Monday, June 22, 2015

What is Truth, Really?

Spouse and I were rewatching an old fave movie the other night - A Knight's Tale - and I noticed something interesting I'd not caught the last ten times I watched it.

The charming story takes place in the olden days of Knights and Ladies, nobility and peasants, with the late great Heath Ledger looking his most dapper in the lead role. (I highly recommend it as a clean and clever Friday night fam flick.)

Near the beginning of the movie, Heath's character and his two adorable peasant sidekicks encounter a naked Geoffrey Chaucer trudging down the road. Paul Bettany, who plays a hilariously high-wordy, immensely likable Chaucer, apparently suffers from a gambling addiction and when he loses everything on a bad run, including his clothes, it's not unusual for him to be gallivanting around in his birthday suit (don't worry, we only see his backside).

So on yet another occasion when he again is reduced to stark buffidity (not a word but should be), Chaucer defends a bold-faced lie he has just laid on an angry Heath with this little gem: "I'm a writer! I give the truth scope."

Oh the marvel of that magnificent statement! Let me repeat it so we writers can roll it around together on our collective tongue:

"I'm a writer! I give the truth scope."

Well said, Geoff, ole boy.

I am often asked by writers-in-the-making at my writing workshops how much literary license is allowable in constructing nonfiction ... say, memoirs for example. (Obviously the sky's the limit in fiction, so I will focus on nonfiction here.)

My answer? More than you might think.

Consider the bestselling mega-hit memoir, Angela's Ashes. It's highly unlikely that author Frank McCourt, an adult recording true events of his long past childhood, could recall word-for-word conversations that took place every day for the numerous years covered in the book.

Yet chapter after chapter is ripe with detailed conversations that expertly expose character traits and move story lines along toward a gripping climax, more showing than telling (every writer's ultimate goal).

I've never had the opportunity to ask Frank if he was compelled to use literary license in creating all that dialogue, but my educated guess is that it was necessary for him to elaborate on basic elements of truth in order to reconstruct scenes that led to events as he remembered them.

Every memoir and creative nonfiction workshop I've ever attended confirms and condones this.There really is no other logical way to record conversations that occurred long ago, or that occurred without the author present. You work with what you DO know to be true, staying loyal to the character and events, and do the best you can to fill in the holes.

So stop stressing over that memoir chapter depicting the well deserved nosebleed you gave your pesky cousin when you were eight. When he appears at your door snorting fire after reading about it as a 45-year-old, simply smile and quote the Prince of Tales, Geoffrey Chaucer, "I'm a writer! I give the truth scope."