Part 2 of truth doesn’t have to be complicated

It’s said there are 3 sides to every story: his side, her side and the truth.

Truth is easy enough to determine when we’re talking verifiable facts. Dates. Times. Exact numbers of widgets. Writers either get these right or wrong in nonfiction and their fact checkers and readers judge them accordingly, as I blogged last week.

But how those facts are perceived, and the meaning assigned to them, is personal. People can perceive the same event quite differently. A handful of people to one person can be a crowd to another, or a gang to a third. The devil is not just in the details, it’s also in the conclusions drawn from those details.

Personal perceptions are part of any story told. Even a “just the facts ma’am” recounting is subject to spin. But that’s not automatically a bad thing.

Writers of nonfiction are expected to draw conclusions based on their perceptions. Journalists, technical writers, essayists and creative nonfiction writers all make judgments as they write. Writers decide what facts to highlight, and order of importance, based on their knowledge and experience. They write the truth as they know it, drawing conclusions based both on verifiable facts and their perception of what those facts mean. It’s unavoidable.

And that’s ok.

Of course there have been, are, and will again be writers who take things too far. That’s why we have terms like exaggeration, melodrama and hyperbole.

However, the nonfiction writer does have certain obligations to the reader. The writer must not alter facts. And when it comes to descriptive words (such as few, several, many, near and far), the writer must sincerely strive for accuracy as they relate what they perceived.

Ultimately the writing speaks for itself. The honest, the accurate, the most truthful perceptions are often the most enduring works of nonfiction. Perhaps that is because we humans love a true story. Perhaps it’s because we have gotten pretty good at figuring out when people are lying to us, be it to our face or in writing.

The nonfiction writer cannot deliberately mislead the reader. That’s propaganda. Fiction.

That’s the line that cannot be crossed.

Truth doesn’t have to be complicated

Once again the writing community is blathering breathlessly about the nature of truth. What are facts and why are they stubborn things? Can true stories be told without tweaking what happened to make the tale more dramatic or compelling? How much tweaking is too much tweaking? What does nonfiction really mean anyway?

This happens every so often. A journalist bends the truth or creates an imaginary friend as a “source” to get the big story to press. A memoir writer makes up events that never happened or people who never lived to help propel a life story into a best seller. An essayist publishes a book¬†detailing an argument with a fact checker that attempts to justify stark departures from reality because those departures allegedly “sound better.”

Unfortunately the latter has led to literary minds once again wrestling with the question of truth and the role of factual accuracy in nonfiction. Thankfully, according to this source, at least one panel of writers apparently understands that the issue is not that complicated.

Truthfully, this is a topic that writers shouldn’t have to discuss. All prose writing can be divided into two categories, fiction and nonfiction. Fiction is made up, even if it’s based on real events. Nonfiction is, brace yourself, not fiction.

Each of these categories can then be subdivided into genres, but regardless of what flavor of the writing, readers bring certain assumptions to the table depending on which category the writing claims to be. Readers assume that nonfiction is, shockingly, not fiction.

Any nonfiction writer, creative or otherwise, who claims they can’t tell a good nonfiction story without altering verifiable facts (such as the number of businesses in a particular location, or whether two specific event took place on the same day) has three choices. One, select a story to tell that isn’t burdened with stubborn facts or inconvenient truths. Two, become a better writer, one that can weave reality into an intoxicating story without tweaking, altering, or outright fabricating. Or, three, write fiction.

It truly is that simple.