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Writing True Stories

I’ve been invited to take part in La Sombra del Sabino, a Canadian literary festival that takes place in Tepotzlan, Mexico, next month (February 22-25). This is the fourth year for the festival, and each year the program is composed around a theme; this year, the theme is “the journalist’s journey from fact to fiction.”

As a writer of nonfiction, and a former journalist, who is about to publish my first novel, and as a teacher of creative nonfiction, I have thought a lot about the difference between nonfiction writing and fiction. But I haven’t really thought of it as a journey, with the kind of inevitability that the term implies (from the Spanish jornado, the distance between water in a desert, and therefore the minimum and maximum one must travel in a day). I thought I was making a leap by writing a novel, but is it really inevitable that a journalist eventually wants to write fiction?

What I think is this: there are two ways to write truth, or rather two kinds of true statements. There is the nonfictional statement and the fictional statement. “On September 11, 2001, two American Airline planes crashed into the World Trade Center in New York City, killing nearly 3,000 people,” is an example of a nonfictional statement. It contains objective facts that can be checked against the actual event. Nothing in it is conjectural or interpretive. Anybody could write it. It is, to all intents and purposes, incontestable.

“The Islamist militant group Al-Qaeda directed the attack as a protest against the American military occupation of Muslim territory in the Middle East, in particular for its support for Israel against Palestine,” is a fictional statement. I know it’s a fictional statement because I just made it up. It can’t be fact-checked. I might be able to find other people who would agree with the statement, but that wouldn’t make the statement any more factual. It would still be conjectural and interpretive. It is contestable. It is refutable.

That doesn’t make it less true. It just means that a journalist, or a writer of nonfiction, if he or she were intent on sticking to facts, would have to quote someone else saying it. This is frustrating to the journalist, because the second statement seems to follow naturally from the first. It seems so philosophically sound, so akin to such statements as, “I burned my finger,” and “I burned my finger because I touched the hot stove.” But even here, the first is a statement of fact; the second statement is story.

So, in this sense, the writer of nonfiction travels almost imperceptibly from fact to fiction. An eighteenth-century Rationalist might object to the inevitability of such a journey, but the writing of fiction, remember, grew out of resistance to eighteenth-century Rationalism. “I burned my finger because I touched the hot stove” may be a story, but it is a true story. And true stories must be told.