Lies seem to be the new norm in our world. There’s probably a bumper sticker that says Lies Are the New Truth. Great bumper sticker, but it has Andrea Askowitz totally freaked out. Andrea is the teacher of the class and the host for this episode, which is about lies in stories and lies in the world. It starts with a story by a new student, Claudia Franklin, that got us thinking about truth and lies in memoir and when, if ever, is lying fair game.
Claudia’s story takes a surprising turn as she imagines what life would have been like if her father wasn’t the hen-pecked man he really was. Her story left Andrea wondering when, if ever, is trust broken between narrator and listener/reader.
Fifteen years ago, Andrea took her first memoir writing class from Terrie Silverman and has lived by and preached the tenet she learned. Terrie said, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of the truth.” Andrea took that to mean that it was okay to exaggerate or change little facts for the sake of a bigger emotional truth.
There’s an unspoken pact between a memoir writer and reader or listener that says, what’s being shared is the truth. But what is the truth?
In 2003, James Frey wrote a book called A Million Little Pieces. The book was distributed as memoir. But Frey stretched the truth in a few places. In one example, he wrote that he spent 87 days in jail. According to police records, he served 5 hours. A lot of people thought he lied, including Oprah.
Andrea wrote a story once about taking her wife, Vicky, to a tantric sex retreat. The story’s about how she couldn’t handle the intimacy and acted like a clown the whole time. They had to do intimacy exercises including Tai Chi, where, in the privacy of their hotel room, they were instructed to stand facing each other, perform pelvic thrusts back and forth, then arm motions with elbows in, and hands out to the sides. Andrea added jazz hands.
Except she didn’t actually add jazz hands in their hotel room. She wished she had. Instead, in the story she wrote, she added jazz hands because she thought jazz hands perfectly expressed her feelings in that moment.
Allison Langer, co-producer and student in the class, challenged her. When Andrea says she tells the truth, Allison says, “What about jazz hands?”
Before this current presidential election, Andrea would have defended jazz hands as an expression of her truth. Now she’s not sure. Because now something has shifted in our culture. Now, we don’t know what we’re getting from America’s highest office. And now with the normalization of lies no one knows what to believe.
The truth stretching in storytelling that used to be okay for Andrea, doesn’t feel as okay anymore. Now, she’s afraid no one’s going to believe her stories.
What Terrie said, “Don’t let the facts get in the way of the truth,” is happening more than ever. Especially outside of the boundaries of storytelling. No one’s letting the facts get in the way of their truth, and that feels dangerous. So, in a panic, Andrea called Terrie Silverman, to ask her if storytellers can be trusted anymore.
Terrie alleviates Andrea’s fears. She says that the rules are different in storytelling and politics. Politics are about manipulation and propaganda. Stories are about getting to a deep truth. Intentions are different. And the number one intention of the memoir writer is to get to his or her truth.
Now Andrea understands why it felt like James Frey broke the pact. Because we question his intention; He didn’t seem to be going after a bigger truth.
Now Andrea thinks that if anything has changed for storytellers because of the lying culture we’ve been thrust into lately, it’s that now, more than ever, we need jazz hands.
If you live in Los Angeles, take class with Terrie Silverman. Find her online at creativerites.com.
If you want to hear your story on our show, enter our writing contest. Here’s the prompt: Write about something you don’t understand. For more details visit writingclassradio.com.
Writing Class Radio is sponsored by and recorded at the University of Miami School of Communication. There’s more writing class on our website. Study the stories we study and listen to our craft-talks. If you don’t want to participate in our writing contest but still want a prompt, pick one of our daily prompts from our website or follow us on Twitter where we post prompts daily.
There’s no better way to understand ourselves and each other, than by writing and sharing our stories. Everyone has a story. What’s yours?