Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Fact v. Fiction

“What is history? How can we ever know?” These were the only two sentences that I wrote on piece of lined notebook paper and mailed to my first college advisor in the middle of my summer internship. I wrote them when I lost faith. Shortly afterwards I abandoned my History major and decided to study Comparative Literature.

Antioch's main building.
I spent my first year and a half of college at Antioch College in Yellowsprings, Ohio. My advisor and all-around hero was one of the two history professors, Bob Fogarty. From him I learned that I was a big fat sucker for anything that was written in a book. For our Introduction to History class, the theme was California. We read everything from dry history text books, to first person accounts, watched films, read novels, looked at visual art, all while trying to keep an eye out for what the heck “history” was. The point was that people, just like us students, lived in every time period, and through all of this material we could get a glimpse of what their lives had been like, but we could never KNOW. The point was that people, just like us, wrote these books and accounts. And the point was that people, just like us, are fallible, can misremember, and sometimes outright lie, all while claiming to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth. Just because someone bothered to print it in black and white didn’t make it any more true.

The Smithsonian "Castle"
The following summer I interned at the National Museum of American History in DC in the Division of Cultural History. I did odd jobs for David Shayt, one of the most outrageously wonderful people I’ve ever worked with. He brought me in to do object research for the 9/11 one year retrospective. When that finished, I wrote teeny tiny accession numbers on Julia Child’s kitchen utensils, did photographic research for a traveling exhibit on the history of the lunch pail, and organized the silly putty/crayon collection. I loved the museum. But the more I thought about it, the more it bothered me that I had been working for weeks and weeks on Julia Child’s kitchen. What was the point of that? Yeah it was fun, it would draw museum visitors in, it would educate about the cultural shift in middle class eating habits, but what the hell was it doing in The Museum of American History? What was being left out because Julia Child had taken its spot?

Why do we choose the things we choose for inclusion in our historical institutions and narratives?

I was much happier when I stopped trying to be a history student and switched over to literature. Literature, stories, myths, fiction, all felt SO much more true to me. Fiction knows it’s fiction and good fiction, great fiction, is fiction that feels true, emotionally, psychologically, and visually.

Which is maybe why I can’t seem to bring myself to care about whether or not a non-fiction book is totally factual. I don’t think any book can be totally factual, especially not one that is told by a person about their own experience. They’re all stories, stories that are constructed by people to be told to other people. What’s left out, the way things are worded and recalled, is all strung together to create a certain effect.

My senior year of college, the year I took my first writing workshop, was the year of the James Frey hoopla. Andrew and I talked about this the other night and he thinks it was a big deal because Frey had been successful and people like to get mad if someone gained their success in dishonest ways. Oprah’s outrage was shocking to me. What he wrote about may’ve not been totally true for him, but it was probably true to human experience. I just don’t get it.

Which is probably why it’s a good thing I’m a fiction writer.

1 comment:

  1. Couldn't agree with you more. Everything's subjective - even film footage - you're looking at things the way the camera man saw them, its not the whole picture, and even if you saw the whole picture, it'd still be filtered through your perceptions. There are far more perceptions than facts out there.

    I think you're too creative to enjoy being an historian :)