The challenge, and the art, lies in confronting the facts—all of them, whether you like them or not—and shaping them into something beautiful.
Hannah Goldfield, “The Art of Fact-Checking,” The New Yorker
I wanted to say I had a romance in the summer of 2002. That my adoration for Montreal grew stronger because of my love for a handsome French Canadian man.
But we went on just two dates. And he wasn’t that good-looking. A summer fling didn’t happen.
I wanted to say that when our boat anchored in the middle of Halong Bay for the night—and people stripped off their clothes and jumped into the water—I did, too. But I was cold, I wasn’t in the mood to be social, and I was unhappy on that trip to Vietnam in 2004.
Frolicking in the bay? It didn’t happen.
I wanted to say, at the end of my book about my years in the rave scene, that I figured things out. That I realized what it all meant. But that moment we chased remains elusive. I finished that manuscript five years ago, moving inches forward since.
The realization, the answer, the coming full circle. None of it happened.
* * * * *
The newest book by John D’Agata, The Lifespan of a Fact, is causing a stir. It documents years of exchanges between D’Agata and Jim Fingal, who fact-checked a grossly unsound article D’Agata had written about a Las Vegas suicide. In my MFA program in creative nonfiction at Goucher College, conversations about D’Agata were heated, and through these exchanges I charted the nuances of the genre, and figured out where each classmate fit on the map: the old-school reporters, the immersion journalists, the narrative nonfiction writers, the literary journalists, the memoirists. Or the straddlers, who didn’t feel the need to label themselves. Or who appreciated each and switched between modes. Or who didn’t know where they stood in the debate.
The Next American Essay, D’Agata’s compilation of lyric essays—experimental, freeing, mysterious, and personal—put a dent in me. For years, I’d been drawn to Dutch painter Hieronymus Bosch’s deliciously dark masterpiece, The Garden of Earthly Delights. Within its triptych of fragments, much of it nonsensical, I saw an explanation of how I think and how I write: a view solidified after Robert Root, from the literary journal Fourth Genre, lectured at our summer residency and used Bosch’s work as an example to illustrate writing. Pieces that don’t make sense, but then glued together to make a whole. To create meaning. In The Next American Essay, the pieces D’Agata selected didn’t inspire me individually. Rather, it was the buildup of all of them. The rhythm. The way he used fragments—his poetic manipulation of the material.
In “What happened in Vegas,” Harper’s reprints some exchanges between D’Agata and Fingal during the fact-checking process of the article (which was later published in The Believer). At one point, Fingal asks D’Agata about the number of strip clubs in the city:
FINGAL: I guess that’s where the discrepancy is, because the number that’s mentioned in the article is different from the number you’re using in your piece.
D’AGATA: Well, I guess that’s because the rhythm of “thirty-four” works better in that sentence than the rhythm of “thirty-one,” so I changed it.
* * * * *
Recounting nights in abandoned warehouses, dark basements, and crowded clubs, when my friends and I were in high school and college, was hard. There were many nights that were similar, with the same objective, while drawing from experiences distorted by substances and rose-colored glasses was a painful exercise. But I dove in gingerly, and interviewed and gathered detailed accounts from friends, who added dimensions to the moments I dug up. But my handling of one thing in that manuscript truly disappoints me—one huge fact I created for impact.
During a semester when I was generally anxious and confused, I had a conversation with Aki, one of my best friends at the time, in which I asked him if my relationship with my boyfriend was only what it was because of a chemical. We talked for a long time, and we came to no answers that night, but there were tears and hugs and laughs, because—when you’re twenty and naive and reckless and learning—that’s what you did.
Years later, in graduate school, I wrote out this scene. And I didn’t know what I was going to do with it—I wasn’t sure at all where the book was going—but I concluded that I had loved my boyfriend those years because a substance simulated that feeling, over and over again.
Even though I did not really feel this way, I wrote it. And so on paper, the narrator said it. It was now true. And I made myself believe it—because it created the drama I needed.
Because it sounded so good.
* * * * *
In one of the email exchanges reprinted in Harper’s, Fingal asks D’Agata about another discrepancy: D’Agata writes that a woman is from Mississippi, yet when Fingal confirms that she isn’t from Mississippi, D’Agata essentially says it doesn’t matter, as “being more precise would be less dramatic.”
* * * * *
I remember a lecture by Tom French, one of the faculty mentors in our MFA program. The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist talked about the beauty of a fact. He said to use facts. To embrace them, to not fear them.
Facts may not create the rhythm that we want, but they reveal the quirks, the gorgeous imperfections, of life. In “The Art of Fact-Checking,” Hannah Goldfield, a fact-checker at The New Yorker, says from her experience “facts can be quite astonishing,” and that “what D’Agata fails to realize is that not only are these liberties indeed harmful . . . they are also completely unnecessary to creating a piece of great nonfiction.” Real life is often stranger than fiction. And if a writer thinks a fact is inconvenient, perhaps she lacks the imagination and skill needed to write nonfiction.
