Truth or Fiction?

One of the first questions I’m always asked about the novel after someone reads it is, How much of it is true? Is it autobiographical?” To which I have answered this:

All fiction is autobiographical to some degree. Characters, settings, events, even dialogue all are nourished by the writer’s own memories and experiences. The only genre that might be called “truly fiction” is fantasy. But then, even that depends …on how rich and varied the writer’s fantasy life is.

I am no longer sure which parts of my story are “true” and which are imagined. Research on the reliability of “eyewitness” accounts has demonstrated that such accounts are not accurate enough to rely on in court. Research has shown that most memories are not “facts.” Instead, every time a story is told or written down, it changes in the telling, and is put back into memory as the new version, which then, by virtue of being in the teller’s own mind, becomes “fact.” 9/11 survivors were asked to tell their story immediately after the attack, then again in six-month intervals for several years, and it was found that the story changed dramatically and incrementally over time, while the teller continued to believe events happened exactly as their latest version described.

Remember the child’s game of “Telephone”? Players sit in a circle, and the first one whispers a brief “story” to the next person, who whispers it to the next person, and so on, until the last person tells what they heard — to gales of laughter. While nobody deliberately changes the story in the telling, the final version is always significantly different from the first version.

When we were children, my brother Tim fell from the hayloft and landed on a pitchfork. Many years later at a family reunion, each of us five children, our mother, and our adopted sister told what had happened that day. As each person took their turn, it gradually became clear that every version was unique. Even my adopted sister had her own version, and she had not joined the family until several years after the pitchfork incident. Tim fell/jumped/was pushed; and landed on a pitchfork/large hay fork/some other sharp object; was badly injured/barely scratched/needed a few stitches; and then was rushed to the emergency room/went to the local doctor/didn’t need treatment. Tim listened with great interest to all of these accounts, then wryly commented: “I was the one it happened to. Is anyone interested to hear what actually happened?” Of course, his own version was different from all the others.

So, even memoir is fiction. It is as true as we can make it, as true as memory serves, but memory is a fickle servant. The only thing true about the past is that it is not here.


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