Is the truth … flexible?
When it comes to creative non-fiction and memoir writing, this question has long been the source of debate and controversy. Famously, Oprah brought James Frey back to the couch when his memoir A Million Little Pieces turned out to be not strictly “true.” More recently, 60 Minutes and fellow writer Jon Krakauer called out Greg Mortenson, author of the best-seller Three Cups of Tea, on the legitimacy of his experiences in Pakistan. The controversy possibly cost Mortenson, who had been engaged in inspirational speaking tours across the country for his charity Central Asia Institute, millions in potential donations.
Clearly, intense focus on an author’s adherence to “the truth” brings with it repercussions that reach far beyond academic discussion.
We’ve lived through times when a writer might escape such fact-checking by labeling work as “creative non-fiction” or even “memoir.” Journalism and biography still faced scrutiny, of course. But these days, thanks to the Internet and the ease of obtaining factual information, no writer ultimately escapes examination and fact-finding by the media, readers and other writers.
Writer Pam Houston addressed this issue in “Corn Maze,” an essay that appeared last year in Hunger Mountain. The essay serves as a companion piece to Contents May Have Shifted, Houston’s most recent book. The words “A Novel” appear as a sort of disclaimer directly below the title of her book. Yet the narrator of this “novel” shares the author’s name—Pam—and has more than a few things in common with the real Pam Houston.
In “Corn Maze,” Houston says that while touring with her first book, a collection of stories called Cowboys are My Weakness, she got a consistent question: Did any of the stories happen to you? “About 82 percent,” she answered. Later, touring with another book labeled nonfiction, Houston surprised audiences by confiding that the “truth” percentage still came in at about 82 percent. Now, years later, even though Contents May Have Shifted mirrors Houston’s own life, she (or her publisher) has gone back to the designation of fiction.
So … is this question simply a matter of a label? When in doubt—when the percentage is 82 instead of 100—would a label of fiction squelch any possibility of controversy? Maybe. But with this compromise of art, the very label might, ironically, be the big lie.
Houston says, “When it was decided (When was that again, and by whom?) that we were all supposed to choose between fiction and nonfiction, what was not taken into account was that for some of us truth can never be an absolute, that there can (at best) be only less true and more true and sometimes those two collapse inside each other like a Turducken.”
Scott McClanahan directly confronts truth and memory in Crapalachia: A Biography of a Place, the third book from the West Virginia writer.
On its surface, Crapalachia chronicles McClanahan’s family and his upbringing in the southern part of his native state. As his title suggests, McClanahan does not offer a sugarcoated or pastoral view of his childhood or Appalachia. Indeed, he takes to task those he believes guilty of this sin. In his brief memoir, we hear the stories of McClanahan’s Grandma Ruby and of Uncle Nathan, who suffered from cerebral palsy. We also learn about McClanahan’s friend, the obsessive Little Bill, a man fascinated by geography. Mostly, though, Crapalachia tells the story of a place and of McClanahan’s compulsion—his self-imposed obligation—to truthfully preserve his family and his home through language.
McClanahan’s story cannot be confined by genre. The term “biography” appears in the title, but McClanahan shows facts to be entirely flexible, meant to be bent and twisted to best serve the purpose of the story. The Appendix and Notes section of the book begins with a quote from Robert Penn Warren that concludes with this line: “…history is the big myth we live, and in our living, constantly remake.” McClanahan then tells the reader all of the “truths” behind the book just read: Not only have names been changed, but entire people, entire existences, have been altered.
Sometimes, he says, he grew bored of writing the story just one way. (For instance, he says that after his first two books, he was tired of writing about his father, so he combined his father with his Uncle Stanley to create one character.) Other times, McClanahan writes the way he wishes things could have been. He awards Uncle Nathan with more freedom than he’d had in life, for example, because, “…I wanted to give him the chance to be free for a moment. I wanted to give him the chance to enjoy something. This is the truth of my Nathan.”
McClanahan refuses to ask the reader’s acceptance or permission. By adding this appendix, he takes away the duty of a reader to dissect a book labeled as nonfiction. No need to set out on a bloodless search to find truth or verify fact within Crapalachia. McClanahan tells us that he changed what he wanted, because he wanted to, and that’s the end of it.
