On True Stories

Somewhere early in the sixth My Struggle[1], the narrator asks, “How can reality be represented without adding something it doesn’t have? What does it ‘have’ and what does it ‘not have’?” I read it while visiting my friend Adam, and I asked him, “Do you value a story more when you hear that the story is true?”

“Probably less, to be honest,” he said.

I feel that’s true. “True stories” cleave more to history than story, and history was my least favorite subject in school.

Lorrie Moore had things to say in a similar vein, Jesus 8 years ago now. Her argument is that nonfiction’s strengths and power come elsewhere from telling a story, and the novel will always be for readers a better storytelling delivery system than the memoir. Stories require a suspension in some mediated place, and fiction’s invented narrator fosters such a space’s creation better than nonfiction’s author-narrator. Where nonfiction beats the novel is being able to move in and out of storytelling modes to encompass research, history, essay, etc., and so when memoirs don’t do this Moore feels the form isn’t working to its full potential.

I buy the argument for the most part, but I go back to Knausgaard’s question a lot, especially as I embark on a book that will be telling a lot of true stories. I’ve been seeing this process as a reduction or a distillation: whenever I write about a person in my life I’ve taken something from them and left the bulk behind. The bulk is what’s true. The whole of a person.

But it’s worth considering what is added to reality when it’s represented. Mimesis is what we call the representation of reality in art, and all art requires a point of view. What reality does not have is a single perspective, and so presenting reality from one person’s point of view adds that primacy or privilege to reality. One way we talk about this is by saying There’s Two Sides To Every Story, but of course that’s also wrong. Usually there are more sides than we can count.

Being a writer, I know a lot of other writers. And being a nonfiction writer, I read a number of things that are about people I know. I try to tell myself that I’m not getting a story about this person I know, but rather a portrait, a caricature. I’m getting one person’s perspective on the person I know from a different perspective.

Which perspective is right or truer? The one written down for others, or the one I’ve been working on myself?

But all that aside, why do some people prefer True Stories to made-up ones? What pleasures or value does their trueness add to the general pleasures of reading a story? I have no idea, but my best guess goes to another concern of mimesis: verisimilitude. If mimesis is the realm of representation, verisimilitude is its scale. How true does this feel?

I’ve been reading Stanislavsky, and about 80% of his system is about the actor convincing themselves that what is happening on stage is real. Convincing seems the key term. There’s an anxiety about whether a story will feel true, or sound true, or whether the actors or characters will appear convincing.

The work of verisimilitude is the work of the artist, but the task of assessing verisimilitude falls on the audience. A True Story insists on its verisimilitude from the get-go, letting the audience of the hook, or at least one of their hooks. It must be some kind of relief.



Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)
  1. And by “early” I mean on page 178. (This was a book I abandoned, recall.)

Outtake From a Work in Progress

I’m trying to write an essay about dancing. Still trying to find my angle inward. The other day I got way off track, and started writing about Susan Boyle. Because I can’t imagine any other place for it, I leave it here for you:

Dancing is easy. It’s easier than writing, of course, but it’s also easier than sex (lower stakes, no culmination, no need to provide another person their pleasure). It’s easier than sleeping (no dance form of insomnia, or apnea). It’s not easier than sitting, and it’s probably not easier than walking. And here I come to a fact of dance I’ve avoided: dancing is ableist. Dancing requires a body that can move. Not necessarily a standard body. Here’s a YouTube video of a legless girl doing a routine to “Shake It Off” in her bedroom. Here’s a clip of a one-armed woman and one-legged man doing a ballet duet together. Here’s a video of a man in a wheelchair dancing with an able-bodied woman. Here, though of a different kind of disability, a video of a UK boy with Downs Syndrome dancing to Justin Timberlake on national television, and making the TV host cry.


These are videos of triumph, bodies overcoming limitations placed on them by the suspecting audience—the suspicious, presuming audience. What becomes viral is the infectiousness of the feeling we get when those presumptions get overturned. Susan Boyle’s voice is just pretty good until you see what she looks like compared to other chart-toppers. Then it becomes magical, transcendent. “You didn’t expect that now, did ya?” Britain’s Got Talent’s co-host says, pointing into the camera at us, after Boyle begins her infamous rendition of “I Dreamed A Dream” and the audience goes wild. I find, watching the clip 10 years after it was aired, my heartrate jumping in anxious anticipation, as I see Simon Cowell ask his obligatory questions, roll his eyes, the audience vocal in how willingly they laugh at this beetlebrowed frump in a the ugliest dun-colored dress ever seen on TV. I am very scared and nervous for what’s about to happen, because I know something that not one of those hundreds of people know, and it’s thrilling.


Then she starts singing, I listen to the first wave of applause, and then I click away, bored of her voice now that the surprise has exhausted itself.
When I wrote just above that Boyle’s voice was magical and transcendent, that was a lie. Her voice is pretty good. She couldn’t hold a candle to Lady Gaga, or Maria Callas, or David Bowie. Her performance is what’s transcendent, delivering her ugly appearance up past reality’s velvet ropes to the VIP section of beauty/grace/fame. The magic of Susan Boyle requires her image, a truth of contemporary art that Lady Gaga and Sia worked, earlier in their careers at least, to fight against.


What I’m getting at is the visual—because dance is all visual (though dancing is physical; I can dance in pitch dark and get most of the same pleasures I do dancing under disco lights)—and the visual’s impact on success. What I suspect is that all dance performances, regardless of the dancer’s (dis)ability, are about bodies overcoming limitations placed on them by the suspecting audience.


Those suspicions come down to two related arguments:
1. You can’t possibly dance well.
2. I’ve already seen what you’re capable of.


When the girl with no legs, or the boy with Downs, or Janet Jackson’s plus-size backup dancer pulls off the thing they have put themselves on camera to do—or more accurately, put in front of our stingy attentions to do—we revel in Argument 1 being proven wrong. When Janet Jackson follows up her “Rhythm Nation” video with the video for “If”, we revel in Argument 2 being proven wrong.


When I got a reply to the email I sent to a writer in town, thanking her for inviting me to her party, I reveled in the words she ended the reply with: “You’re such a good dancer, I had no idea!” Argument 1 and Argument 2, slain to bits by the kindness of someone with 15 times the Instagram followers I have.