The Rock vs. In Cold Blood

Many people tell me they don’t read fiction. They tell me that they prefer true stories. They even tell me that they only watch reality TV (although many friends claim not to watch television ever). To all of the truth verses fiction people I say: truth and fact are not synonyms.

When people tell me they only read or watch true stories, what they are really saying is that they prefer to read or watch stories inspired by real life events. They want a non-fictional basis to their fictional material. There is in fact nothing in print or on the screen that is not edited, shaped, and altered by the process of writing, filming, or even verbal story telling. The very act of reporting an event changes the event being reported. Have you ever listened to two people report on what they saw while watching the same event? Which version is factual? Story telling is a montage of life experiences. Events are selected and shaped. This is true of both non-fiction and fiction.  To do otherwise (with apologies to James Joyce) makes for a tedious, boring story. Try taping actual conversations while sitting in Starbucks or while at the airport and transcribing them. Listening to the recordings or reading the transcripts is excruciating. I’ve done it.

Recently, while preparing food, I was listening to an NPR station in Los Angeles. The program featured a story about Truman Capote’s famous book, IN COLD BLOOD. The book is often called ‘the’ masterpiece of non-fiction narrative and rightly so. The NPR report said that significant parts of the book also are made up (aka fiction). Capote used details that are simply not true – details that he knew were not true. The big question for the reporter, therefore, was how much of what Capote claimed to have happened that cannot be proven, such as the relationship between the two killers? My question is this: does it matter? Do we not feel that you have entered the corridor of evil when you read Capote’s book? Do we not feel a sense of a time when senseless murder shocked people differently from how it impacts people today? Do we not learn something about crime and punishment? Do we not suffer or grieve or weep?

The first book I published was a memoir, a story about a man who was an aviation disaster investigator. To the best of my knowledge, I did not write about events that did not occur. On the other hand, most of the names in the book are fictional. The legal department insisted on it. If we knew for a ‘fact’ that the person is named Ken, we still had to call that person Kevin or …. The non-fiction narrative I co-wrote opens with a scene inside a house on Christmas Eve. The man is doing whatever and his wife is reading to their son. The man gets a phone call telling him that a helicopter has crashed. The man and the woman talk. They put on their coats and leave the house. Does anyone reading the chapter believe that there was a tape recorder running in the living room? Does the reader believe someone was taking notes? The conversation and actions of the characters dramatize what the subject of the memoir remembers looking back many years later. The words spoken, the actions of characters, and the thoughts and feelings expressed were made up by me (though inspired by a factual event).

Perhaps you believe that Survivor is real, that the cameras are turned on for an hour a week and that people do these amazing things for an hour. Do you never wonder about the other six days and twenty-three hours?Perhaps you even believe that wresting is real, that The Rock actually hit someone in the face with his elbow and did not draw blood or break bones. Perhaps you think that we truly know what President Lincoln said to his wife in their bedroom in 1863. If you do … but you don’t, do you, really?

Nothing I am saying here excuses people who write fiction and claim the work is non-fiction in order to appeal to an audience who prides itself on not reading fiction. (I grew up in the Missouri Ozarks and do not know of a truer portrayal than in the fictional book and feature film, WINTER’S BONE). Writers, filmmakers, and other storytellers lie about their work because they know it is easier to sell books and movies to the public. I’ve written both non-fiction and fiction books; I’ve written non-fiction and fiction screenplays. I even got fired as the screenwriter on a biographical movie for writing about what really happened and by using the “actual” words of the character (found in letters written by her). I wrote facts. The producers wanted something else: a bigger truth.  So did I when I wrote the thriller novel (some call it a horror/thriller) Claws.

Claws is based on an actual event that occurred in 1995, but I did not write about the State Police hunt or the man and women who ran Ligertown and went to jail because of animal cruelty. In writing Claws I wanted to explore a truth that is not found in facts. The truth I wanted to write about is found by delving into human behavior. The truth of my novel comes from reporting how people behave under duress or while in love or faced with hard choices. To me, the only truth worth writing about is the truth of the human heart. In my experience fiction often is truer than fact when it comes to exploring human actions and emotions. Now that’s a fact!

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