a larger musing about fleeting love, and eventually a series of posts on love that have been meaningful to me.

* * *

In the first line of her New Yorker piece, Goldfield asks:”Which are more important: true words, or beautiful words?”

As I learn to trust my skill as a writer, I realize I don’t have to answer that question. It is possible to write words that are both true and beautiful—if I treat the things and the people I write about with patience and respect.

I don’t think D’Agata does that.

Feb. 15 Note:

I wrote the piece above before stumbling upon two posts I think are worth reading as well: Dan Kois’ piece, “Facts Are Stupid,” up on Slate, and Brevity’s “In Fairness to John D’Agata,” which has created an excellent discussion, largely in favor of D’Agata and his approach to his work in general. (And count on Brevity for thoughtful, serious commentary on creative nonfiction.) What’s interesting is that I do identify with both sides, but at the moment, given my own writing experience, I now lean away from D’Agata.

In the Slate piece, Kois highlights a few intriguing statements from D’Agata: “By taking these liberties, I’m making a better work of art—a truer experience for the reader—than if I stuck to the facts.” Also: D’Agata refers to readers who “demand verifiable truth” and expect to be “spoon-fed” as unsophisticated and arrogant.

D’Agata doesn’t label himself as a journalist, but rather an essayist. Brevity excerpts one of his radio interviews: “I do an overwhelming amount of research and I’m often interviewing people, he says, “but what I then do with the information is ‘dramatically different.'”

The comments on “In Fairness to John D’Agata” are worth a read and offer perspectives different from mine. For me, the comment that stands out is actually the one by “KH” to which a commenter below, “ME,” refers. A line from it:

I’m genuinely sorry that you all find the world so confusing, so threatening, that you need to erect barriers to the making of art.

I think my favorite comment on the Brevity thread, though, is this one by “megscottharris”:

People are going to carry on writing according to their own personal guidelines.

Yes, I agree.

17 Comments

  1. […] -Cheri Lucas Rowlands from her blog post, That Thing I Wrote That Wasn’t True: On Facts, Memoir & John D’Agata […]

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  2. Cheri-

    I really appreciate this post, and how you wove your own experiences into your perspective on the issue.

    This topic is really near to my own thoughts on a daily and academic basis. I spend a lot of time researching the rhetoric of science from the standpoint that even the most scientific facts or theories we appreciate today are all built upon the shifting sands language and cultural discourse (with plenty of exceptions, e.g. physics of flight).

    Personally, I am not bothered by D’Agata’s “creative” use of facts. Maybe because I work from an entrenched post-structuralist perspective on language and discourse, but regardless, as a reader I am not concerned with whether or not the author has contended with the facts of his own experiences of the world. I am reading a text and constructing my own experience with it, which is, I argue, the final say on reality. Again…my mind is flooded with exceptions, but that’s best left for other mediums of communication (i.e. anthologies of philosophic thought!).

    Nevertheless, you present a great case for why there is a necessary distinction between massaging facts in creative non-fiction and outright lies. I guess the real dilemma is that what someone says, if taken as truth, has the ability to transform one’s way of seeing and engaging the world. If this is the case, then their is an ethical imperative to tell the truth at all costs (just think of Bush’s little white lie that there were weapons of mass destruction in Iraq…it changed our relationship with them, and we have a new–unfortunate–reality because of it).

    Thanks again for such an insightful, well thought out post. It inspired a response from me at the website toseescience.org. I think it’s being posted next week.

    Cheers,

    Jason

    Liked by 1 person

  3. It really is all about hyperbole and omission, isn’t it?

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    1. Ah, yes — the line that I loved from one of your recent posts…Amazing that this one sentence says so, so much.

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      1. That synopsis hit me as I was riding on the back of a motorbike in rural Thailand last month, when I was far from a computer much less internet to write it down. I kept rolling it around in my head for weeks and the thought just grew and grew (unwritten, still) until I realized that it actually did sum up both my memory and my reporting of memory. I mean, at first it just sounded cool, concise, catchy in my head.

        Wouldn’t it be delicious if it turned out that my synopsis of my own ability to recall what had really happened was in fact just about lyrical catchiness and verbal rhythm rather than accuracy?

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  4. I have so much to say in response to this that I don’t quite know where to start. I’ll try to keep it brief.

    First up, I think there’s a difference between presenting ‘facts’ and attempting to write ‘objectively’. For obvious reasons no piece of writing can ever be truly objective, and in my opinion the strongest writing always acknowledges in one form or another the subjective nature of the writer’s relationship to the story.

