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The Spectrum of Truth in Nonfiction

Last week was the annual Writing the Rockies conference, held at Western State Colorado University in Gunnison.

I participated in the nonfiction track and the first session I attended was focused on reporting and creative nonfiction. The panel featured Brian Calvert Editor of High Country News, Alissa Johnson, a writer, teacher, and coach, George Sibley, a nonfiction writer, and Mark Todd, an author, and professor of English at Western State.

The conversation centered around the spectrum of truth in nonfiction writing. This was much of the focus of the nonfiction track at the conference.

The crux of the discussion was this—given that we all have our own opinions and experiences, the same story or event, told by different people, will all end up as a different story, told through a unique lens. The question then, is how, as a writer, do you uphold truth in your writing, despite your individual stories and interpretations of the truth?

The presenters on the panel chimed in with insights into how they attempt to limit the inclusion of their personal interpretations of the stories they cover. One approach that Brian Calvert shared is simply making himself aware of where he is on the spectrum of truth. If you are writing to report and to tell an objective account of an event, you must be acutely aware of whether or not you are starting your story with judgment. If your intent is to share a story or event, in the most truthful way, seek less to confirm your own beliefs and instead seek to discover what you don't already know.

Several of the presenters shared their experiences covering stories and when approaching from this perspective—seeking to discover and learn—they uncovered facts and perspectives that they never knew existed which molded their stories into something they hadn’t expected.

Understanding what it is that you’re writing was also discussed. There are types of journalistic writing that span the spectrum of truth. A few discussed in the session:

  • Op-Ed: Commentary, opinion-based, feature articles
  • Explainer / Service Journalism: Consumer-oriented features, reviews, and advice 
  • Analysis Journalism: A combination of investigative journalism and explanatory reporting with the goal of explaining a topic and creating context for the reader
  • Essay: This is a discovery exercise. The journalist is investigating and exploring a topic or event and sharing their experience and what they learn through the piece.
  • Narrative: Recreating a factual story through reporting.

Where these fall on the spectrum depends on the how much opinion or bias is inserted into the story.

This concept holds true for Creative Nonfiction novels as well. Sean Prentiss presented on the role of story in nonfiction and suggested that truth is not obtainable, but that instead, nonfiction is less the telling of the truth and instead an exercise in personal mythology. Suggesting that each of us, unconsciously creates our own realities from the experiences we have and as we move through our lives, establish our own narrative and our own mythologies that define us, whether or not there is truth to them. 

He shared a memory: As a child, he was skiing with his father and they were on a ski lift. The lift stopped and soon they realized that it was stuck. Sean became scared and frantically requested that he be the first off the lift, as the rescuers came to get him. So his dad convinced the rescue team to get Sean down first, before anyone else. Since that day, Sean has felt shame over his fear and panic.

Decades later, he went skiing with his dad, and his dad brings up the day when the chair lift got stuck. His dad shared how scared he was and how responsible he felt for the two girls on the lift with him, with no mention of Sean. According to his father’s story, Sean wasn’t even there.

Which story is true? 

This theory of memory and our inability to maintain pure representations of experiences is partly defined by the forgetting curve. The theory states that humans halve memories of events in just a matter of days. As a result, when we try to recall a memory after it's been degraded, we fill in gaps, informed by previous experiences and our own stories. No memory is truly pure. Even a photograph isn’t pure. The photographer has chosen the subject of the photograph and how to adjust the light and the aperture to create a representation of the moment that is their desired interpretation.

If you think about it, almost nothing shared second hand is pure truth. Therefore, we all must be diligent in our information gathering and sharing. Especially now, in the post-truth era of politics and news. If you’re seeking the most honest version of a story or situation, seek information from different sources. And, if you are sharing information, be careful. Maintain awareness of your bias and how it impacts your interpretations of events. What you experienced might be something entirely different than what others experienced. Be aware of what you're leaving out and how your interpretations color the story.

Recognizing that there’s a spectrum of truth in all stories, makes us more open to others interpretations and our own. There’s more truth in a collection of experiences than just a single story. What might we learn, if we all took time to listen to and learn from multiple versions of the same event.

Andrea Steffes-Tuttle