‘And that’s a true story!’ are five of the words I most dread hearing.
There was a comedian back in the ‘glory’ (read horror) days of the 1970s who used to finish his long winded and extravagantly implausible shaggy dog jokes with the phrase ‘…and that’s a true story’. Obvious joke set up and subversion there, and to be fair to the man I don’t remember his jokes to be particularly racist, sexist or homophobic compared to the norm for the time. How they would sound now is another matter, but comedy has its own problems now that will roll the eyes and furrow the brow of generations to come. We may not recognise our own Bernard Mannings, but they are surely there. Comedy needs its own cultural referents to work and cultural values and norms slide into different places changing not only what is acceptable comedy but what comedy is.
But that is not what makes my heart sink.
It is the idea that a story is somehow validated or rendered more worthy, or let’s face it made ‘better’, by the idea that it is true.
In a creative writing setting one has to consider whether this in fact renders the work inadmissible. If this is simply a set of factual encounters and events recounted without fictional embellishments is it creative writing? It certainly isn’t fiction.
Fiction obviously borrows the clothes of fact and real life. Even most fantasy and SF try to adhere to basic tropes of a form of reality in order to suspend disbelief. But the idea of fiction is surely to create a deeper truth, a more meaningful understanding of our world. To unpick the threads of gold from the warp and weft of everyday humdrum existence and rework them into something that, yes, entertains, but also invites contemplation of our existence.
Some fiction at least intends only to entertain, and that is fair enough. Sometimes we want to simply be distracted from life. The awkward truth is that entertainment that works well usually does so because it slides in truth about the human condition if only we will open ourselves to the idea. Entertainment can of course be trite, meaningless and vapid. 1970s comedy anyone?
Unvarnished real life stories rarely read well as fiction or as fact. They need editing, and if that is what people mean when they say ‘and that’s a true story’, well fair enough I suppose. The creativity is in the editing. But if you have tempered with reality to that extent, why not go the whole hog and make the story up?
‘Don’t make things up’ was a phrase I heard bandied about a lot as a child, and not always deployed in my direction. Children’s imagination was not particularly valued in a northern mill town. It had distinct overtones of lying, or fibbing for those with aspirations of upward social mobility. But ‘making things up’ was fun and if you can tell the embellished truth rather than the unembellished, how much better is that? You get the facts m’am, but with an extra layer of entertainment thrown in for free.
So please excuse me if, should you ask me, ‘is that a true story’, I smile, what I like to tell myself is an enigmatic smile, and decline to tell you. It will all of course be made up, but will naturally contain a greater truth.