Remember James Frey? He’s the guy who wrote A Million Little Pieces, a memoir of his addiction to drugs, time in prison, recovery, etc. The media tore him apart, mostly because his “memoir” was more fiction than non. But he’s not alone in his offense. In one case, a woman in Germany wrote a memoir about, in part, the time she was adopted by wolves.
Wolves? Really? Yeah.
Here is what we learn from these books: it’s not okay to sell fiction as non-fiction. That’s lying. But so is fiction, isn’t it? Not so.
Throughout The Things They Carried, Tim O’Brien writes several short stories that, within themselves, explore the relationship between fiction and truth. In Notes, he writes
By telling stories, you objectify your own experience. You separate it from yourself. You pin down certain truths. You make up others. You start sometimes with an incident that truly happened, like the night in the *expletive* field, and you carry it forward by inventing incidents that did not in fact occur but that nonetheless help to clarify and explain.
In short, fiction is a vehicle to explore truths that cannot be adequately expressed by retelling true events.
No one likes a liar. Lies are meant to deceive. Fiction is meant to illuminate. And sometimes, we turn on a light and make shadow puppets, not for the sake of the puppet, but to point to the hands and fingers intertwining, merging, creating. The reader watches the shadow and understands that hands have made them. They understand the truth.
So long as you don’t write about being adopted by a pack of wolves.