In the February issue of The Writer’s Chronicle, Alice Mattison states flatly: “Telling the truth is wrong, if somebody wants to keep it secret.” Not long ago I read a note posted by a friend of mine that made my heart sink. Allison wrote that an excerpt from her memoir, posted here, had infuriated her family.
My first thought: Allison is reaping the bitter and inevitable fruit of memoir writing.
My second thought: that’s why I write fiction.
Angering family and friends, or hurting someone’s feelings, is a perennial fear of most of the writers I know. Another friend of mine recently published a piece of creative non-fiction with all the names changed and a gender-nonspecific author’s pseudonym for herself—or himself, whichever the case may be; I’m not telling.
I grew up in a small West Virginia town—not even a town really, a cluster of houses between a mountainside and a muddy river. My dad was the preacher in a Baptist church beside that river. What I learned from those people was that in your everyday life you practiced stone-jawed stoicism. You did not tell your trouble, you did not air your family’s dirty laundry. There was an unspoken code of silence and it seemed to grow stronger in direct relation to a family’s level of dysfunction.
However, sometimes on a Sunday these very same people would come through the church doors and chuck their code of silence in the can with their umbrellas. They would stand to testify and shamelessly wave their deep personal lives in front of a bunch of watchers. Even though people listened with interest, there was always the awkward sense that the real sin—telling the family secrets—was being committed right there in the sanctuary.
The spectacle made me squirm in the pew, made me want to run for the door. It also made me decide to keep mum about my own business. Even now, trying to write about my personal life gives me the heebie-jeebies.
There’s more at stake than mere discomfort though. Allison’s complaint makes me think of a scene in the movie Henry Fool. A young man named Simon Grimm is inspired to write. He sits down and writes a long poem, and it rockets him to riches and fame. (Suspend your disbelief all you poets, I’m making a different point here.)
You never get a glimpse of what Simon wrote. What you do get to watch is his mom finding a copy of the poem on a shelf, sitting down to read it, and then standing up and going straightaway to commit suicide. As silly as the movie is in other respects, for writers this scene is like something out of Texas Chainsaw Massacre.
Sure, fiction writers run the risk of angering someone. Some say every bit as much as memoirists.
I’m sorry but that isn’t true. I can do anything I want in my fiction. Even when writing in the first person about more or less autobiographical things, I can change anything I want to suit my purposes. If I want, I can take Anne Lamott’s advice and give my character a tiny penis, ensuring my brother will never consider the possibility that the guy is based on him.
When I was doing my MFA at Seattle Pacific, I used to eye the creative non-fiction people and wonder, why do they do this to themselves? Like watching the hapless kid wandering toward the dark barn, I wanted to call out, “Don’t go in there. Just run away.”
I thought there was nothing they could get at through non-fiction that they couldn’t just as easily find from a safer distance in fiction. I lived by Picasso’s dictum: tell the truth by telling a lie. And Frank Lloyd Wright’s: the truth is more important than the facts.
This is simply not always the case. After Mattingly writes that it’s wrong to tell the truth when someone else wants it secret, she continues, “but altering the truth is lying, and we know that’s wrong.”
Would a novel about the Soviet gulags have been the same as the facts—the actual names of real people—Solzhenitsyn smuggled out? Would it have been just as good to say a floating, “Crimes were committed,” or, in Nixon’s famous dodge, “Mistakes were made,” and let it go at that?
Miroslav Volf, in his book Exclusion and Embrace, writes that the only route to true healing is first through exclusion, or calling out the guilty and naming the sin. Only then can you embrace them in total forgiveness and love. I know the implications of what I’m saying. My son has shown an interest in writing, so I’m bracing myself.
Plus, this exclusion is not limited to others. The memoirist singles herself out along with everyone else; this makes her doubly excluded, because for her there is no promise of embrace at the other end.
Why do they put themselves through it?
Because the facts must be told. Not to air dirty laundry. Not to get revenge. The aim is understanding, healing, hope.
It takes monumental courage to write the way Allison does. I know that sometimes, when the angry phone calls come, she has to question the endeavor. I can only encourage her by saying what she already knows.
Sometimes you can tell the truth by telling a lie. Sometimes the only way to tell the truth is by telling the truth.