Authenticity vs Truth in your story

I was talking to a friend about her poetry class the other day. Someone read out a poem, and a lady in the class got upset: she thought that it was about a true experience and was angry when the person who wrote it said that it was fictional.

When you’re writing something based on your own experience, the line between truth and fiction is a fine one. You can choose to base a fictional story on a real life experience or feeling: everything in the story may spun off from a single truth, while you change the characters involved, their setting, their responses … where is the truth in that? The story may be emotionally true and coherent while the facts are totally fictional.

As a reader, can you make assumptions about an author when you read their work? On one level, yes, but it is wrong to assume that everyone is writing ‘life as it happened’. Someone who is explicitly writing a true story may only be giving their own views on what happened: how many different views might you need to find ‘the truth’?

Writing about being a hostage #whatimwriting

I’ve been side-tracked! An idea for a novel bit me while I was in the middle of the final term of the MA. I wrote 25-30,000 words, then finished the first draft last November. This all took me away from working on first person experiences for a while … but now I’m back, although mainly as part of the research for the second draft.

Spinning off the Blindsided work I created last year, the novel addresses sight loss and disability, aid to the third world, and issues of empowerment and control, self and identity. Adam, an ophthalmologist, goes to West Africa thinking he can make a difference, but struggles as he is overwhelmed by the extent of the need for eye care. Mid way through his time in West Africa he is taken hostage … so I’ve been reading ‘hostage literature’ and checking out information from organisations that specialise in the field too.

In this post I list the books I’ve found, and I’ll add thoughts as I read them. If you spot anything relevant that I’ve missed, let me know.

Middle East – Beirut

Long, meditative writing where Waite looks back on his past, interspersed with details of the kidnapping.

Africa – Somali Pirates

A well written account, mainly focussed on the day to day life as a hostage, with a  couple of diversions looking at Somali politics, as well as the story of a sea captain also captured by pirates. A good quick read – you can tell it is written by a journalist. Freeman draws out key issues for hostages, looking at Stockholm syndrome, the issue of boredom on one hand while being on edge on the other, the way he began to appreciate it when nothing changed from day to day.



This is what I’m on about! ‘It Happened to Me’

whats your story 4I always read the Guardian’s Experience page. Thousands, maybe millions of people buy real life story magazines each week, and internet publications are filled with first person stories.

But there’s a cost.

There’s a cost to the person who exposes their self to the media, and in this article, Mandy Stadtmiller, a ‘former first-person human trafficker‘ – also known as an online journalist for website xoJane –  talks about how easily it all gets out of control.

Mandy’s conclusion is that first person pieces have helped: “These squirmy, awful, brilliant pieces have encouraged us all to be a lot more honest about the human experience. A lot less afraid to be honest.” My feeling after reading her article is still shaped by some of the experiences she explores, where people have been attacked online, have had to withdraw from the online world altogether after sharing their story. Mandy explained her pitch to people: “I ran into Sonja Morgan from Real Housewives at a party the other day, and she reminded me of what I told her before I profiled her in the New YorkPost. I told her that the headline would likely humiliate her and she would be positioned in a way that was making fun of her, but that it would be terrific, wide-ranging, must-see press. So — was she in? ” This rings of a world where we have becomes so sucked in by the desire to be seen that we will accept being made fun of, accept humiliation, just for the clicks, for the exposure. Thinking about exposure in another context, who wants to be exposed? There’s something out of balance in these real life stories, whether you are hungry for exposure of self, or whether you are the editor, feeding your ravening audience a diet that has to be ever more shocking.

We no longer know what is normal, what is private. ‘It Happened to Me’ stories do play an essential role in helping people process their own experiences, but they also chew people up and spit them out in pieces.

In another piece, I write, as writer, as story teller: “I am hungry: tell me a story. I am never satisfied.” Do you want to be fed to the beast?