Truth is for stenographers

Hicken’s fur bearing troutAn interesting line from “The Fake Memoirist’s Survival Guide, How to embellish your life story without getting caught.” It is the author’s final advice to would be memoir fabulists (a fabulous label, imho): “Feel free, however, to insist that you’re telling the “emotional truth.” The details don’t matter, as long as you’re painting an accurate picture of how you felt—real truth is for stenographers.” Yes, I sense he is being snide, and although not everyone will agree with my artistic sensibilities, I actually believe feeling is able to create an equally accurate picture of a person’s life.

Haven’t we always called them fish tales? I suppose when you’re still alive and getting an advance from a publishing house stretching the truth becomes a rather serious charge. Or maybe daring to cross the trip wire between stretching and bald-face lying is what makes people upset. In my eyes some of the best storytellers were the best embellishers. Perhaps when it comes to life stories critics feel that’s where honesty counts most (or at least more than day-to-day honesty)? A dirtier crime is plagiarism but harder to do in the context of biography, although there must already be a book out there somewhere that mashes up several interesting real biographies to create a whole new imaginary person? A conglomerate constructed from questionable biographies: the intrigue of a Mata Hari, the glamour of a Alice Sheldon, the fearlessness of a Beryl Markham

Regardless, like applying a little (fake) makeup, I’m not sure I’d want to write my own personal history without enhancement. Memory is selective and who’s to say I didn’t live it as I felt it. If after I die someone calls me a fish-teller I would hope a friend would stand proudly in my defense and say, “Aye, and from a Long Line of truth stretchers and myth mongers she is too!” That wouldn’t be so far from the truth. Sometimes stories are easier to tell if they come from the heart than from the head despite the obvious difference between personal history and formal historical research (often subtly manipulated for the audience as well). Ultimately even a tall tale from a deceased loved one is worth boxes upon boxes of certificates, public records and canceled checks. My advice is to encourage yours to leave you at least one.