I am a liar.
I write fiction, that’s the job description.
I am fine with the undeniable fact that I will go to my grave as a liar, but I have noticed that some of my colleagues squirm under the label. They don’t want to lie for a living; they get queasy when describing what they write as “fiction”, the very word a declaration of mendaciousness. They believe, as I do, that lying can be a way to truth, sometimes the only way. But they want that idea to be more than just a line in a graduate student’s paper or an aphorism attributed to Hemingway. (“All you have to do is write one true sentence. Write the truest sentence that you know.” “You have the sheet of blank paper, the pencil, and the obligation to invent truer than things can be true.”)
Because we live in an age where each of us can create our own narrative, some writers have cast off from the fiction pier and are floating into waters closer to the shore that has been called, forever, by the bad name “non-fiction”. The problem is, despite its bad label, non-fiction is a real thing. There is an underlying school of craft – we call it journalism – that has rules and boundaries. A fiction writer can’t simply declare that he or she has landed on the shores of non-fiction and proceed to take up shop there; doing that would subject the writer to the rules and regulations governing the craft of non-fiction, a weighty commitment, particularly for those who love fiction precisely for the freedom it offers from overbearing regulation.
But that doesn’t end the matter. For those floating in the waters between fiction and non-fiction, new possibilities are arising, and I do not mean Creative Non Fiction. CNF, according to Lee Gutkind editor of the magazine Creative Non-Fiction, is subject to the same rules of reporting that govern journalism. The “creative” in CNF does not mean creating facts; it means telling the story with some of the tools of fiction – pacing, suspense, flashbacks, etc. A good piece of CNF is no less required to be grounded in actuality than a piece of straight up reporting. As Gutkind puts it:
“Creative” doesn’t mean … that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonﬁction: “You can’t make this stuff up!”
When writers ignore Gutkind’s maxim, disaster can follow. Truth in labeling is the way of American commerce, why should it be different in writing than in, say, soup packaging? I like this quote about the writer of A Million Little Pieces, an Oprah Book Club Selection that became a best seller before The Smoking Gunouted the book’s many fabrications:
James Frey wants us to believe that he is a tough but sensitive bad-boy writer with a drug problem. The truth is, he’s a sensitive but boyish bad writer with a truth problem.
No, calling fiction CNF will not solve the writer’s dilemma. Fortunately in this, as in so many things, writers can borrow from another art form: movies. With the bigger budgets and the legions of people involved in making a movie – they have producers, best boys, gaffers! They have lawyers on the creative team! – no wonder motion pictures have fished these waters better than solitary writers tapping their keyboards in lonely scows and leaky rowboats. The movie industry has created a finely gauged explanation of the territory between fiction and non-fiction and that can serve as an excellent guide for writers.
The foundation of movies – perhaps other than documentaries – is to have extremely good looking actors and actresses pleasingly stand in for the sad sacks whose stories are being related (All the President’s Men – I mean, really, Robert Redford is a beat reporter?). Given that foundation, it is hard to say that any movie is actually “true” – but a movie will frequently self identify as A True Story. That’s a wonderful phrase and frankly might be just the perfect oxymoron to serve any writer in need of a forgiving description of their work. Yet if the body of CNF proves anything, it is that non-fiction can be told as a story and therefore A True Story may not be quite as oxymoronic as one might have supposed. No, further nuance is needed.
Based on a True Story – here is a category that gives a writer some freedom! Nothing in it says that lying is involved – the writer is telling truth! – it is just that the truth the writer is telling is devolved from an underlying truth; it is an expression of that truth, just not exactly the literal truth that might be found in the Palace of Truth and Justice. True, but not true in the pedestrian sense a member of the public might have otherwise expected. Understood properly, BTS is a branch of metaphysics.
So much of fiction is BTS that the category – by itself – solves the problem for most writers. But for writers that paddle even further from the banks of non-fiction, the movie industry offers an even more flexible concept: Inspired by a True Story. This one is a winner. Short of flat out fantasy, what fiction doesn’t fall under the category of ITS? And how could any reader complain if that little bit of disclosure were to be appended to the description of a book marketed as fiction? How could the writer be called out? As far as I can see, the best approach for one bent on attacking the description would be to say that a dreary work was not inspired. That would seem easier to prove in a court of law or public opinion than the proposition that somewhere – anywhere – there wasn’t some true story that the writer’s tale sprang from. Yes, Inspired By A True Story does the job: it will lend almost any piece of fiction a fine patina of truthfulness.
As good as ITS is, it doesn’t quite work for me. I write many stories that are all or mostly dialogue. I have come to believe – for better or worse – that you can tell the reader all they need to know about the characters by what they say and they way they say it. Many of my stories have come to me by eavesdropping – one of those things, like lying, that are essential parts of a fiction writer’s trade. Often I will hear a conversation and later on, after I have played it through in my head a dozen times, I will put it down on paper and find that I have a story that – at least to my own taste – is of interest.
Yet this is where I run into trouble. An editor will read my piece and ask if I am submitting the story as Fiction or Non Fiction or CNF. (Indeed, Submittable usually requires a commitment to one of those categories right from the start.) I could cover myself with a judicious use of the key phrase Inspired By A True Story but that disclosure – broad as it may be – needs some adaptation to apply to my type of writing. For when you start with an eavesdropped conversation, you never know whether the event that is being discussed is actually true or not. You may have happened upon two bullshitters – whose conversation you may be reporting truthfully – but there is no true story beneath it. I needed a way to capture that nuance.
At first I tried to explain it – but many of my editors did not possess the forgiving span of attention that the nuance inherent in this thing requires. And then I had an inspiration. Why not handle it with a picture, a diagram, an illustration? That would save me explaining the details to editors too busy to focus. And that is how I came to memorialize the Arc of Truth.
I am not much of an illustrator but I like the way the arrow on the dial moves between black and white with shades of grey in between. Not fifty of them, alas, but enough for these purposes: