Making Art or Documenting Facts?

This topic has always felt interesting to me, especially when comparing movies and TV shows to books. There seems to be a much higher standard or sticking to facts with books. A movie or even a show like The Tiger King can say, “based on actual events” and then veer wildly off course. But a book? Not so much.


William Zinsser says, in Writing About Your Life, “To write a memoir you must manufacture a text. You must construct a narrative so readers will want to keep reading. You must, in short, practice a craft. You can never forget the story-teller’s ancient rules of maintaining tension and momentum…give yourself a plot.”

Lee Gutkind, editor of Creative Nonfiction, in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, is adamant that writers of nonfiction cannot make things up. He  questions time compression and composite characters. He says, “Making stuff up, no matter how minor or unimportant, or not being diligent in certifying the accuracy of the available information, endangers the bond between writer and reader.”

Ann Patchett says that Lucy Grealy said, in Truth and Beauty, “’I didn’t remember it,’ Lucy said pointedly. ‘I wrote it. I’m a writer.’ This shocked her audience more than her dismissal of illness, but she made her point: she was making art, not documenting an event.”

Philip Lopate says, in To Show and To Tell, “In giving it shape, a NF writer may be obliged to leave out some facts, combine incidents or even rearrange chronologies. Fine. I do not think we need aply the strictest journalistic standards of factual accuracty to all literary NF.”

Joan Didion says, in On Keeping a Notebook, “I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”

fact or fiction, blurring

Roy Peter Clark in The Line Between Fact and Fiction in Creation Nonfiction says, “The nonfiction writer is communicating with the reader about real people in real places. So if those people talk, you say what those people said. You don’t say what the writer decides they said. You don’t make up dialogue. You don’t make a composite character.” And he finishes the piece with this: “So don’t add and don’t deceive. If you try something unconventional, let the public in on it. Gain on the truth. Be creative. Do your duty. Have some fun. Be humble. Spend your life thinking and talking about how to do all these well.” (italics mine because, well, amen to that about pretty much everything I do)

And then there is the ever-controversial John D’Agata who says changing a fact is justifiable if you do it in the name of art, Lifespan of a Fact. If three trees sounds better than eight trees, write three. Even if there were eight.

When it comes to writing nonfiction, should writers be held to the same factual standards as news reporters? Is it ever okay to compress time? To create composite characters? To change names and details? How much does art come into play when writing nonfiction?

If that is too many questions to answer, how about just one: Can a nonfiction writer change anything when writing an essay? and if even that is too much to think about, go read the books here. They are all excellent.

11 Ways Running is Like Learning a Foreign Language

Two accomplishments I feel rather proud of were accomplished in Africa. Here, I became a runner and here I learned a foreign language. Actually two: French and Somali. Both were incredibly hard and both changed the way I see the world. Amazingly, they have some things in common. Here are eleven ways that running is like learning a foreign language, in my case, Somali.

running and language

1. Its hard.

I thought I was going to die during my first mile-long run in Djibouti and I was already in relatively good shape from doing aerobics. At the end I put my hands on my knees and gasped. “People do this, like, for fun?!” Same with studying Somali. It was hard, required obscene amounts of time and strenuous effort.

2. Progress is slow and steady.

I added a few minutes to my runs each week and built endurance. A 5k turned into a 10k, turned into a half marathon, turned into three full marathons. But that took years. A grunted sentence in Somali, “Me like rice” turned into grammatically correct, multi-faceted sentences that include cultural knowledge as well as vocab, “I like rice that has been cooked on holidays and dyed pink and blue, with roasted lamb and hot sauce.”

3. There are pitfalls along the way.

Injuries, tripping over stones in the desert, getting lost while running in a new city. Mistakes in language usage that leaves one saying, “Do you want my husband?” instead of, “This is my husband.”

4. They change the way you see the world.

I now notice runners everywhere, I notice shoes. A guest leaves a pair of Asics by the door and I know she is a runner. I even know they are Asics. I see the world in terms of running trails and get to know new places while on my feet. Learning Somali has taught me new things about history and justice, camels and color and saying ‘Thank you,’ or not.

5.  They open up new communities.

I didn’t know people existed who use the word “bonk” in normal conversation or who eat Gu on purpose or who think nothing is wasted about four hours spent running solo or who don’t seem to want all their toenails. Not only have I met these people, I’ve become one of them. I didn’t know people who laughed back in their throat like Somalis or who could memorize entire poems and stories simply by listening or who would sweep and mop my house when I come back from time in the US simply because they cared about me. Now I call those people friends.

