“People want biography. People want memoir. They want you to tell them that the story you’re telling them is true. The thing I’m telling you is true, but it did not always happen to me.”—Dorothy Allison.
Stories that Could Be True—Collection of poems by William Stafford.
We are far too obsessed with “true” in writing.
Maybe this is a western cultural thing. When I was in preparation for Bible school, one of the really big arguments that stung the would-be seminarians was that of authorship: Did Moses really write the first five books of the Bible? How did he write the part where he died? What if Solomon didn’t pen Ecclesiastes, but it was just a thoughtful sixth-century rabbi, bored and suffering in Babylon? And did Paul, for goodness sakes, write Ephesians and Colossians? Or is Colossians just a spin-off? Seems kind of vague and very Ephesians-like.
Does it make the words less true, if somebody else wrote the story? Let me give you a snippet from my life story:
I was born in an arctic ice cavern, and raised by giant clams. This explains my pasty white skin, and my natural propensity toward distancing myself emotionally.
My younger sister is really a guinea pig. Don’t ask her about it, she gets really touchy and her fur falls off in clumps.
My favorite radioactive minerals are a toss-up between tellurium and neptunium. My astrological sign is Elvis, and I’m well-practiced in Tuva throat singing.
Okay, now that you know a bit of my pretend history, have I somehow devalued the narrative? What if I were to tell you that my son has said all these things to make me laugh? Would that make the narrative less valuable?
What if I just told you that wasn’t true either; that I just made all that junk up in the last ten minutes to make my readers snort?
My point is, all misdirection aside, nobody cares. What is importance is the textual substance and not the author.
If you know the author, you can learn fascinating things about him. For example, if you browse my blogs you’ll see I use the word “well” way too much as a conjunction, and that I occasionally say “My point is…”
Then comes the sticky question of copyright. Would I be happy to see this published elsewhere? would I be honored to have it wander away and find it sitting on somebody else’s blog, with somebody else’s name pasted across the top in big bold letters? I’d probably be a bit grumpy, and honored at the same time.
What if it’s the opposite? What if somebody slaps my name onto something I never wrote? (1 and 2 Peter, from the Bible, may be an example). Did the first Pope of the Catholic church really write those irritatingly complex books of the Bible? Does it really matter?
I don’t know the answers to any of my questions. I just happened today, to notice the quotes you read up top. It made me ponder why two fairly important authors/poets felt the need to qualify their writing as sorta-kinda mostly true.
Maybe I’d do the same. I don’t know. Maybe I just don’t care enough bother. However, you have my guarantee. Ask my mom: I was not raised by giant clams!
Or was I??