Writing Against the Fact


Strangeness, truth in non-fiction, and the space between the real and unreal

I should not have believed a word he said.” Gay Talese disavowed The Voyeur’s Motel, his book about Gerald Foos, a man who allegedly spied on his guests at a Colorado motel he owned from the 60s through the 90s. The Washington Post broke the news that property records show Foos did not own the motel for eight years in the 1980s and, so, the factuality of Talese’s book, of his claims, of the story, of what Foos did or did not see or know or do, were in question. A day later, Talese reclaimed ownership of the book. It became real again. It became true again.

A day later, Talese reclaimed ownership of the book. It became real again. It became true again.

John D’Agata has said that straight fact is insufficient for revealing human emotion. D’Agata himself wrote a book centered around his years-long argument with his fact checker, Jim Fingal, over an essay he wrote for The Believer. In this talk with Slate, D’Agata says, “You feel misled by my essay[…]I accept that. You feel that it’s inappropriate for me to have done this. While I feel that it’s a necessary part of my job to do this. By taking these liberties, I’m making a better work of art — a truer experience for the reader — than if I stuck to the facts.” In the essay in question, D’Agata includes any number of details that are inaccurate or describe things he could not have known. One example is D’Agata pushing against insistence that he correctly name the color of a brick at the base of a tower.

This turn — from truth to something not quite true, then back to the real — says about fact that it is malleable, fluid, intangible. When we say that truth is stranger than fiction, perhaps what we’re seeing is the magic of unreality in the strangeness. Fact is strange when it becomes unreal. When it is too real.

This is haunting. This feeling of unreality shocks us from the experience. We become so very aware of ourselves in relation to the fact of what is revealed. In the unreality — whether we’re talking what is reported to be fact, or in fiction — we find ourselves. We can talk about truth versus fact. We can talk about fiction’s job being to reveal something true about humanity or lived experience. But, I see in the unreal a sort of truth. The unreality is powerful. Perhaps we should embrace writing against the real.

The unreality is powerful. Perhaps we should embrace writing against the real.

I am writing a book with Jill Talbot. In our essays, we write to each other in a sort of call-and-response. She writes, I respond. We are writing our lost loves as ghosts that haunt, and writing the mourning of place as points on a map lost to us. It occurs to me now that one crucial element of the book is now unreal.

With the last essay we wrote, I wrote about a relationship in present tense. Of someone I love moving to another city to wait for me to meet her. Jill and I edited the essay toward its final version. It was true with that edit. I’m writing about fact now as that relationship has since become past tense. It is a ghost. A point on that map. I wonder about its truth. What changes in its reveal now that what I say is unreal?

I write in the essay that the eventuality of leaving Atlanta, of joining the woman I love, is a sort of future becoming. I wrote:

“I am already thinking about which shared things she will take with her and which things I will hold onto until I reach her. There’s a picture of us I took when we visited Baltimore for a wedding. We look so happy there — she lies across my lap, smiling up at me and I’m looking down at her. What you can’t see in that picture: we were near breaking right then. Because of me. I don’t want to write that down right now. I don’t want you to see it. But, know that it’s there in that picture. I know that’s the one thing I need to keep with me. Something to call me back to her, something to remind me of my future arriving.”

She haunts the rest of the book, too. She is there in present tense. I realize now that we need to edit the basic essence of part of the book entirely.

What was true about that paragraph then is true in a different way now. Or, the truth is different than what it was. Or, an entirely new truth is conjured from the writing’s new unreality.

That paragraph is shocking now, where it was simply an attempt at understanding before. The shock reveals something new to me, something I might not have seen until now. The ghost as a mirror. John D’Agata says that “[w]hat I didn’t realize when I was in school and what I suspect a lot of young writers today don’t get either is that you have to create the world that you want to exist in as an artist. You create your own audience, and your own community of peers, and in some ways you create your own forebears as well.” Though what I wrote was a different kind of true than it is now, I create myself, my forebears, in the act of writing. I write not fact, but toward the creation of truth. I write against the fact in the hope that I come to know the ghosts in me.

We write as a form of play. Play is unreal, generally, but we feel it as tangible. We believe in its unreality.

I created a forebear in that paragraph, though I did not know it then. That version of me calls to me from the page. It’s a mythology now. I’m not sure what to make of it, yet. I have not read Talese’s book. I don’t know if the reality of what is written is true or a different sort of true. I don’t know if I care. But, in the making of the mythology is creation of understanding. We write as a form of play. Play is unreal, generally, but we feel it as tangible. We believe in its unreality.

I’m thinking a lot about Rebecca Solnit’s writing lately. I recently finished The Faraway Nearby, which is in part about loss — of memory, of parents — and I finished this book just before my relationship ended. I do not wish to create meaning, or pretend there’s inherent meaning, in that fact. But, something sticks with me from the book: the image of apricots, lots of them, filling Solnit’s home, picked from her mother’s tree as her mother suffered from Alzheimer’s. She writes, “[t]his abundance of unstable apricots seemed to be not only a task set for me, but my birthright, my fairy-tale inheritance from my mother who had given me almost nothing since my childhood.”

We believe in ghosts perhaps because we need them.

We believe in ghosts perhaps because we need them. We need our ghosts to show us who we are, who we are becoming. The apricots mean a number of things to Solnit. They are a fairy tale and they are dangerous. She writes their meaning later, long after they’ve disappeared from her home. The fact of the apricots means nothing, really, but there’s magic in conjuring meaning from them. That paragraph I wrote is true in an unreal way now, but it carries meaning still. I want that unreality — it is dangerous and violent at times and carries the capacity of fairy tale transformation. I need to feel the shattering in what the truth reveals.

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