What Happened When the Professor Went On a Field Trip

“Yellow School Bus, Chicago, Illinois, USA” Flickr Creative Commons

I lied all the time as a teenager.

I told tales about where I was going, who I was going with, and what kinds of things I did while I was out of the house.  Somehow I rationalized all the deception by complaining that my parents were excessively strict and I wasn’t doing anything worse than my friends whose parents seemed to be fine with girls going on dates at 16, or driving to Palm Springs from Los Angeles alone at 17, or attending overnight house parties where no parents were home at 18.

After this admission, it would make perfect sense if you never believe anything I ever say, much less that I woke up one morning in my early 20s and vowed to never lie again because decided I was really tired of trying to remember which movies I was supposed to have seen, or where I was supposed to have spent the night.  Honestly, there was a little more to it than that.  My very self seemed at stake.  I wondered who I was if I couldn’t face my own life head on and true. What kind of craziness was it to act one way and pretend to be another?

I’m not proud of my past, and I do still owe my parents a very long apology, but I did vividly recalled that long ago girl recently when, once again, the literary world convulsed about the distinction between truth and art, nonfiction and made-up stuff.  The most current flashpoint ignited when Mike Daisey retracted some of his Apple Factory in China story which aired on This American Life. If you missed that brouhaha, catch up here. Or if you want a brief overview of literary lies on a cheating scale of acceptable to never, check out Slate magazines visual guide.

My personal experience may or may not be the reason I’m intensely passionate about truth as a concept in general.  It could also be that as a writer, teacher, and human being, I’m appalled at what might happen to a society which willingly accepts an eroded truth in exchange for a better story, a better bargain, a smoother ride.  Is it dangerous to allow things which are labeled “nonfiction” to be acceptable even if they didn’t happen quite the way they were written because then it will become easier to dismiss real atrocities presented as truth as possible fiction? This conundrum reminds me of listening to Elie Wiesel respond to a question during his “Memory and Hope” presentation at Chapman in 2010. The soft spoken gentle storyteller was asked:

Is Night a memoir and a novel?

He quickly responded:

There’s nothing fiction in it. It’s literature. It’s a witness. It’s a testimony.

Memoirs are supposed to be true. Witness and testimony, so help me God, are true.  And novels are accepted as fiction, even if, even if they’re born out of real events. Night is not a novel.

Photo,© City of Chicago, from http://www.awpwriter.org

So when I perused the AWP catalog before heading to Chicago for the annual conference, one of the first panels that caught my eye was,”What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth?”  Even better when I discovered that one of the panelists would be Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the first text we read for this class. Here’s the catalog description:

Many writers feel comfortable molding the truth to create a more satisfying story, yet still calling their piece nonfiction as long as the emotional core and basic frame of the work remain true.  Not the writers on this panel. These authors, journalists, and nonfiction professors will explore the philosophy of factual versus emotional honesty and discuss how to achieve both—beautiful and moving nonfiction writing that is 100% true.

You can read a brief roundup of what happened during the entire presentation on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, here if you like.  You’ll find all the panel participants and an extended comments section which keeps the conversation alive.  But what I’d like to tell you doesn’t show up there, in fact this little anecdote doesn’t show up in any of the post-Chicago news I’ve read, yet for me it was one of the most compelling things I heard all weekend.

Rebecca Skloot graciously opened her moment at the microphone with an observation that perhaps we have a linguistic issue at the heart of this discussion of why nonfiction writers seem to be dropping like flies out of the whole truth sky.  Maybe there’s confusion, she says, that “Creative” doesn’t apply to the truth implied in the nonfiction label, rather to the way the truth is presented. She used the opening scene of Chapter 1 of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as an example of the sort of excruciatingly time-consuming work she performed to get every detail of the book correct.

Rebecca begins by reading from the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1, page 13 in my book.

She stops and the end of the page and asks, “Now this happened in the 1950s, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even born.  So how did I know all that?”  She proceeds to tell us.

She checked the weather bureau which tracks weather back for decades and yes, on that day it was, in fact, raining in Baltimore, Maryland. She asked Day, and others, “what kind of car did Day drive?”  “A Buick” was the consistent answer and then she found an old photo of Day standing by his car and she was able to confirm that yes, Day’s car at that time, was a Buick.

She went to Johns Hopkins which had archival photos of both the inside and the outside of the building.  She found a photo showing a tree by the front door and she showed the photo to a botanist who confirmed, “That’s an oak.”  She found a photo of the front desk and was able to describe it from the photo.

“So how did I get the line, ‘I’ve got a knot on my womb’? I’ve got Henrietta’s medical records but it sure doesn’t say that in there.  So over and over and over I interviewed family and friends who knew Henrietta and I asked them, what did she say? Did she tell you she was sick?  How did she describe her problem?”

“And to a one, the all said, ‘Henrietta said, I’ve got a knot on my womb.”

Rebecca says yes, of course this is an incredible amount of work, but “we don’t want people to lose credibility.”

She says the hardest parts of the book were writing the sections where she appeared. She says she re-interviewed people who were with her. “How do you remember what happened that day?” And they’d say, “Why are you asking me that, you were there.”

“I don’t want to get it wrong.  So much damage can be done by incorrect facts.”

Rebecca Skloot insists there’s no detail too small to nitpick.  She recounts her experience reading from her book in front of audiences and said she frequently reads the section where Henrietta, in the bathtub, discovers her “knot.” She says she knows the house Henrietta lived in at the time and she knew that house had a bathtub and Henrietta had told many people she found the knot on herself in the tub and there’s really only one way to find that lump.  “But I think I overstepped with “slowly spread her legs.”

“How did I know it was slowly?  I know it was a small bathtub, but do I know it was slowly?  That bugged me so much, the second edition I had my editor take out the word slowly so that’s one difference between the first edition and the second edition.”

Slowly.

Check out your own page 15 to see which edition you have.

Rebecca ended with, “Journalism techniques are undercut, underutilized in creative writing.”

Later on, when presentations have given way to Q & A, Rebecca sounded frustrated.

“I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation,” she says.  She recounts a personal story about fallout from the discovery that some key elements of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea were untrue.  If you’d like to watch the 60 Minutes segment where Steve Kroft questions facts of that book, watch here.

Skloot said there were so many parallels between the two books. They were reported over a long period of time.  Both writers had started a foundation. She was inundated by queries, folks all wondering if she too had made any parts of her incredible story up. Calls. E-mails. Questions.  All assumed there must be some sort of guilt by association.

“I lost my credibility. It took me one entire year to rebuild my credibility the day the Three Cups of Tea story broke.”

A question from the audience: “Where comes this requirement that the essay form be fact?  You already said poetry doesn’t have to be true.  So who decides?  Why do essays have to be true?”

Rebecca answers “actually it’s publishers and bookstores who label it so.”

Philip Gerard, another panelist spoke up to remind that the term “essay” comes from the French essayer, meaning, to try.  “In an essay you deal with the world the way it is to get to the bottom of things.”

In truth.  As best you can discern. Because that’s where the real world is. And the real world is where we live.

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