Thursday, February 12, 2015

Don't Let the Truth Get in the Way of a Good Story: When Facts and Truth Matter

In June of 1995, my sisters Kathleen, Bridget, and I toured Ireland. I have many memories of that trip, but the recent media flap over NBC news broadcast journalist Bryan Williams reminded me of a saying I first heard our Irish bus driver say twenty years ago: “Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.”

Our bus driver/tour guide was a cheerful and funny man with a "gift of gab" I’ll call Tommy. To quote the TV show “Dragnet,” Tommy’s “name has been changed to protect the innocent.”

During our daily trips, Tommy shared some history of Ireland and entertained us with jokes and long-winded tales. And usually, after one of his far-fetched stories, someone would ask him: “Is that a true story?” 

He would grin and wink then say, “The Irish have a saying: Don’t let the truth get in the way of a good story.” 

After hearing some of his stories, one might conclude that Tommy not only kissed the Blarney Stone, he went back for seconds.

As he skillfully drove down busy highways and wended across narrow roads, stopping for flocks of sheep, which he called “Irish traffic jams,” he would break out into song and encourage everyone to sing along. When one of the tourists complimented him on his singing, he smiled widely and humbly bragged that his voice wasn’t as good as his cousin’s, who belonged to the Irish rock group, “The Cranberries.” 

After I returned to the USA, I shared his don’t-let-the-truth saying with several writing friends, some who often quote it and a few who claim it as their own.

I’ve also used Tommy’s principle in my own writing--my fiction writing that is. In fiction, it is all right to embellish and change details or facts to fit a story. That’s why it’s called fiction.

But in non-fiction, facts are important, and truth is the critical element.  

When I write personal essays, I try to remain as faithful to the truth as possible, or at least as I remember it. 

But memories can fade, especially over long periods of time. Was it sunny or overcast thirty day years ago? Was I wearing a blue dress or a red sweater? Using vivid details can color a story and make it stronger, but they aren’t as important as the essence of the essay--the universal truth I’m trying to convey. And while those details might be innocent mis-remembrances, they aren’t deliberate falsehoods, like the ones Bryan Williams told when he reported that the helicopter he was riding in was shot at by RPGs.

Using dialogue in personal essays is especially tricky. I’ve often tried to recall conversations verbatim. For example, I've asked myself: Is that exactly what my mom said when I told her my teacher died? If I can’t recall the exact words, I stay true to my memory of how I felt and what I believe she said. On occasion I'll ask one of my siblings to compare memories.

So, while I’ll continue to embellish and not let the truth get in the way of my fiction writing, for my non-fiction, while I might occasionally “change a name to protect the innocent,” I’ll follow the advice of Sergeant Joe Friday on “Dragnet” and do my best only to use “Just the facts, ma’am.”


  1. This is a very good post, Donna, one that is especially important for those of us who write creative non-fiction. I too find myself trying to remember exact pieces of dialogue and whether that was or was not exactly what was said. For a recent story, I fretted over what type of clouds were present that day (I said they were cumulus, then worried they were stratus!). I think what's most important is to capture the truth of the entire piece rather than trying to make every detail perfectly true. I strive to be as precise as possible without driving myself completely crazy because memory, especially if we're going back many years, can be suspiciously faulty. Thanks for such an insightful post!

    1. Hi Theresa,
      Thanks for your comment. I totally agree with you about getting facts correct when writing creative non-fiction.
      It is a struggle to make sure the details are as factual as possible, and like you I fret over them, especially when I'm writing about something that occurred years ago.

  2. Truth is stranger than fiction. When somebody says something particularly outrageous that I know I want to write about, I jot it down in my little flip-top spiral notebook. I wish I'd used one many years ago so I didn't have to try and reconstruct conversations now.

    1. Jotting things down on a flip-top spiral notebook is a good idea. I always think I'll remember something and don't need to write it down, but when it's time to recall it, it's gone.

  3. Donna--We all grapple with that. What exactly DID we say twenty-three years ago? How DID they react eight years ago? We can't remember--most of us--but we can stay true to the experience and the people who lived it, and do our best to paint the scene the way it happened... to the best of our memory.

  4. "...went back for seconds..." I'm still laughing at that remark. It's a fine line we walk as creative non-fiction writers. I agree, we must be as factual as possible. Good post.

  5. What a good and timely post for me this morning. At a recent guild meeting there was a difference of opinion on fiction and non-fiction. I held that a story could not be factual but still be true. In fact, I am working on one man's essay to make it a short story and can't wait until he sees it. After all there really was no yellow brick road or flying monkeys but everyone knows The Wizard of Oz held truth about finding home.

  6. Hi Sioux,
    You are right. It is so true about staying true to the experience and painting the scene the way it happened as we best remember it.

    Hi Linda,
    Thanks. And it is a fine line we walk as creative non-fiction writers. I want to make sure I don't go over that line.

    Hi Claudia,
    I totally agree. The best fiction carries within it a lot of truth, mostly about universal emotions, such as The Wizard of Oz and Dorothy's yearning to find home.

  7. At one of our WVWriter's conferences, I attended a workshop given by Jim Minick, author of The Blueberry Years: A Memoir of Farm and Family. It was a very good workshop. He told about writing creative nonfiction. On one of the handouts it stated, We don't change the basic plot or invent characters; but we might condense time, make omissions, recreate once-heard dialogue, and make composite characters--all to allow readers better access to our experiences..." The handout told about emotional truth versus factual truth, selection and omission, exaggeration, elaboration and collapsing time and composite characters. It said creative nonfiction writers walk a thin line that other writers do not, they must grapple with the boundary between ethical and artistic clarity. Sorry for the long comment, but I just happened to find his handouts yesterday when I was going through my writing clutter :o)

    1. Hi Janet,
      Thanks so much for your comment. I'm going to cut and paste and use for future reference when i have a question about this topic.

  8. Great post Donna! Thanks for sharing. And it sounds like you and your sisters had fun in Ireland! I see that a story of yours is going to be in CS Thanks to my Mom. I'm sure it's a beautiful story! Congratulations!

  9. What a great post! I too laughed about Tommy going back for seconds. One thing I love about a handheld device is the Note feature. I can pretend to be texting and write down bits of conversation. Glad Lynn pointed out about Thanks to My Mom! Congratulations!

  10. Hi Lynn,
    You are welcome. My sisters and I had a great time in Ireland, and I have many fond memories.

    Hi Tammy,
    That's a great idea about using the Note feature. I will have to try it.

  11. This is a very interesting posting with great tips on credible writing. Your trip to Ireland sounded fascinating. Too bad about Brian Williams.

  12. I do believe an essay can only portray our own truth. Unless, of course, someone caught the scene on video!

    Critter Alley

  13. Great post, Donna, and good comments too. There is a condensed article by Lee Gutkind, the editor of Creative nonfiction Magazine, on the Saturday Writers website under the Members' Good News tab. The basic takeaway is, "'Creative' doesn’t mean inventing what didn’t happen, reporting and describing what wasn’t there. It doesn’t mean that the writer has a license to lie. The cardinal rule is clear—and cannot be violated. This is the pledge the writer makes to the reader—the maxim we live by, the anchor of creative nonfiction: 'You can’t make this stuff up!'" His mantra is "True stories well told."
    I couldn't agree more. Throwing in a cloud or color seems okay, as long as it doesn't affect the story, but then again if it doesn't have a reason to be there I just prefer to leave it out.
    I say this because I recently heard a speaker, a college teacher, say that nonfiction doesn't have to be true! I was really upset that she is teaching that, when there is so much confusion already.
    But I agree with what you and the readers here have said.


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