Heartfelt ethical debates are something akin to storms: sometimes they are passionate and gorgeous and exciting — to say nothing of pleasing and impressive to witness. Sometimes they are a big fucking pain in the ass: annoying at a minimum, destructive and dangerous at the far end. I believe this to be true of the debate that still rages over the parameters of fiction and nonfiction. I like to think that this debate launched in earnest around the time I was in graduate school for creative nonfiction, deep in the flowered, swampy trenches of North Carolina, circa 2001, just before James Frey (and his publisher) threw a fucking stick of TNT in from the sidelines of commercial lit. Because creative nonfiction as a genre (vs. as a practice, because it had been written for centuries, of course) was indeed in its toddlerhood in that era, I remember the fire in the lift-off debates as vividly as you remember a southern lightning bolt — like a cartoon splitting the sky — or the first time your toddler tells you he loves your — or craps in the toilet. Vividly.
On a nonfiction panel during my first year as an MFA candidate, there were four participants. At one end of the table sat a humorous memoirist; at the other, an earnest nature-writer/journalist. A question may have been softly or harshly lobbed — I don’t recall exactly how the question went (see? I’m being careful about the parameters of my genre), but it went to the point: what are the rules governing nonfiction? What’s ok and what’s not? How do you decide? The earnest nature-writer/journalist opined something to the effect of, “Well, if you don’t remember the color of the shirt your father was wearing that night in 1978, you can’t just make it up!” The memoirist winced, made sheepish faces at the crowd and then admitted with an admirable blend of innocence and self-righteousness that in her own work she often creates entire conversations from vague deductions about the year she’s recalling, to say nothing of her use of composite characters. I don’t remember precisely how the earnest nature-writer/journalist responded to this.
Here is something I do remember, quite vividly:
Circa 1982. I am four or five years old. I am in Fort Mill, South Carolina, visiting my large extended family for some weeks of summer. The press of humidity has become nostalgia-laced for me already, having moved away to the west coast two years earlier. I like moving through it, in July and August as much swimming as walking. On my grandparents’ expansive estate, there are live oaks and maples and acres of exotic shrubbery with thick, rubbery leaves. Ivy riots unreasonably over brick and grass and glass alike. I am out with two of my older cousins, Dehler and Sam. Dehler is the oldest and biggest, Sam is older and bigger than me. By some miracle of kindness or circumstance I have been invited along with them to hunt for frogs. I cringe to think of what was planned for the hypothetical frogs as the hot Dixie day ran itself out — likely something that would make my cousins laugh at me for crying.
But at any rate, we hadn’t had any luck yet when our grandfather arrived. We heard his fancy car (I won’t make up a model) click and hum as he cut it off a few feet in front of us, at the end of the long brick driveway. He climbed out with his jacket under an arm and a briefcase, his tie loosened on his neck, the very image of a corporate magnate at the end of a long day. We stood in what felt like formation, facing him. We were all slightly frightened of him despite his reputed gentleness. He asked us what we were doing. We told him: hunting frogs. But admitted we’d had no luck. I swear I remember his smile and what I will call now a twinkle in his eye.
“Well, what about those frogs behind y’all?” he asked softly.
We spun around. At the end of the driveway, just shy of the creeping ivy line, there were three frogs: in front of Dehler, a large bullfrog. In front of Sam, a somewhat smaller and greener frog. In front of me, a slick, deeply green baby frog. We all dove forward with the bared mouths of Ball jars in our fists and each one of us caught our frog. Our grandfather chuckled his way inside.
Now. I don’t remember anything else whatsoever about that event, that day or, frankly, about my grandfather (until his funeral, which I got to skip but glimpsed out the window of a car — some 3,000 dark-dressed folks mobbing upon the red earth of York County). And when I asked Dehler and Sam about the frog hunt, neither one of them recalled the incident at all, despite being older than me and much further into the life of their explicit memories. They did recall being slightly afraid of our grandfather (and they did take the chance, via e-mail, a la my family, to fling funny barbs back and forth about “repressed childhood memories” and who was now “bigger” than the other and looked more like a frog).
So inevitably we arrive at the question of whether or not what I’ve written above is “true.” It exists as a distinct memory in my brain. It does not exist even as a blurry recollection in the brains of my older cousins. No one else was there to bear witness and my grandfather’s funeral was less than a year later. There is the matter of my muted sorrow at never having gotten to know him, the possibility that I embellished and sweetened this memory to offset that. There is the logical near-impossibility of the event occurring as I remember it.
On the other hand, there is the fact that for Dehler and Sam, frog hunts on summer afternoons were nowhere near the exotic rarity they were for me. Dehler and Sam got to know our grandfather a great deal better than I did, and so possess a panoply of memories to sort through when they actively recall his life. There is the fact that particularly in that pre-Hurricane Hugo era, the swampier parts of the county were awash in various species of frogs. There is the reputation — vs. the fact — my grandfather had of being just slightly mischievous, not unlikely to bring grandchildren under the sway of suggestion when he was up for it.
What I think now about the grad school panel is that the poles articulated there were between factual truth and emotional truth. In the intervening years — during which I’ve taught creative nonfiction everywhere from UNC to domestic violence shelters and published two books of memoir — I’ve come to believe that we can adhere to one pole or the other, but we should be clear on the reasons for our choice and the limitations it places upon us as artists and as people. It would be easy to cast it as a debate between “conservatives” and “liberals” or between “memoirists” and “journalists” and in some ways that’s precisely what it is.
But I also think it depends on what the intention of the author and the intention of the reader is. If a memoirist is writing about the number of casualties in Syrian refugee camps last month for CNN.com (or even Foxnews.com), one would expect the him to wade into the effort with factual truth as a battle standard. If a journalist is writing about the trip through a windstorm to her mother’s funeral in 2004, one would expect the writer likewise to cling to the value of transmitting emotional truth. And if the memoirist in the Syrian refugee camp tried hard to transmit emotional truth, he’d likely misstep somewhere with the hard facts; if the journalist writing about her mother’s funeral tried to stick to the facts, she’d never be able to transmit a shred of what’s important, so bogged down would she be in re-creating the fluid rush of history as a concrete pillar.
So maybe ultimately the debate is kind of silly, James Freys aside. Inventing people and events wholesale is certainly not the same as recreating a scene or a conversation. People tend to know what they’re reading and to choose wisely. And every single publishing author has to, ultimately, toe their own line because there is no power that exists to arbitrate the nuances of human memory or govern the number of current or historical realities that are permitted to exist.
There is one more fact, though: sometime between the frog hunt and his death, my grandfather did give me a large, bumpy, leather-skinned stuffed animal bullfrog, complete with spindly legs and googley eyes. It sits above my mother’s hearth and is an item that my own 4-year-old son covets and cuddles to his chest every time we visit.
Eli Hastings is an author living in Seattle with his brilliant, dancing doctor wife, Lili, and nutcase toddler, Pax. Through his books he shows how mental illness and addiction have affected his life and inspired his work. Eli is a clinical youth and family therapist and is passionate about using writing as a healing tool to help at-risk youth and is the Assistant Director of Pongo Teen Writing Project, a nonprofit organization that traumatized and distressed youth express themselves through poetry and other forms of writing.