Did It Really Happen? Fact, Fiction, Fate
When Fiction Seems All Too True
I attended a reading today, where an author read from his debut collection of short stories. The audience was small, but highly appreciative; we were both in residence at a writer’s colony in a charming, artsy town. It was a lovely reading, and we laughed at the right places. Afterward, there was brief debate about whether the author should do a Q&A; he advocated that we all drink more wine instead, and in the blurry moments before the decision was made to skip the Q&A, someone called out a Q: “Did that story really happen?”
The author laughed, and said he made it up, and we went for wine and book-buying.
Why is that always the question fiction writers are asked? Why do readers insist on knowing if the story that held them enthralled was “real”?
* * * *
When I was at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference many years ago, the official T-shirt included a quotation from Tim O’Brien, presumably from The Things They Carried, a modern classic novel about the Vietnam War: “Just because something never happened doesn’t mean it isn’t true.” And I believe I remember Tim complaining at Sewanee about the quote, saying something like this: “I didn’t know they were putting me on the shirt. I never even said that, what they said I said,” which added a deeper layer to the T-shirt, because he really could and really should have said it. His writing said that, exactly, even if it didn’t say it literally.
The Things They Carried is famously a “true” war story drawn from O’Brien’s service in the Vietnam War, featuring events and people that the reader believes or wants to believe are true. There’s even a chapter is titled, “How to Tell a True War Story.” The book is dedicated to the members of the Alpha Company, several listed by name, who are also characters in the book, along with a character named Tim O’Brien, who in the book is a writer, writing about the Vietnam War. It seems the author wants us to think it’s all true, yet the book is published as fiction.
Less than two seconds of research brings me to the link of a literal transcription of a 1999 speech O’Brien gave to students at Brown University that proves all my points in one tidy swoop, in which he tells the audience two stories from his life, neither of which actually happened to him—which he admits in the speech—followed by a transcription of the Q&A session in which the first of three questions is: “I’ve read several of your books, and very curious about how much is real and how much isn’t real.”
I’m not sure it matters much if The Things They Carried really happened word-for-word or didn’t. Isn’t it the same powerful book either way?
* * * *
As a fiction writer, it’s my job to fool you, to trick you into thinking that something happened, that the woman riding the Greyhound with the ring of mosquito bites on her upper arm exists, that the just-baked pie cooling on the cork trivet on the table is apple not pumpkin. We want to believe. That’s why we pick up stories, because we want to be carried off into this distant world; what happened next, we whine, did the boy get the girl? So why can’t you relax into the story, why must you ask the question, oh readers, or wonder in the secret places of your heart, or pretend you don’t care but then do a little research into the author’s life: Did it really happen?
If writers were leading the complicated and conflicted lives they write about, they wouldn’t have much (any?) time for writing. We love to think writers are more interesting than the average person, but I’m not sure that’s true. Some are, some aren’t—just like average people. No one is average anyway.
Readers are nosy. People are nosy. Part of the question is simple nosiness. But only part.
* * * *
My newest book, a collection of short stories, is based on a tragic incident in my life. The stories are connected; these stories are connected because the same thing keeps happening to each female character: her young husband dies unexpectedly.
This is what happened to me many years ago, my young husband died unexpectedly, of a heart attack. If you had his name, you could look up this fact. You could see that he really did die, and he really was 37.
I assigned myself the task of writing at the core of each story “one true hard thing” that happened either in the crappy swirl of aftermath of my husband’s death. (There’s a story in the book called “One True Thing”; it is the least true story of them all since the only thing that might be true is that I, too, attended a famous writers’ conference in 1996 as some of the characters have. Perhaps that could be googled? If so, you will find that I attended the same conference two additional years, including once when Tim O’Brien was on the faculty.)
The stories in my book contain that hard true thing, which is often an emotionally difficult event or feeling about that horrible time in my life. That’s the truth I assigned myself, things like how hard it was to decide whether or not to leave his wedding ring on his finger when he was buried. The stories I wrote that are in the book contain true facts from my history with my husband: his favorite foods, for example, and how once he compared me to an avocado, and that he wrote extensive notations in his beloved books. Just basic facts.
Since he’s dead, there’s no way to confirm I’m telling the truth about those facts. That’s convenient. That’s also an example of one of those “hard true things” that I might chose to write about, an emotionally difficult realization that no one wants to hear about or think about: that I might invent facts and say anything I wanted to about my husband and you would think it’s true. That your loved ones could do the same to you.
Also, I made up stuff. I bet you can tell which is which. (That’s a lie. I bet you can’t.) Anyway, why do you want to know?
* * * *
Why did I assign myself this task, to use the truth in this way? Why did I, a fiction writer, try to make this book about a true thing sound true…why didn’t I just write a memoir, a truly true book? Or a biography of my dead husband? Or, why didn’t I make up everything? Why do I keep drawing attention to the truthfulness of this book, the true parts anyway? After all, there are true things in my other novels and short stories and I haven’t spent any time at all talking about how true they are.
