Friday, January 27, 2006

Just Stick to the Facts, Ma'am and Wearing James Frey's Shoes

I'll tell ya...seems the phrase lately is, "If you're going to write a memoir, you better make dang sure it's truthful. If you want to stretch the truth a bit, call if fiction. Or don't even consider having Oprah back you up."

I'm sure all of y'all have read about how James Frey, author of "A Million Little Pieces" and who just so happens to have the words "Oprah's Book Club" as broad as daylight right beside his title on Amazon (btw, his ranking is at #666 as we speak), stretched the truth a bit in said book for the sole purpose to SELL his book. While truth might be stranger than fiction, it seems James didn't think so.

But, let's get to this stretching the truth thing.

As a journalist, columnist and humor writer, I've written hundreds - well almost hundreds...there I go again...truth! truth! - of columns about my life told in a humorous way.

I've also written front page human interest stories for my local newspaper, The Eastern Shore News (Gannett publication). Well, okay, one. Man, this truth thing is really getting on my nerves.

And, yes, I have stretched the truth a bit, especially in my humor pieces. But isn't that expected?

When I'm writing a humor column about something that occured in my life, people expect it to be true and I'll admit most of it is. But, then, there's that 2% that might have stretched the truth a bit. That 2% barely goes noticeable and isn't enough to warrant a reader to get all bent out of shape and call me down on it, but how many of us who write columns are guilty of this? Did Erma Bombeck stretch the truth enough to become a bestseller or was her life just like anyone else's? Was her book, "Family - The Ties That Bind...And Gag!" simply written because she exaggerated a point or two for laughs?

As writers, we have incredible imaginations. Besides that, we know when a piece can be "refined," "made better," "improved," and that often results in stretching the truth a bit in order to get that laugh, cry, sigh, whatever.

But, is there a fine line between writing humor columns and writing memoirs?

Guess it must be because the world is in an uproar over James Frey and his incredible tale which everyone presumed to be the truth and which they are up in arms because they found out it isn't.

To humor me, and to express a point that needs expressing, let's put ourselves in James Frey's shoes for a moment.

I haven't read the book but I've read where he said some woman - sorry, don't recollect just who this woman was - hung herself instead of slitting her wrists like she really did.

Well, to me, both represents death and to James, as a writer who wants to make his book the best it can be for reading pleasure, chooses the woman to hang herself which he's probably ready to do himself at any moment. Hang, slit wrists, it's all the same.

In another incidence, he claims he was in jail for a much longer stay than he quoted in the book. Hey, if you're in jail, it seems like eternity so perhaps James is stretching the truth a bit but to him, it might have seemed that long. Or maybe he used the longer length in time to express his point...it's called exaggerating, but it's all relative.

I agree that a memoir should be fact-based. If it isn't, then call it what it is.

This is interesting because I have written my own memoir. Well, only two or three chapters...just can't get that stretching the truth thing down pat just yet but is there a fine line between a memoir and an autobiography? I say there is.

An autobiography is definitely fact-based. So why didn't James Frey call it an autobiography? Because it wan't fact-based entirely. He knew that much anyway.

Columnists and memoir-authors have been doing this for years but I think the reason why Frey's boat has been blown out of the water is because of Oprah Winfrey.

Oprah has standards. She has an empire that depends on her and she must meet those standards in order to keep her empire.

The world has learned that Oprah has endorsed a book that was supposed to be fact-based, yet how many other Oprah Winfrey Book Club Inductees have done the same thing?

I say it's all too confusicating to me. And the next time I write a humor column, I'm going to stick to the facts. Will I receive less laughs? Who knows, but they say truth is stranger than fiction. Just might try it. Only the problem is, no one would believe it.

2 comments:

  1. True or not, look at all the publicity he's got.

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  2. What I find the hardest to write is fiction. Making stuff up requires a lot of planning for characters and events. Day-to-day life seems to provide plenty of inspiration. Sometimes truth really is stranger -- if not funnier -- than fiction. I suppose it's all in how you look at it. ;)

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