Interwoven Fact and Fiction

The news today carries a story about an American man supposedly caught posing as a gay Damascus girl.  Her blog caught attention because of persecution.  Now the man says that all facts in the blog posts are true ‘on the ground’ and that he doesn’t believe he’s hurt anyone.  We’ve seen this sort of thing before, where people tell a story and pass it off as true.  In this case the man has done nothing in my opinion, but hurt a cause.  How much more impact would his words have had if he’d been up front with who he was, what his job was, and shared true stories? 

One of my stories has a character I based loosely on my mother.  I killed the character off early in the story, and the writer’s group had a collective fit because they said, rightly so, that she was a huge source of conflict for the protagonist.  I rewrote her back to life, and she ended up having a major role in the story, and a huge influence on the protagonist’s growth.  If any of my siblings ever read this story, they will see mom in the words.  But will they see that fact is woven through fiction, or will they think that the protagonist’s problems with her mother were mine?  Either way, I’m not making changes out of fear of what the family will say.  My siblings and I have strong relationships and I trust them to be know where the boundaries blur.  But it reminds me of a friend who won’t try to publish a story until her parents have passed away.  Or the interview I read with an author who ended up being estranged from his father because of a memoir. 

Authors know they are writing fiction, even if bits and pieces are pulled from life, and they trust their readers to understand that.  We aren’t labeling our work as fact, as this author of the blog did.  We build a bridge of trust to our readers, and that bridge must stay stable.  This man will now have a hard time getting anyone to believe what he says.  For instance, when he said in the article that the ‘facts’ underlying the deception were true, my first thought was, ‘sure they are, buddy’. 

If there is a gay girl in Damascus somewhere who is struggling with life, how will she now tell her story to the world?  Who will believe her?  How many people will say, ‘oh, here’s that guy from Georgia again’?  His fiction has potentially caused outflowing ripples of harm that he cannot fathom.  He has broken that contract of trust between a writer and a reader.

Recently I received a creepy email at my work, that ended up forwarded to Homeland Security.  My son, who is much more computer literate than I, said ‘oh mom, it’s probably a troll’.  Can you picture the rolling of a teenager’s eyes as he said that?  He explained a troll is someone who goes into the internet world creating falsehoods to stir things up and get people upset.  I said, ‘the guy has a Facebook page!’ and my son’s response was to show me how easy it is to fake a Facebook page.  My internet innocence was lost. 

But it points back to fiction posing as fact and how the internet world has dramatically changed the relationship of trust between a writer and a reader.  I believe we writers now have an even stronger obligation to make sure the words we lay down on our blankets of writing have the story threads colored honestly.  To carry the analogy further, a blanket of fiction will have threads of fact and fiction interwoven.  A blanket of non-fiction should be woven very differently, and labeled very clearly.

4 thoughts on “Interwoven Fact and Fiction

  1. I so agree with you. I think I’ve personally understood the distinctions you explain here in a basic way, but in learning to write some posts (like articles) about real issues, it became clear to me how different it is to know the truth of your character in a story, than it is to have to research the truth of the facts in an article. If, and I haven’t read up on all the facts of the fake Damascus blogger, but if he felt his skill was in writing fiction, he could have written that upfront explaining that he was basing it on a true story. I think a lot of people move forward so fast with ideas like this, that they don’t take the time to figure out the best route for their journey. How sad, because as you said, how can we believe him now?

    • And it becomes an even murkier area when you start thinking how truth is subjective, and what I perceive as an interpretation of facts, someone else may feel the exact opposite. It’s like all the different religions that can’t agree on interpretations of specific religious texts. Or how a reporter can slant the facts to sway readers toward an opinion. Two different newspapers report on the same story, the same facts, but end up with completely different reactions. Lisa

  2. I totally (but quakingly) agree with you about not editing yourself because of fear of what family members will say. But there is a fine line there and it needs to be walked carefully. My comics teacher wrote a graphic novel that was a fictionalized account of his brother’s wedding. His brother felt that my teacher had appropriated his story. There was a big blow-up and the brothers’ relationship suffered terribly. Some people would probably say that the art is the most important thing: do what you must, and to hell with the fallout. But in my teacher’s case, in this American blogger’s, and probably in many others, a discussion and clarification of intentions and interpretation might have saved a lot of grief.

    • You’re right, it is such a very fine line that it’s almost like a spider web that you don’t see until it’s clinging to your face and you can’t get it off. I guess it almost becomes a choice you have to make with each piece of work. When I first started the story with the character based on my mom, I had two reasons for writing. One, to answer a question my father never found an answer to, and two, to rid myself of the anger toward my mother. That version of the story would have been extremely difficult for siblings to read. But the character became her own person and I found I could release that anger and yet have an original character. Plus, in anger, I was creating a cardboard villain, which wasn’t fair to the character or, honestly, to my mother. The version of the story now would not be painful for siblings. The first version though…well, looking back on it now I’d have had to put serious thought into whether I wanted them to read it. These types of issues also bring up an excellent reason to use a pseudonym when writing. Lisa

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