Truth in Lying

The readings for this week were concerned with the intersection between memory, imagination, and lying. Bacon and Montaigne, while admitting its alluring nature, condemn the lie. Hampl and Nester, however, view the lie as an intermediate step that can at least be led to the truth. For this entry, I would like to address the theme of writer vs. reader in Hampl and Nester’s articles.

My copy of Hampl’s piece is littered with underlines and comments that express how eloquent and entertaining it is. Her description of Olive, and her revelation of middle C are the things that would make other writers feel inadequate. But as I was reading, I asked myself how anyone could remember with such colorful detail about events that occurred decades ago. When I finally got to her confession, and then read about her process as a writer, it was as if I was reading about my own process. I, and many others, have a constant battle between writing a piece, and reading a piece. Often times it is the reader’s perspective that dictate where my essay is going. Hampl sees the reader as knowing what it wants, like a “cat, endlessly fastidious,” while the writer battles with a mess of thoughts, like a “dog… lunging frantically after any old stick thrown in the distance.” As a reader, Hampl wanted to establish a link between olives and Olive, and her subservient nature toward Mary Katherine. As a writer, however, she had to embellish and fill in the gaps to truths that were only half remembered. In the end, Hampl decides that writing is the writer’s journey, and that the first draft should be fearless. Through the polished account of her first piano lesson, she found the true subject of her narrative. The events many not have occured as written, but it is the emotional truth that will capture the reader.

Nester’s piece about the controversy surrounding disgraced memoirist, James Frey, takes a similar look at the reader vs. the writer. While he acknowledges that his own views lead him to read memoirs with shades of suspicion, he resigns to the notion that it is emotional truth that is at the heart of a good memoir. When Nester writes that writers “wish to record how they perceive their own lives,” he implies that truth is only a matter of perception. The perception that a writer has about his own life is likely the way he would read his life, and that influences his writing. This pairs perfectly with Frey’s fallout. He apologizes about the hyperbolic truths by saying that his portrayal of himself made him “tougher and more aggressive than in reality.” He also says that he wanted his memoir to have dramatic arcs, and tension – in other words, to be a good read. His reader’s perspective hijacked his writer’s perspective and created a work of fiction rooted in truth. Nester defend’s Frey by again bringing up the value of emotional truth. Memoirs are not works of journalism, but pieces of literature, and at the core of his memoir, Frey was being truthful.

In my own opinion, I accept lying as a literary convention. While I have never used a lie in the way Hempl has used it to reach a truth, I have certainly used it as Nester describes it. An exaggeration can appease both the reader and writer perspective, as long as it conveys the emotional truth of factual events. This post is best summarized by a quote for Nester, that for a person writing a personal piece (as all of us in this class are), “the truth is their own to name.”

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One Response to Truth in Lying

  1. ktbmuether says:

    Great post! I agree, Nester sums it up perfectly by saying that “the truth is their own to name.” Personal essays are certainly not pieces of journalism. They do not just strictly state facts and give a play-by-play. They tell a story about what happened but also convey emotion and express ideas. If you just gave a play-by-play or just stated facts, it would be a pretty boring read. In my opinion, what makes personal essays so interesting is that emotion and expression. It’s impossible to achieve that without stretching the truth a little or by being a little more dramatic. That being said, the truth is indeed subjective and the writer’s own to name. Two people can go through the same experience, but probably no two people will describe that experience the same way. The way one person perceives an experience is different from the way someone else does. Therefore, truth really is in the pen of the writer.

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