“Beauty is truth, truth beauty,” – that is all
Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.”
Fella name of Keats wrote those words, the closing lines of one of my favorite poems.
I thought about them the other day when my cousin Wendy and I were having a Facebook argument|disagreement|battle|discussion having to do with an excellent book review she wrote.
First a few words about Wendy. She is my Dad’s sister’s daughter. My Dad, who never called anyone by his|her correct name, alternately called her Wimpy and Wendy Carr, Superstar. Though Wendy only remembers the first. (My Dad, and most of his brothers and sisters, never called Wendy’s mom, Gladys, anything but Gala. I have no idea why. We won’t even get into what he called me.)
Anyway, she’s a copy editor at the Cleveland Plain-Dealer and wrote an excellent review (click here to see it) of a book called “The Lifespan of a Fact.” The book concerns the battle between a writer and a fact checker over an account of a 16-year-old’s suicide in Las Vegas. Or was it 17? And does it matter?
Wendy’s a capital J Journalist, and to her it matters. The writer in question is a small j journalist, a storyteller. (Which, these days, is what I consider myself, as well.)
She, like the fact checker, worried that the writer changed some of the stuff in the account. For example, the writer said he had the teen jumping off the 34th floor because it “sounded” better than the 31st floor. (Which I have to agree with. And it’s a sequential number, always a plus in my book.) The fact checker red-flagged this and many other “facts” in the article and thus the battle began.
The writer’s defense was that his article was an exercise in “literary nonfiction,” what they used to call the New Journalism a few years ago. Don’t know what New Journalism is? Google “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold,” by Gay Talese, and take a spin through it.
I once was on Wendy’s side. That’s what 30 or so years in the news biz will do for you. Especially in the newspaper biz. All the i’s had to be crossed and the t’s dotted. Everything right. The ages, the street address.
But these days, I consider myself more of a storyteller than a journalist, and I’m more concerned about the truth of the overall account than the accuracy of every single fact. I mean, really, does it matter whether the kid jumped from the 31st or 34th floor? What if three floors are underground?
The number of floors doesn’t really matter. What matters is that a 16-year-old kid killed himself, which is what I’m guessing the article was really about. The police report stuff just isn’t that relevant, as far as I’m concerned.
What really cinched it was the fact-checker’s insistence that a shadow described by the writer couldn’t have been correct.
Which took me back to my days at the magazine and my co-worker “Fred” (not his real name), whom I’ve written about previously.
Our star writer, Ed Martin, winner of multiple national business-writing awards and a man of the highest integrity, was writing some story, I really can’t even remember what it was about, and he described a shadow that had fallen over downtown Charlotte. It was a great scene setter for what Ed was trying to do with the tale, a powerful foreshadowing of what was to come.
Except, “Fred” pointed out, it couldn’t have happened the way Ed described it at the time he stated it. “Fred” was a literalist. The “fact” in that opener mattered not to what the gist of the story was about. To be honest, the time “Fred” took to figure out the angles and seasons and hours was longer than it would have taken anyone not “Fred” to read the story. And to repeat, the story had nothing to do with the shadow.
The movie Inglorious Basterds isn’t true, but it’s a great story. My friend Nancy objected to the Captain America movie, not because she found the notion of a super-soldier formula (steroids before steroids, if you will) crazy but because it depicted white soldiers fighting alongside black counterparts. Which, of course, never happened in WWII.
If you’ve ever read a police report, you know how boring “just the facts” can be. Obviously, a skilled writer can do more with them than an unskilled one.
Speaking of skilled writers, honesty forces me to report that sometimes I deviate from the facts when I’m posting to this blog. Sometimes to compress a story a bit (I know it’s hard to believe that I condense some tales), sometimes because my memory is hazy, sometimes because the statute of limitations hasn’t run out. But the essential entries are true to the spirit of the event being described.
I leave you with a few thoughts from brains larger than mine (yes, there are a few out there):
“There are no facts, only interpretations.” _ Friedrich Nietzche
“If the facts don’t fit the theory, change the facts.” _ Albert Einstein
“Get your facts first, then you can distort them as you please.” _ Mark Twain
“There’s a world of difference between truth and facts. Facts can obscure the truth.” _ Maya Angelou
Bottom line, the story must be true; the facts, not so much. Fact, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder.
And that’s as certain as is the notion that Baskin-Robbins has 34 flavors.