We may be onto a deeper truth here, after all. The memory can have a hard time with truth and fact. Aren’t these sometimes impermanent, shifting things—like life—that we can change at will? These events and people that make up a place, that have made up McClanahan’s life—does the order they occurred necessarily matter?
McClanahan says, “I just realized that I never look at a painting and ask, ‘Is this painting fictional or non-fictional?’ It’s just a painting.” While this line might simply seem like a brief aside, McClanahan actually confronts the debate. He tells readers that by focusing on what may or may not be real in a book, they miss the big picture.
Memory, with all its riddles and flaws, lives at the heart of Crapalachia. McClanahan through words attempts to transform memory into a record of family and friends, to somehow make them permanently a part of his life—and all our lives. After offering the reader a previously unexplained list of names, he writes, “These are the names written inside my heart, but my heart will die one day. So I want these names to stay inside this book forever.”
He knows that’s the only place they will stay. In a story about grandmother Ruby, McClanahan remembers the things Ruby knew how to do that no one else did: render lard to make soap, make biscuits from scratch. He then offers a recipe for chicken and gravy, writing, “There may still be something of Ruby inside of it.” After giving the recipe, he informs the reader, “And if you’re reading this—you can go into your kitchen and try making it right now…maybe you can make this chicken and gravy and we can bring these zombies back to life again.”
Time constantly beats on. “Tick, tick, tick, tick,” McClanahan writes. “It’s the sound you’re hearing now, and it’s one of the saddest sounds in the world.” He struggles on the page to preserve what he’s lost, what he’s losing, what he doesn’t even know is gone.
Ultimately, the fight against time is one that no one can win. But perhaps creating a record such as this serves as, if not an antidote, at least a salve to help with the pain. McClanahan writes, “This book is a time machine. The words you have just read are the past. The next page is the future. Your beautiful, young bodies and your beautiful, young faces are the present. The PRESENT. Enjoy it while it fucking lasts. I want to thank you for your time, even though time doesn’t belong to you either.”
Was Robert Penn Warren right? If history is the myth we live, can “truth” in its most literal form ever be attainable?
McClanahan would say it hardly matters. In the appendix, McClanahan tells us that there really was no recipe for chicken and gravy. He made it up. Does the reality of the recipe really matter at all? The idea of the recipe gets to the root of the question … which is, ultimately, immortality. What goes on living after the truths of a body and a life end?
McClanahan accuses well-known Appalachian writers such as Lee Smith and Mary Lee Settle of exploitation due to their participation in “the genre of literature called the Appalachian Minstrel Show.” He reproaches these writers for using caricature—exaggerated forms of reality—to sell books.
McClanahan asks that his book not be shelved with these others. He means to imply, of course, that his own interpretation stands clearly superior, more true and worthy, than the others. But isn’t this idea of a singular experience—a singular Appalachia—close to the stereotype McClanahan fights when he says, while talking about his friend and college housemate Little Bill, “…college never appears in Appalachian books…We can’t admit we’ve gone to malls. We can’t admit we’ve gone to restaurants. We can’t admit we dream our dreams.” The sharp detour into criticism distracts from McClanahan’s otherwise stark, beautiful writing.
Both McClanahan and Pam Houston seem to agree that truth—the important truth—lies less in the literal facts and more in the experience. What matters more, that Ruby used a recipe for chicken and gravy, or that the dinners they shared were important moments of intersection in the author’s life? Does it matter if McClanahan poured beer into Nathan’s feeding tube, or that the author wanted to do it, more than anything, but couldn’t?
Ultimately, we must answer these questions for ourselves, decide individually how strict an adherence to “the facts” we want from our books and their authors. Readers willing to accept memory and truth as flexible and evanescent can experience a more meaningful connection with certain texts and authors.
McClanahan writes, “We pass the torch of life for one another like runners in the night. I WILL forever be reaching for you. PLEASE keep reading for me. Please.”
Natalie Sypolt writes and teaches in West Virginia. Her work has appeared (or soon will) in Glimmer Train, r.kv.r.y, Willow Springs Review, and Kenyon Review Online. She was selected winner of the Glimmer Train New Writers contest, the West Virginia Fiction Award, and the 2009 Betty Gabehart Prize. She serves as literary editor of the Anthology of Appalachian Writers and co-host of SummerBooks, a literary podcast.