Saturday, January 14, 2006

What's fact got to do with it?

Dear Friends,

Have you ever made frosting for a cake or for cookies? We're looking into the mixing bowl, and the creamed butter and sugar and vanilla, and it's just that: vanilla frosting. What we need is pink, and just a drop of red food coloring will do the trick. We reach into our baking supplies cupboard, take out the small vial of red, unscrew the tiny yellow cap, and watch one drop of red bing into the frosting.

We turn on the mixer, and lo and behold, the entire mixture first becomes swirled like a candy cane, and then, aha, it's pink. All of it. No way to change it.

Fact and fiction is like that: one drop of fiction into the facts and ***poof*** it's all fiction. Too bad for the memoir. Great for us fiction writers.

I wanted to share the NYTimes op-ed column by Tim Carvell, a writer with The Daily Show with Jon Stewart. Please! No laughing.

Op-Ed Contributor
A Million Little Corrections


Published: January 11, 2006

IT is with great sorrow, and no small amount of embarrassment, that I must confess to some inadvertent errors, omissions and elisions in my best-selling memoir, "A Brief History of Tim." In the wake of the recent revelations about the work of J T Leroy and James Frey, it seems inevitable that some of my small mistakes will come to light, and so I feel duty-bound to be upfront and honest with you. Plus, I hear that reporters have been sniffing around.
I feel that none of the slight liberties I took in writing my memoir really affect the overall work, but nonetheless, you should know a few things: I am not, in fact, black.

Nor am I, to the best of my knowledge, a woman. Anything in my book that suggests otherwise is the result of a typographical error. That this error was compounded by my decision to pose for my author photo and bookstore appearances in drag and blackface is, I will acknowledge, unfortunate.

The portions of my book dealing with Depression-era Ireland are, I have been reliably informed, copied verbatim from Frank McCourt's "Angela's Ashes." I can only conclude that I accidentally confused my manuscript with my notes for my memoir in which I copied large portions of other writers' works, just to see how they were structured. In hindsight, the fact that I was born 40 years after the Depression should have been a tip-off.

My parents are both alive; any reference to my being orphaned at age 12 was meant to be strictly metaphorical.

Furthermore, my parents and their lawyers would like it known that neither they, nor any other member of my family, ever beat and/or had sex with me. I thought it was clear that those parts of the book were meant as a joke. (That's what the emoticons were for.)

In writing a narrative, it is sometimes necessary to compress or combine certain incidents for dramatic effect. I did much the same thing in the chapter of my book dealing with my prison term, although in reverse: in the interest of dramatic clarity, I expanded my 1993 arrest for jaywalking into a seven-year stint in Sing Sing for manslaughter.

Okay, it wasn't so much a jaywalking "arrest" as a ticket.

Fine, it was a stern warning. Happy now?

The death of my older brother, my ensuing severe depression and subsequent emotional breakthrough with the help of a caring psychotherapist did not happen to me, but rather to Timothy Hutton in the film "Ordinary People," which I saw at a very impressionable age, and which I could have sworn happened to me.

Ditto for the part about accidentally hacking into Norad and being saved from causing a global thermonuclear war, with an assist from Dabney Coleman. That was "WarGames." Really, the fact that I could remember his name only as "Dabney Coleman" should have given me pause.

And, finally, since people are getting all "fact-checky" on me, I should just confess that my life did not, in fact, shatter into a million little pieces. I just went back and recounted. It was six pieces. Consider it a rounding error.

Tim Carvell is a writer for "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart."


Anonymous said...

Hah!! Man, how I enjoyed this entry, Beth! I've been following the James Frey controversy since it broke, anxious to see how it all plays out. I was excited to think about how much attention in would bring the nonfiction/memoir genre--bound to boost interest and sales no matter how the public thinking turns out. And a great big Whoo-hoo to Oprah, who called in to Larry King and said she stands behind Frey's book.
And by the way, dear B, I don't just love the article you reprinted--I love the way you introduced it. Very visual, just delightful.
Gotta love it.

Paul said...

Hi...thought I'd return the visit. You are doing some outstanding writng and thinking here. I notice you've attracted readership from some of the best journalers out there (Theresa, Robin, Cynthia, Mary, et. al.)--deep-thinking women who sometimes tolerate my presence, although they seem to prefer Tom Jones.

Anonymous said...

Eek! I'm not one of the best journalers out there?? I'm gonna have to go visit Paul and give him a piece of my mind...!

He obviously missed my place in the whole Tom Jones saga...



Judith HeartSong said...

great entry... I chuckled and still am.......

Globetrotter said...

I missed this Op-ed piece in the Times, But really enjoyed your entry here. It feels so good to laugh and this had me guffawing.

I can totally relate to the pink icing as well. As a painter I have learned that if you add one drop of the wrong color to a watercolor mix you get mud.

Mud works at times, as long as you're not James Frey.


Paula said...

"Mud works at times, as long as you're not James Frey."

Great line by the Globetrotter--so appropriate today of all days.

Beth, I just had to RUSH back over here to see if you'd had any new comments and if I had to take back anything I said in my original comment. Holy cow! I just read all the BIG Oprah-gives-it-to-him brand new news. Holy cow!!

More and more and more has been coming out about Frey's book. I--and everyone else it seems--have been less and less impressed by Frey's character and choices. I'm tempted to keep going here and write a TON, but I'll have to plan my own entry sometime soon. Gotta wait for a little more perspective.

I think this is all so good for so many reasons, re fact checking and accountability and so forth, but I so, so, SO don't want this to shut down the possibility of more memoirs being published. I truly believe it is--or has the potential to be--a really important literary genre...I was so thankful Oprah supported the WRITER in the beginning, but am now thinking she's correct in her retraction too. The "genre" IS important--way too important to be brought into this kind of question...

Paula said...

P.S. Frey did so much more than add one drop to make things pink. It is all a bloody red carnage now...