Because what is creative about changing “thirty-one” to “thirty-four”? What was creative about James Frey fabricating events in A Million Little Pieces? They evade the creative process rather than confront it; they hide behind an “essential truth,” a phrase Frey relied on when explaining himself (as in this CNN interview with Larry King in January 2006). In The Lifespan of a Fact, D’Agata’s replies to Fingal about accuracy being unnecessary also suggest a reliance on an “essential truth”:
What most readers will care about, I think, is the meaning that’s suggested in the confluence of these events—no matter how far apart they occurred. The facts that are being employed here aren’t meant to function baldly as “facts.”
D’Agata acts above everyone and everything else, but has no right to be this way; in “In defense of fact checking,” Salon writer Laura Miller writes that D’Agata would rather hop on his “magic carpet ride of Art” and fall into an abyss of his own ideas than tackle and come to terms with the world as it is. It’s a crucial part of being a nonfiction writer: to observe and record our world’s idiosyncrasies—a challenge D’Agata seems cowardly to attempt. (At least Lauren Slater, in her “metaphorical memoir” Lying, openly questions her reliability. She has auras and seizures, but also a habit of compulsive lying; she tells us she may or may not have epilepsy.)
But D’Agata, as Goldfield says in The New Yorker piece, is not facing or experimenting with facts at all: he simply ignores them.
* * * * *
I often refer to my MFA manuscript as a failed project, not simply because I stated something so significant that was not true, but because it emerged from an unripe perspective. (No matter how ready you think you are, please do not write a memoir at twenty-five.) But oh, that false statement: it was not only hurtful—it made me feel dirty. And for what? It’s not as if any piece I finish is truly “complete.” To come full circle in memoir writing is to experience satisfaction, but only for a moment. I tend to think I have control over the “facts” of my own life: events that happen to me, people I know and am close to, emotions I felt at a certain moment. But something happens as time passes—as I drift further from a memory, as a fact is dislodged from the place it had once made sense. I begin to play with a fact: I pluck it out, examine it, and let it stand on its own. It is vulnerable: the context that hugged it is stripped away.
And so, as inexperienced and thirsty as I was, I took a naked fact and abused it, deceiving my reader (and myself), too.
* * * * *
Since I completed that book, the number of half-written essays I have, both in notebooks and my WordPress dashboard, has noticeably increased. Perhaps I’m scared to finish these stories, or I’m not ready to figure out how best to tell them. But the pieces I have finished thrive on uncertainty and ephemeral moments—I did write about the French Canadian, but told it like it was: fun, but quick and insignificant. And yet that led to a larger musing about fleeting love, and eventually a series of posts that means something to me.
* * * * *
In the first line of her New Yorker piece, Goldfield asks:”Which are more important: true words, or beautiful words?”
As I learn to trust my skill as a writer, I realize I don’t have to answer that question. It is possible to write words that are both true and beautiful—if I treat the things and the people I write about with patience and respect.
I don’t think D’Agata does that.
Feb. 15 Note:
I wrote the piece above before stumbling upon two posts I think are worth reading as well: Dan Kois’ piece, “Facts Are Stupid,” up on Slate, and Brevity’s “In Fairness to John D’Agata,” which has created an excellent discussion, largely in favor of D’Agata and his approach to his work in general. (And count on Brevity for thoughtful, serious commentary on creative nonfiction.) What’s interesting is that I do identify with both sides, but at the moment, given my own writing experience, I now lean away from D’Agata.
In the Slate piece, Kois highlights a few intriguing statements from D’Agata: “By taking these liberties, I’m making a better work of art—a truer experience for the reader—than if I stuck to the facts.” Also: D’Agata refers to readers who “demand verifiable truth” and expect to be “spoon-fed” as unsophisticated and arrogant.
D’Agata doesn’t label himself as a journalist, but rather an essayist. Brevity excerpts one of his radio interviews: “I do an overwhelming amount of research and I’m often interviewing people, he says, “but what I then do with the information is ‘dramatically different.’”
The comments on “In Fairness to John D’Agata” are worth a read and offer perspectives different from mine. For me, the comment that stands out is actually the one by “KH” to which a commenter below, “ME,” refers. A line from it:
I’m genuinely sorry that you all find the world so confusing, so threatening, that you need to erect barriers to the making of art.
I think my favorite comment on the Brevity thread, though, is this one by “megscottharris”:
People are going to carry on writing according to their own personal guidelines.
Yes, I agree.
Cheri Lucas Rowlands
Blogger at Writing Through the Fog. Story Wrangler at Automattic.