    Some questions about facts:
    Does it matter if a writer ends a travel piece on Istanbul with watching a glowing orange sunset over the Bosphorus from Galata Bridge… if that didn’t happen?
    What about tracking tigers in India when the author sees the tiger when she first steps into the park, but in order to maintain dramatic tension massages the chronology of the piece?

    My feeling is that these are less important than changing the number of strip clubs in Vegas, or putting words into someone real’s mouth, or – God forbid – changing the day, circumstances, or manner of a real person’s real death.

    I think it’s about integrity and respect, for yourself, your reader, and your story. Most importantly, it’s about how the story is framed, whether it is being presented towards the reportage or experimental or lyrical ends of the spectrum, and therefore what expectations you are engendering in your reader. A simple disclaimer – ‘The events in this story are presented as I remember them’; ‘This story is based on events that did take place’ – can go a long way.

    And as such, how to deal with ‘facts’ is a decision the writer must make for him or herself. But I don’t think they need get in the way of beautiful writing, and there are some things you should not change unless you are presenting your story as fiction.

    This post was beautifully written, Cheri, and I love how you have weaved your own experiences in with your thoughts on D’Agata.

    As for your writing that your relationship was chemical (is love ever not?! I joke–I know what you mean), I don’t know. Perhaps you are too hard on yourself? From what you’ve written here, you never really worked out whether you loved your boyfriend because of the substance, or for some other reason.

    I think this is a good example of a kind of blurred fact, where you just don’t know what is ‘true’, and your overall piece might have been stronger if this was the conclusion you drew, rather than categorically stating the love was chemical. (I suspect this is easier to say now, since the older you get, the more shades of grey you perceive in the world). If you knew that what you wrote was false, that your love was not based solely on the substances, and you did that for literary effect within your book, well, D’Agata would be proud of you 😉

    Either way, I want to read this manuscript!

    TL;DR
    It’s all about respect, and it depends!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. An initial response, as I know we’ll talk about this more in time–

      I did love that person, very much, at the time (and considered him a dear, dear friend when I was writing the manuscript — and still do!). Which is why I know that I crossed that line, that I broke that special, innate contract with the reader (and that lovely, near-maternal bond with my story).

      But figuring out where and when we’ve entered that dark territory is not always that simple, is it? It’s about integrity and respect for yourself, the reader, and the story, as you say, but oftentimes we are lured into hazy worlds where subjectivity and perspective promise writers wondrous things. We all love a good story. So, it is a challenge.

      You can read my manuscript. It’s here in San Francisco — you’ll have to come here to get it 😉

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  5. I’m sorry, but that sounds all well and good until you actually look at the practicality of staying factual when you are creating art. To borrow the words of “KH” at Brevity’s blog (http://brevity.wordpress.com/2012/02/12/in-fairness-to-john-dagata/), “D’Agata’s critics are leaning on two quite lazy cop outs, the first, and most annoying, being “but facts are beautiful!” Anyone who has ever written anything remotely factual knows there is a trade-off between rhythm and facticity. To expand on an example D’Agata employs in his book, “coroner during the years 1992-1996 except for a hiatus during 1993″ is clumsier than “then-coroner” is clumsier than “coroner.” And if you think factual precision should ALWAYS win out over rhythm, write competent legal briefs, not unreadable essays.”

    I could not agree more. If anyone is reading “About a Mountain” to find out details about a boy’s suicide, rather than to be moved by deeper implications that might be more poignant if a few insignificant facts were made more relevant to the larger “truth”, then they are the exception, not the rule. I’d suggest they pick up a newspaper to get the cold, hard facts.

    If you felt deeply connected to the French Canadian, for example, do you truly believe I want to read, “There was the summer I fell for the French Canadian, well, actually he wasn’t entirely French Canadian since he was born in Spain and didn’t move to Montreal until he was 8, but anyway, I fell for him even though we only went on the two dates (one of the dates not really counting as a date, technically, because that was the night I randomly met him, so should we say 1 1/2 dates?), and it was the 14th most profound moment of my life.” Come on.

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    1. Really glad that someone who disagrees with me (and the others in this thread) has posted here.

      I love your example in the last graph — the long-winded bit illustrating the awkwardness of facts. No, I gather not many would want to read something like that, but that’s the thing — I wouldn’t write/approach it like that. Sounds like a sixth-grade essay, no?

      I guess I value that process of figuring out what to do with the clunkiness of such facts. I’d rather tackle the fact or string of facts first instead of massage the shit out of them and call it a day.

