Truth and Consequences

I’ve always loved writing fiction, but for pragmatic reasons I’ve spent most of my adult life writing non-fiction articles. (When I was a kid, my mother, a novelist, told me, “If you can find a way to write that actually makes money, you should do that.” Journalism seemed a better bet than fiction.)

A year and a half ago, I started writing fiction again after a long hiatus, and last spring I decided to temporarily stop writing non-fiction, for the good of novel and family.

I miss some aspects of writing articles. I miss learning something completely new, often something I’d never even thought about before—midwifery or solar glass or what it’s like to be a freshman Senator. I like being surprised by a whole mini-world or subculture, mining it for detail, peering into its secret corners. I have a teeny, tiny attention span, and writing about other people’s projects and passions has kept me from having to switch my own job sixteen times in the last twenty years.

Here’s what I don’t miss: I don’t miss messing with someone else’s version of the truth. In the last couple of years, I’ve written mainly profiles. When you write a profile, you learn everything you can about a person in a finite period of time—sometimes an hour of interviewing, sometimes a day or two of shadowing—and then draw a coherent picture of that person. Big profiles, like the feature-length ones I’ve written for alumni magazines, try very hard to capture the essence of someone—who they are, what they care about, what they’ve accomplished.

The problem is that your version, the version you observed during your necessarily finite stay in that person’s life, is never the same as their version. Yours might be truer, in some ways. You’ve got a hell of a lot more objectivity. You can see that what they did ten years ago may have mattered to the world more than the project they’re working on now. Or that they’re a little neurotic and scattered. Or that family is at least as important to them as work. But they’ve got their own narrative, and it’s something different. So in the end, there’s your version, and there’s their version, and there’s an ocean or two between them. I’ve received glowing letters from people in my subjects’ lives saying I’ve painted an accurate portrait, but the subjects themselves never thank me for capturing them so truly. Au contraire. There have been some truly awful post mortems.

I’ve learned to ignore the awful post mortems (well, more honestly, to have my few hours of misery and then move on). But it still bothers me, the feeling that in writing my truth, I’m stomping all over theirs. Because I’m not just writing about some arbitrary subject, I’m writing about THEIR lives. So—really—doesn’t their truth matter more?

In fiction, there’s only one truth, and it’s mine, and mine doesn’t compete with or trump anyone else’s. I look at the world—a world I’ve created, no less—and I figure out what’s important and what bears closer examination and where the real message lives. And I put that on the page, and my characters can’t feel like I’ve failed to do them justice, insulted them, minimized their hard work, or blown their chances at winning a contract, a job, or an election.

When I write fiction, I have a lot of power over my own little world, but no power to do damage in the real world. Which, I’m coming to find, is how I like things.