Fiction writers turned memoirists know how hard it is to stop lying.
It shouldn’t be this tough. I was trained as a journalist and learned to write news copy on a manual typewriter, the vintage ones with the metal return arm that’s meant to be slapped across the keyboard. It was back in the day when cut and paste meant, literally, cut and paste, or to tape sections of a story together and then hand the whole mess to a typesetter. It’s true. I worked in a newsroom where such practices existed.
In the 1990s, when I decided to dip my toes into fiction writing, the hard part was letting go of the “truth.” I was challenged to let my imagination run wild, put words into characters’ mouths, describe places I had never been. Make up plots and story threads, spin my own tales. After a while I began to get these musings published. Fait accompli. How gratifying it was to tell a string of lies and have readers believe them!
But now, over the past couple of years, the muse has shifted. I find myself shunted back to nonfiction, for after a certain age, one has a deep well of stories that are unbelievably true and itching to be written.
The key here is “truth,” and I’m finding this world as challenging as fiction, if not more so. An event happened. Everyone views it from a different angle. Each insists that’s what really happened. Which variation of the truth do you accept?
Who’s to say that one version is more correct than the other?
This week a friend sent me a Facebook joke to consider for my next presentation of “What Makes a Southern Story Southern,” the program I give occasionally for the N.C. Humanities Council. As the joke goes, Northern people start their fairy tales, “Once upon a time.” Southerners start theirs, “Y’all ain’t gonna believe this.”
I favor that second opening not just because I’ve lived in the South so long but because y’all may not believe what I’m about to tell you even though it really happened.
Is truth stranger than fiction? Strangeness is in the eye of the beholder. I know that nonfiction and fiction aren’t easy to write, but in the South particularly, both can be pretty darned strange.