      Hoping others respond, too. Again, thanks for responding and also linking to the Brevity post. I see there’s another one — “D’Agata Redux” — that I haven’t yet read, so will check it out.

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    2. Differences of opinion are the grounds for any intellectual growth, so here goes.

      The art is in making all those clunky, annoying facts come to life on the page. Using the facts as a tool to create the art you want to make is part of the process of being a writer.

      It’s easy to skew the facts, tweak the rhythm to suit some sort of self indulgent sense of “art”. It’s hard to use the facts in a way that makes the reader want to come back for more.

      Bottom line for me: don’t present your work as fact, when it is docu-drama, with an emphasis on the drama

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    3. ME — the coroner example you give is a good one. But this relates to omitting facts, rather than changing them, which is different. A similar thing applies to the French Canadian example, in that including all those details would be offputting. BUT reducing that to “I fell for a French Canadian that summer” is again different to “I married a Puerto Rican that summer”, the change having been made to advance the stylistic needs of the story more effectively.

      That said, I agree with your general point that ‘facts’ can perhaps obfuscate the deeper meaning or beauty of a piece of art. But like I said in my comment below, it entirely depends on how the author has framed the piece. I would also argue there are some facts that absolutely should not be changed, though I guess it’s subjective as to what they are.

      It’s an interesting conversation for sure!

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  6. Great post, Cheri. I guess my problem with what he does is that he’s practicing journalism, even if he says he’s doing something different, and journalism has a noble tradition, which people understand and trust, of trying to write wrongs and figure out what’s the right thing. So journalism doesn’t sanction changing facts. It relies on a great deal of subjectivity, of course; there’s a great deal of subjectivity and creativity in how a story is seen and framed. But to claim you are an “artist” and to change what seem piddling details traduces that tradition and the reasonable expectations of its readers for no good or justifiable or understandable reason. I mean, changing the date of the boy’s suicide in About a Mountain seems sinful, somehow, as if the last and only basic right that kid had was trashed and demeaned so D’Agata could make a spurious linkage between his death and the storage of nuclear waste.

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  7. In the first line of her New Yorker piece, Goldfield asks:”Which are more important: true words, or beautiful words?”

    This made me think of the difference between a simple and sincere “I love you.” compared to a Bruno Mars song.

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  8. Today is my read Cheri day. I seemed to have missed some posts.

    I am glad I started with this one. Although, its poignant revelations brought an almost physical response. I had to walk around the house for a few minutes.

    “Everyone lies.” courtesy of Dr. Gregory House

    Certainly, a reporter of facts: journalist, photographer, writer of non-fiction, memoirist, biographer that changes, or tweaks, enhances or colors the facts of a thing is not fulfilling his unspoken contract with the reader. But it is WE, the reader that expects a journalist to be telling us the unvarnished truth.

    Really, is it even possible? Is the “looking’ itself a game changer? Some scientists believe that the act of observation changes the experiment, or thing being observed. (See The Observer Effect. Sometimes confused with Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle)

    What is a reasonable expectation for us to place on the teller of the thing?

    For me, the answer is: it depends. Is it purported to be “news”? Then please give it to me without your opinions or editorializing attached. Are you relating a story of a thing, or your remembrances of it? Then I will emotionally allow, and sometimes even demand, for YOUR emotions to color the tale. Are you writing fiction or poetry? Then wow me with your ability to string words together.

    And then we come to the heart of this matter: Is editing our own memories (life facts) a lie, or self preservation? Is it how we lie, or to whom we lie that is important? Is embellishing the facts of a thing a lie?

    Is keeping silent a lie?

    Those are questions that demand a good deal of introspection. With time, that introspection can change the conclusions to any of these questions.

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    1. Interesting that the piece led to an almost physical response — I know what you mean, as I get worked up over this “what is creative nonfiction” discussion in general, especially when a writer like D’Agata works with facts as a ceramic artist molds clay.

      “Is editing our own memories (life facts) a lie, or self-preservation?” I don’t have an answer to this, but in my Eternal Sunshine/Facebook Timeline I started to muse on this, and am still thinking about it.

      Thanks for the thoughtful comment.

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  9. Yep. They seem to take odd liberties with the facts for some kind of dubious artistic purpose. Even if the artistic purpose wasn’t dubious, isn’t it the art of nonfiction to work within the framework of the truth? I agree. Good (big!) post.

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    1. I totally agree. Another great line from Goldfield’s “The Art of Fact-Checking” article in the New Yorker: “The conceit that one must choose facts or beauty—even if it’s beauty in the name of ‘Truth’ or a true ‘idea’—is preposterous.

      Thanks so much for reading this!

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