Question: Is everything you write about true?
I decided to take a break with this Friday’s “Ask Melinda” post from the recent flood of how-to-parent teenager questions. Teenagers are exhausting. I’ve found that, occasionally, it’s best to change the subject for a while. Today’s question is one I am asked frequently at speaking events by readers who stand in my signing line afterwards.
On the surface, whether I write non-fiction or fiction simply determines where my book is shelved in the library or bookshop. However, the implications of the truth v. fiction debate are far-reaching. It’s a cosmic question, I believe, much weightier than the categorical debate. What do you think about historical novels? Literary journalism? Truman Capote was the first Southern writer to deliberately explore the blurry boundaries in his novel In Cold Blood. My books of humorous essays are nothing like his novel, of course. (In fact, I prefer Capote’s short stories. “A Christmas Memory” is my all-time favorite, and I recommend the Celeste Holmes reading of it if you can find it. It’s rare.)
I suspect that the reader who asked today’s question had no earthly idea I would end up answering with a Truman Capote reference. All I can say is that you can start out anywhere you want to when you write. In my experience, you never know where you’ll end up.
Here’s how I see it: The South produces a plethora of gifted storytellers. We know how to embellish, embroider, and use colorful hyperbole to tell our stories. We can entertain a crowd for hours with tales of our eccentric relatives without jumping off more than one branch of the family tree. We enjoy it, and we’re good at it. I always say that writing non-fiction gives me the same satisfaction as tattling.
Bottom line: Every single essay I write is true. They’re not all completely factual, however. If you’re Southern, you’ll know what I mean by that. Usually, the more unbelievable the story is, the more likely it is that it happened exactly the way I tell it on paper. For example, I really did stand in line at the post office behind a woman who was mailing her mother’s ashes to her sister—just like an L.L. Bean catalogue. I wrote an essay about that experience called “Mailing Mama.” I did not exaggerate one detail. If you live in the South like I do, you don’t have to make things up. Real life is interesting enough.