6. They are never done.

I can cross off a run for the day but I am never done being a runner. It is who I am now. I will never be fluent in Somali. I am now a Somali-language-learner.

7. They make you do embarrassing things.

Running in the hottest country in the world makes me sweat in unmentionable places. On the run things like farts, spit and other bodily fluids have been, um, encountered. Certain stories remain on the trail. Learning a language also brings up embarrassments. Giving speeches in broken Somali, being featured on YouTube under the title, “White Woman Speaks Somali!”, language mistakes (see #3).

8. They make you feel proud.

Not in a boastful, arrogant way. But they make you feel like you have accomplished something hard, worthwhile, satisfying. A marathon. The first novel read in the new language.

9. They draw strange looks from people.

Once at the end of a run in the hot season, a child saw me and was so frightened he tried to crawl onto the back of my guard, who was praying at the time. The kid screamed, “help me! help me!” When I asked the guard who the kid was he said, “I never met him before in my life.” When I speak Somali sometimes people have physically fallen to the ground in shock. Other times they simply stare. That happens a lot while I run, too.

10. They make muscles ache and make the muscles stronger.

My legs will never be the same. I’m no Paula Radcliffe but I think I’ve got some calf muscle that wasn’t there a decade ago. Don’t mess with my calves. Don’t mess with my uvula, either. Or whatever it is in my throat making those kh, q, c noises. The first few months speaking Somali made the back of my throat ache like my legs ached the first few weeks running.

11. They require support.

I needed the people who cheered me on during the marathons and other races, needed to see their faces and hear their cheers, needed to grab the Gu or the water bottle. I am so thankful they were there at the end, sometimes to literally catch me, that they were there while I trained. Biking alongside, taking care of the kids. I’ll never forget the chocolate-covered strawberries waiting for me at my front door when I got home from my first marathon, a surprise gift from my sister who lived states and states away. Learning language requires similar support, cheerleaders, encouragers, motivators. Maybe some fresh-baked chocolate chip cookie deliveries. People who notice the minutest increments of progress and who honor that.

Runners? Language learners?

Anything else the two have in common?

What’s Happening at Do Good Better?

Not blogging so much. I’ve moved almost all my writing and work to Do Good Better and to Stories from the Horn. Do Good Better is an engaging conversation, interactive and full of links to important stories in the world of humanitarian, mission, and development work. Stories from the Horn is my personal newsletter in which you’ll find exclusive essays and links to news from the Horn of Africa.

Here’s what we’ve covered in the past two weeks at Do Good Better.

And every Friday we have a beautiful thread of good things happening all over the world. From big things to simple things, all are worth celebrating and all are helping us find joy in a troubled world.


Do Good Better.

 

I started another new thing.

I would love for you to join me in doing good better.

Are you a wanna-be do-gooder?

Do you want to help without hurting but aren’t sure HOW?

Are you confused about how to embody your faith in the world?

Are you tired of hot takes and throwing stones and want to dig deeper into untangling the messy middle of faith, development work, cross-cultural relationships, and humanitarian expatriate life?

Me, too.

We can do better but we need to help each other.

So, I started this new thing because…why not?

Compelled to create, maybe? Stuffing the coronavirus despair perhaps? Sure, whatever.

Do Good Better.

Check it out.

We’re going to have hard and challenging conversations over there because I don’t know what I’m doing. I’m pretty sure you don’t know what you’re doing either. But we both feel compelled to keep on trying, to keep on doing something, to dream of a better world and hope that we might have a part to play in inaugurating and celebrating it.

Come on over and subscribe!

It lives at Substack and is a subscription-only newsletter. For now, it is free but soon will be moving behind a paywall because producing things, sending newsletter, maintaining the website, these things are not free.

I would love for you to join me because I need your input and wisdom as we wrangle.

Mothering Strong Under Stress Summit

 
Are you feeling overwhelmed? Stressed Out? Need some motivation?
 
In this three-day motherhood summit, you’ll receive a daily dose of encouragement to help you navigate motherhood’s challenges. Through exclusive interviews with six authors (who are moms too!) you’ll learn about mothering strong under stress, finding joy in the unexpected, and raising resilient kids.
 
Sign up and you’ll get all the information you need to access the Mothering Strong Summit on May 6-8.
 
Best of all, you can watch the summit on your own schedule.
 
By |April 29th, 2020|Categories: Uncategorized|0 Comments