Based on a True Story

Wifesy and I were watching J. Edgar the other day.  I’m a huge Dustin Lance Black fan.  As we were watching it, we were struck with a couple of moments where we thought, “That can’t be true.”  Wifesy goes nuts when she’s watching something that she knows is based on a real person’s life, right away, she wants to know what’s true and what’s not.  When the truth gets stretched, she gets angry.


As a writer, this doesn’t bother me as much.  I feel that the author has license and that whatever is in the interest of making a good story better, well, that’s okay by me.  Lie if you want.  Elaborate.  Exaggerate.  I don’t mind.  But, not Wifesy if she feels that she’s being lied to in a story, she takes it personally.  It’s like you’re lying right to her face.


The moments we thought must’ve been fictionalized were moments between Hoover and his supposed (most likely) lover.  The two of them were in a room and Hoover was questioning his “loyalty” once again.  Hoover was an odd man and it was, for sure, an intimate moment.  It was also very melodramatic.  We thought that, without a doubt, Mr. Black, the writer, had taken some license with that part of the story.  There was also a fight scene between Hoover and his alleged lover in their hotel room.  Again, as Wifesy pointed out, only the two of them were in the room and they are both dead.  So, it had to be made up.  She had to know.  I had to know.  So, I began google searching.  I looked up interviews with Dustin and found out, nope, those moments were not fabricated.  Neither of them.  Both moments were based on conversations that were overheard by others in adjoining rooms.  Fascinating stuff, but no surprise to me because Black is known for his extensive research.


All of this “was it true,” “was it not true” talk got me thinking about the James Frey controversy concerning his book, A Million Little Pieces.  I’ve read the book and I LOVED it.  It’s an incredibly awesome, page-turning, “memoir” about supposedly Frey’s life.  That’s where the controversy comes in.  Apparently, sections of the book were made up.  What Frey admitted to were that accounts of his criminal record were highly exaggerated.  The Smoking Gun website opened up this can of worms by trying to find a mug shot of Frey and coming up empty.


It went down something like this.  Oprah had originally endorsed the book.  It was sold as a “memoir.”  Once Oprah endorsed it, the book sailed to the top of the New York Times Bestseller list and remained there for 15 weeks.  After the Smoking Gun and other journalists started poking around, Oprah had Frey and Frey’s publicist back on her show.  This is when all hell broke loose.  Oprah held Frey and his publisher to the fire demanding to know what was true and what was not true.


I saw the interview and James Frey looked like a fish caught on a line desperately trying to break free.  It was goddermned uncomfortable.  Basically, Oprah made Frey incredibly popular as an author and then destroyed him.



However, one thing bothered me.  I didn’t care.  I didn’t care that portions of the book were made up.  It was still a damn good book.  I did not feel outraged that he stretched the truth.  I just didn’t.  As a writer, I feel like, “good on you,” you made your story better.


But, it says something about non-fiction writing.  It gets inside of you and under your skin.  People feel like they know you and that becomes personal.  So, when things aren’t true, readers feel betrayed.  I think this is what happens to Wifesy.  Me, though, I tend to give the author far more leeway.


In terms of blog writing, we all know how important authenticity is.  What is blog writing,  and a lot of what appears here on WordPress, if not non-fiction writing?  People have told me time and again that what they like reading about is my life.  It makes you feel like you know a person.  It makes you feel like you have a bird’s eye view into their world.


However, I question how you ever know a person through their writing or any other artistic expression because what is often presented is a “best” version of one’s self or a heightened version of moments and events.  Once an event is in the past, it goes through different filters in our mind that color it and process it and then – maybe, just maybe – a similar to the truth version gets served up to the reader.


Yesterday, I found myself telling the story of A Dolphin’s Tale to my family over lunch.  It’s the based-on-a-true-story of a dolphin that gets a prosthetic tail through the help of a veterinarian and a caring community.  It’s a pretty amazing story, even while coming off a bit Disney-ish.


After my re-telling, my brother said, “Is that all true?  Did that really happen?”


Now, I know there was a dolphin and he did get a tail.  But, I’m not sure there was a little boy who became enamored with the dolphin and then inspired a whole community!  I’m not sure if that little detail – meaning the entire main character of the film! – is even true.  But, there was a dolphin and a prosthetic, so I said to my brother, “Yeah, it’s a true story.”


He seemed almost relieved.  I was glad I could help.


What about you?  Do you need memoirs and “based on a true stories” to be completely true or will you allow a bit of fabrication?  As always, I’d love to know what you think.



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