Then the question really is: Why do I want you to know that this book is true? Not just to think it’s true, in the way that Flaubert wanted readers to believe Madame Bovary was an unhappy wife, or the way J.K. Rowling wants children believing Harry Potter is “the boy who lived” but it seems I want you to think these things really happened.
Does a story that is true feel more important? Do I feel more important, telling something “real”?
* * * *
True story. An agent’s assistant planned to send out some of these stories to some fancy literary journals, and I was supposed to pick out stories I thought might have the best shot. She was a savvy reader, reading dozens of books and stories each week in her job. After she read the stories I sent her, she emailed: “Forgive me if you totally disagree, but I wonder if I could pitch them a little bit differently from each other. [redacted title] as fiction (it’s more of ONE story with a cohesive narrative told in the form of a memory), and [redacted different title] as a memoir piece that is blurring truth with fiction (with several stories woven in).” In this same email message she wrote, “OR to confuse things further, if you do decide you want to pitch any of these as memoir, I can try [redacted fancy journal exclusively publishing nonfiction] as well.”
Another true story. Later, and independent of the agent’s assistant’s valiant efforts, a respected university journal was interested in publishing “A Quiz.” It’s a story told in the form of a quiz, with hard and sorrowful vignettes presented with a selection of answers. But the literary journal wanted to send “A Quiz” over to the nonfiction editors. They knew it was fiction, and yet they “decided” it was nonfiction, that’s how true it felt, even though I invented each of those hard and sorrowful vignettes.
I consider these two incidents great writing triumphs.
Also, I was insulted. Why did the journal only want “A Quiz” if it really happened?
* * * *
I reread The Things They Carried as I was working on my book. I also reread In Our Time by Ernest Hemingway, which is a series of linked stories about World War I in which the war is not mentioned as often as one might think. Both books are about war, both told through stories, both written by a man who has been to war when he was impossibly young and who has seen and done—I will say in purposeful understatement—difficult things. War is hell, as they say—something so true that it’s a cliché. It’s easy to dip into cliché when talking about something vast because there are no direct words, it seems, for what that reality of war must be, or love or evil.
Writers don’t like to say things like “there are no words” because our job is to find the words, to find the way to convey the experience we’re talking about, to put “what happened” in your mind.
We have our tricks. Chekhov said, “Don’t tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass.” Readers think they know all our tricks. After the rabbit comes out of the hat, the audience begs the magician to explain how it was done.
* * * *
True story: This book was sent to editors in New York and one them returned it to the agent, commenting that the writer, “portrayed the loss so deeply and cleanly and devastatingly that I was just floored, again and again, by losing these strangers I didn’t even know. And of course it’s hard to read without imagining yourself in the spot of having lost your own beloved, too young… I hate to turn down something because it’s accomplished its goal too well, but in the end I just don’t think I’d be able to live with this and advocate for it for a year, and press it on others, given how much it has shaken me.”
I might have considered this note another writing triumph except that I was livid, apparently having done my job too well in making this editor feel something.
I see this person wouldn’t have been a good editor for my book. But I also see the glimmer of why readers ask, “Did it really happen?” and the reason I want them to ask, actually, in this case, why, in fact, I am going out of my way—almost taunting—them into asking, as Tim O’Brien does in The Things They Carried and how Ernest Hemingway might have (if I may speculate), if In Our Time had been published in the 21st century (spent boyhood in Michigan… check; was an ambulance driver in World War I… check; likes fishing… check).
* * * *
I have never been to war. I hope in my lifetime I never personally witness anything like what I imagine war to be. I know that in war unspeakable things happen.
I know that in life unspeakable things happen. In many lives the death of a beloved spouse might not be or even come close to being the most unspeakable thing that has or might happen. There are many, many and much, much worse things that might happen. But I know that this is the worst thing that has happened to me so far. Because it has happened to me, you think it can’t happen to you. Because the bad things that happen in life, in war, are so random and so terrible, we put them into a story because otherwise they don’t make sense. They just don’t make sense. A world with so many terrible things happening is the only world we know and yet it’s the world that should be impossible to live in. How can we live in it, this world?
Someone asked me if writing these stories was cathartic. I sensed I was expected to say yes, that the simple and easy answer was yes, it was very cathartic to write these stories about this difficult time in my life, and now that I’ve done so, I feel so much better, I am healed and as a little bonus, look at my artful tribute to my first husband! That’s the dialogue I’d assign an imaginary character writing the story of her husband’s early, tragic death. But that’s not why I wrote these stories, to make myself feel better. I wrote them because they happened. To me. For real. And I want you to know. I want you to know this is true, this is all true, whether it happened or not:
That my husband dropped dead one Sunday morning in April. That such a thing can happen.
No tricks. Just that. Feel that. I want you to feel that. I want you to feel.
Did it really happen? That.
Leslie Pietrzyk’s story collection, This Angel On My Chest, won the Drue Heinz Literature Prize and will be available from the University of Pittsburgh Press on October 5.
Feature image is Robert Capa’s iconic “Falling Soldier,” which some claim was staged.