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by Madeline Ostrander

I find it hard to tell the truth. Which is not to say that I am in the habit of lying. I am a nonfiction writer and a journalist. It’s my job to tell the truth. But each time I set words down, I realize I am wrestling with more than one truth.

It is partly a trouble of writing about activists and underdogs and do-gooders, my specialty. These are people who have so often had their stories stolen from them— mangled, distorted, or transformed by media or politicians or Hollywood. They are trying to change the story that other people know about them. And you have to hold both their truth and the other truths—the truths of their adversaries, detractors, and peers—in your mind as you write.

You would think that the facts would be anchors: They would pin the story to the page. But there are so many stories that can bind the same facts together—each with a different protagonist. Each of the people you interview and later write about sees themselves secretly as the hero, the underdog, the victim, or the villain. Their mind has cast themselves in this role, and when they see what you wrote, they may say, No, that’s not the story I know. They may try to control it—to write it for you.

They may have told you a story—sitting across from you at the table over a coffee or a beer and leaning nervously into a tiny microphone­—and not realized that it, too, is fiction. They left out the people who helped them along and made themselves too heroic. They exaggerated a small detail. Later, you ask them again, Is this true? They say, No, you got it wrong. As if you, and not they, had created the fiction. You have to hold them to the facts, but even beyond dates and places and physical details, there are the questions of meaning and morality.

I once wrote a story in which the hero was an endangered, possibly extinct, bird. But the creature’s tiny spirit had summoned scientists from different countries to speak to one another, across cultures, across political barriers. When I sent them the draft, the scientists asked me to edit them out. The bird was their secret. The scientists could not be spoken of by name in the same paragraph together—the political barriers were too great. I would get them in trouble.

When I sit down to write stories, I so often want to imagine people are more courageous than they are, or more beautiful, more evil, or more consistent. And sometimes the people in the story want this, too. I have stand back and think beyond them. Nail my story to the facts but draw forth my own truth and insight. Because in the end, the story I tell is my own—the truth as I have known it.

Madeline Ostrander
About Madeline Ostrander

1 Comment

  • Jackie Shannon Hollis
    11:14 PM - 12 March, 2012

    Wonderful post, Madeline.

    Even in writing my own story (essays, memoir), I struggle with this question of truth. Memory distorts. Time changes our understanding of events. The stories we tell after an event re-form the event. What you put in and what you leave out draws our attention to a different aspect of the event. Truth is a fussy, fuzzy, twiny, complicated thing.

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