Posted on January 14, 2013 by Joe Sacksteder

Against all sage advice from my colleagues, I’m thinking about proposing a class. I want to call it “True Lies: Untruth in Nonfiction,” a creative writing class that explores the gray area that Elisabeth called attention to in my last post: the various ways that artists define truth. The first thing that comes to mind is James Frey’s Oprah-enraging “memoir,” A Million Little Pieces. What I’m more concerned with, though, is the unflinching, unapologetic notion of how we can make stuff up and claim that it’s somehow truer than what actually happened. Of course distrust of capital-T-Truth is a central tenant of modernism, so I know this is nothing new, but I first became interested in this subject via Werner Herzog’s concept of “the ecstatic truth,” which he defines thus:

There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.

Most of the artists invested in exploring this alternate truth supply us with its antithesis, the Oprah Winfreys who want their genre boundaries distinct. In Herzog’s case, the opposite of the ecstatic truth is what he calls “the accountants’ truth”:

By dint of declaration the so-called Cinema Verité is devoid of verité. It reaches a merely superficial truth, the truth of accountants.

Once this idea wormed its way into my mind, I started seeing it everywhere. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried would be a big part of my proposed class:

I want you to feel what I felt. I want you to know why story-truth is truer sometimes than happening-truth.

Oprah would have trouble screaming at Tim O’Brien since his fabrications are so blatant – for example, book-Tim has a daughter and real-life-Tim does not – and because he has resisted imposing a genre label onto his most famous book.
From Adam Gopnik’s article, “What Did Jesus Do?” in The New Yorker:

A real, unchangeable difference does exist between what might be called storytelling truths and statement-making truths—between what makes credible, if sweeping, sense in a story and what’s required for a close-knit metaphysical argument. Certain kinds of truths are convincing only in a narrative. The idea, for instance, that the ring of power should be given to two undersized amateurs to throw into a volcano at the very center of the enemy’s camp makes sound and sober sense, of a kind, in Tolkien; but you would never expect to find it as a premise at the Middle Earth Military Academy.

And Adam Novy’s novel, The Avian Gospels:

The tale about the knife wasn’t true, but that kind of truth was not the most important truth now.

At the risk of thrice-exposing some students to my ruminations on The Book of the Dead, I think Muriel Rukeyser would fit nicely into my proposed course. The ecstatic truth / story-truth / storytelling truth / knife truth – whatever you want to call it – is a great way to frame her decision to recount the Hawk’s Nest Disaster via poetry rather than her previous line of work, journalism. Newspaper and magazine articles would have forced their genre characteristics onto her account, leaving readers with something ostensibly more factual and less biased, but less poetic. Since I don’t believe Rukeyser came up with a cute name for her manipulation of truth (Did she?), I will do so for her, using one of her favorite adjectives: poetry allowed Rukeyser to give us “the brilliant truth” of the incident. In the brilliant truth, every word of the poem “Absolom” poured from the bereaved mother, Dora Jones, rather than from a variety of sources. In the brilliant truth, quotes from Paradise Lost cry out, suns declare midnight, and a power plant transforms into hell as she spirals downwards in the poem “Power.” In the brilliant truth, you can turn to your readers at the end with a wishful moral:

And you young, you who finishing the poem
wish new perfection and begin to make;
you men of fact, measure our times again.

And perhaps this phrase, “men of fact,” which appears throughout The Book of the Dead, is Rukeyser’s antithesis to the brilliant truth, her version of Herzog’s accountants’ truth, O’Brien’s happening-truth, Gopnik’s statement-making truth, or even Oprah’s truth. In Rukeyser’s case, it seems to be more insidious; the men of fact hold up the truth of numbers and dollar signs and stock quotes and blueprints at the expense of a worker’s truth, or a mother’s truth.

I would be very interested to hear of other texts that I might look at for my projected “True Lies” syllabus. The class would also deal with the ways we all fudge the truth whenever we sit down trying to write non-fiction; for example, exaggeration, privileging our own point-of-view, and dialogue we can’t possibly remember. There would also be a week or two on/of misinformation.