Friday, January 3, 2014

The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth........

 "A typical biography relying upon individual's notorious memories and the anecdotes they've invented contains a high degree of fiction, yet is considered 'nonfiction'
Joyce Carol Oates
Footnote (1)

We all know that not only are our memories of events past can be a little vague, and that someone else at the same event will have a different story about what exactly happened.  It is a big issue for biography writers, as often someone disagrees with the story and makes an issue of it.
I can remember that on the celebrations of my Aunt's 90th birthday, family members were asked to write a short piece about the Aunt, and my cousin put it together in a booklet form, which was read at the event.
Apparently something my mother wrote in her piece did not impress my Aunt.  My mother wrote her version of what was supposed to be the tale of a humourous event, but Aunt was not happy and in fact they refused to speak to one another for several months.  Actually Aunt would not speak to my mother who was quite mystified by the experience.  Luckily they resumed their good relationship some months later, and when my Aunt died they had well and truly made up.
It is common for a writer to have some issues with a family member - and I can recall a friend who wrote a moving tale about her own mother, who had during the war escaped from Europe and made a new life for herself in Australia, and many years later she took her family, which now included two daughters back to the country of her birth and surprised everyone when revealing who she really was.

My father's boyhood home in Prospect, South Australia - see Footnote 3
The sister caused quite a stir just before the book was published as she disagreed with some of the written word, and indeed did not like what was written about herself.  Luckily the book was published - and it was a very good read.
It is a real dilemma for a writer.  Fiction can be so much easier than non-fiction, as you do not have to check the detail, and you are less likely to offend anyone (unless in the "fiction" they recognise their own story!!)
Do you tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth?  The writer has many obligations when writing a biography - and it does include "telling the truth" but we all know that there is some information best left out. Clearly there is a risk in "telling all" and the writer is wise to seek legal advice before publication, and if appropriate, seeking the permission, IN WRITING, when material is included that might cause offense.
Doing some research for a yet to be published story I interviewed several family members.  One actually hid from me in Ireland, as she did not want to talk with me for she did not want the story told.  Another family member spoke of his father, who played a prominent role in the life of my subject - telling me much about this abusive man, and asking me to write the whole story - said with much venom.   It does take much care in writing!

Check and recheck - especially details - I have found libraries, and state archives useful places for information that has been helpful, and thank goodness for the Internet that enables us to find (and check) information from the comfort of our home or office.
Footnote (1) Quote from
               (2) Joyce Carol Oates - American Author
               (3) The Watson family home in Prospect, South Australia, built in 1914 at the cost of 614
                pounds.  It is still standing 100 years on.


peter petterson said...

Interesting post Di.Now everything I read could be suspect? Everybody remembers things in varying degrees; their interpretation of facts can be clouded by time.

Di Hill said...

Ha ha Peter. Do you believe everything your read in the press??? Everyone has a different memory of events - their descriptions of the same event differ. "Non-fiction" can be fiction in the eyes of someone who knows the real story!
Thanks for visiting.