Truth As Art

The dictionary defines memory as “something remembered from the past,” and it defines truth as “a fact or belief that is accepted as true.”

Do we have true memories, or just memories of the truth? I have been struggling with this concept for about six months as I transition from writing a memoir to writing fiction. The fact is that time has shaped my recollection of exactly-what-happened in my life. I am left with the lessons-learned-as-a-result and there is where the story resides.

Some friends who are writers have encouraged me to just outright lie—don’t claim it as fact or truth— tell whatever story I wish. If you embellish the truth to tell a story, is that creating fiction or telling a lie? How about: “Any similarities to real persons …” or “Ripped from the headlines!”

Is there a difference between creating a story about something that did not happen and recounting a true story, but getting the facts wrong?

Is There a Point to This?

By now your head should be spinning, I know that mine is. Last Saturday my wife and I went to A.C.T.’s Geary Theater in San Francisco to see their production of Playwright Anne Washburn’s show, Mr. Burns: a Post-electric Play.

The setting for this three-act story is post-apocalyptic Northern California. A group of strangers have gathered together at a campfire. To pass the time they start to re-create the Cape Feare episode of the long-running TV show, The Simpsons.

In the First Act, we get to see how memories are put to the test of time as each survivor helps to mold the story as lines of dialog are remembered, edited and put into the proper order. A loose performance structure begins to occur and in the midst of the disastrous circumstances facing the survivors we can see that they are hopeful and inspired.

The Second Act opens seven years later and Marge and Homer Simpson have become the Coin of the Realm. Traveling troupes of actors earn a meager living performing episodes of The Simpsons and competition is fierce among them. By this point the production companies have added commercials to the performances to make the experience more like watching the show on television (back when there were TVs). Life imitates Art imitates Life.

The Third Act opens 75 years into the future and the original villain, Sideshow Bob, has been replaced by the character of Mr. Burns—all the better to craft an even more wicked tale. Homer of Springfield has become Homer of Greece. A full-blown operetta breaks out and elevates a simple 30 minute animated TV show into a Lesson for the Ages.

I witnessed an evolution onstage, an evolution of memory over time. In the course of 2 hours I could see how time can alter facts. Absent online research tools, volumes of reference books, newspapers, and eye-witness accounts we only have each other. Banded together like the survivors, we do the best we can with what we have available, until someone else comes along with a more powerful set of truths.

Homer’s epic poem, The Odyssey, has over 12,000 lines and thousands of years later it is still performed around the world. Who knows how close to the original we are in today’s performances?

What to Take Away

When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”
The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

I have come to terms with my small dilemma over writing fiction. It has dawned on me that many of the events that I have lived through, and recounted, contained snippets and anecdotes from others who were present at an event when I wasn’t. The gift of time has allowed me to mix all of our experiences together and tell a story from a point of view that no single one of us had at the time.

Does it really matter how we get to the place where we see the lesson unfold?

In the video below, we hear Anne Washburn prior to the 2012 World Premiere of her play at the Wooly Mammoth Theater Company in Washington, D.C.

  10 comments for “Truth As Art

  1. March 2, 2015 at 11:32 PM

    I think Janet has made some good points in her comment! As far as I can see, fiction would be much the least contentious way to go! We all remember our version of the truth differently….or perhaps even persuade ourselves of what the true event(s) was (were)….and passing time continues to shape the events…


    • March 3, 2015 at 6:49 AM

      It is great to hear from you, Sue. Janet does make some good points about the fine line between truth and fiction, story and memoir. The challenge is in the presentation of the event(s) and the entertainment/enlightenment that follows.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. March 2, 2015 at 7:20 PM

    How stories change over time…intriguing and very much the point of all writing through time and space. It is the study of what it means to be human.


    • March 2, 2015 at 8:04 PM

      I guess being human will have to until there is an alternative available. Thanks for your comment, Stephanie.


  3. March 2, 2015 at 4:55 PM

    An interesting question Allan – I’m personally a fan of the term “historical fiction” where we may not be totally certain of the facts but most of what we say is true. Best of luck with your writing efforts!


    • March 2, 2015 at 5:22 PM

      Thanks, Tina. I have also heard the term, Creative Non-fiction, applied to the genre.

      A rose by any other name….

      Sent from my iPhone



  4. March 2, 2015 at 4:40 PM

    “Banded together like the survivors, we do the best we can with what we have available, until someone else comes along with a more powerful set of truths.”

    Exactly. And a great line. However, there is a difference “between creating a story about something that did not happen and recounting a true story, but getting the facts wrong…” Whose facts? Which perspective? We all remember what we need/want to remember.

    On the other hand, some have written what they said was memoir and publishers and readers have found out later that the “memoirist” wasn’t in that situation at all. It was, in fact, fiction based on facts. In other words, the writer knew about the events but didn’t participate.

    Memoir is tough. I’m on the fifth incarnation of the same one. I’ve kept journals for more than forty years, so I can tell where I was when; some events stand out more than others; but the actual words are sometimes lost to memory, others present. And in memoir, there’s a lot of condensation that has to happen. Writing memoir in a literary way is hard. I just ordered a booklet of fauna and flora from the place where I was living so I could get the right names — and the smells, sometimes they have to be recreated.

    Homer wasn’t writing a memoir. He wrote a poem about heroes. And the Trojan wars. But mostly about heroes and gods and he shows us the fallibility of both memory and tales of bravery.

    i.e. there may be some answers to your questions, but memoir/story/fiction is a very thin line. If fiction is working for you, keep going. I’ll look forward to seeing it.

    Liked by 1 person

    • March 2, 2015 at 4:50 PM

      Thanks for your insightful comment, Janet. You have expanded the discourse with the example of faux-journalism. It has a lot to do with POV—seeing it vs. hearing about it vs. being nearby, but not involved.

      I look forward to seeing your memoir when you get finished with it. Unfortunately I did not keep personal journals. They would certainly help at this point. Perhaps that is why fiction is a better choice for me at this time.


  5. March 2, 2015 at 3:56 PM

    Speaking of the truth of theater, Allan, remember when you helped Bob Nankin in the lighting booth for “Carousel” and the spotlight shorted until you separated the wires only briefly being enlightened yourself ala Homer Simpson shocking, saving the performance in true “the show must go on” fashion. You do remember that?


    • March 2, 2015 at 4:51 PM

      I don’t remember that incident, but I do remember some other “shocking” ones that followed.


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