Truth vs. Fact

Writers and readers of nonfiction, whether professional or hobbyist, will at some point find themselves asking questions about truth versus fact. As a point of discussion this morning, I introduced my students to “the continuum of nonfiction.” At the top of the scale is truth, at the bottom is fact. Literary forms such as memoir and lyric essays are closest to the top, while objective or literal forms such as biography and textbooks are closest to the bottom.
The difference between truth and fact was most clearly articulated to me last week in Oregon, during a craft lecture by poet Kwame Dawes. When asked about using other people’s stories in his poetry, he responded: “People can sue you for the truth but they can only get you by fact.”
Another guidepost for understanding the continuum of nonfiction is the following quote by Judy Blunt: “Truth can never be fact. Truth is emotional.” Therefore, the literary forms of nonfiction pay highest allegiance to the tools of emotion and memory, whereas objective or literal forms are based on research.
In memoir, a writer’s duty is to convey the emotional truth of a situation. This requires making crafted decisions about what to leave out, what to heighten, and in what order to present the events. In biography, an author is obligated to start at the beginning and leave nothing out, proving every step of the way that he/she is capable of backing up the facts. The former is an artistic weaving that portrays the common threads of one’s life. The latter is a straight line that attempts to create a complete, accurate picture.

Coming up: Snowshoeing to find a Snowy Owl, Reflections on Week 1, and Getting Oriented, photos included…

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