First let me start with a true story that some of you might remember (I blogged it at the time): a couple years ago, I was in the ground floor studio of my old house, which sat maybe seven or eight feet from a heavily trafficked street. I remember specifically that I was working on the first Middle Man cartoon, when there was this huge crash and the whole room shook and I jumped up out of my seat so quickly that my drawing tablet fell on the floor and cracked open (I had to buy a new one later, and they’re not cheap). Was it an earthquake? An explosion? What the fuck? I ran out the front door and saw that an old Buick had run up over the curb and crashed into the side of my house. The driver, an elderly woman, was sitting in the front seat dazed, and I ran over — and here’s the really crazy part — I immediately recognized her as my eleventh grade art teacher from Iowa! She was many years older, of course, and everything was insanely out of context, but she’d been hugely important to me as a young artist, and there was no question in my mind that it was her. “Mrs. McGillicuddy!” I shouted —
Okay, as you’ve hopefully figured out, this is all total bullshit. I mean, there are elements of truth — I used to have a studio a few feet from a heavily trafficked street. And I did have a eleventh grade art teacher who was an important influence, though he was male and not named McGillicuddy. But the rest is, as they say, embellished.
But see how that changes it, whether it’s presented as a true story or a made-up one? If it’s true, you’re thinking wow, what an incredible coincidence! What are the odds that the driver who crashed into his house was actually his eleventh grade art teacher? If it’s fiction, on the other hand, you’re thinking, huh — well, that’s not a very plausible story, and why should I care?
This is what I mean when I say: fiction presented as fact lays claim to currency it did not earn.
Alternately let’s take a more serious approach — let’s say I make up a story about a wacked-out hillbilly, stoned out of his mind on something or another (l’m thinking meth, but for some reason I see this happening in the early nineties–were people doing meth back then?), who kills a woman in a rear-end collision on a dark country road one night. Let’s give it some detail: she’s fifty-five when she dies, and so religious that she has actually started her own church, in an old prefab metal building on her property no less, and often believes she hears the voice of the Lord warning her of various imminent dangers — but when that car comes up too quickly in the rearview mirror, the voice of the Lord apparently remains silent.
The details seem a little heavy-handed as I look at it, but I could probably flesh it out a bit and get a pretty poignant short story out of it.
Except that one is about my mom, and is entirely true. See how that changes it? I mean, I’m still manipulating your emotions — but the fact that these things literally happened gives them resonance beyond my modest talents as a writer.
I understand the lines are blurry and stories, even true ones, are often embellished in the re-telling. But there’s still an important fundamental distinction in how you perceive a story, depending on whether you believe it to be mostly true, or basically made up. And exploiting that, by presenting entirely fictional incidents as mostly true, or “true” in a “larger sense”, is a cheat on the part of the storyteller.