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.”