Monday, November 22, 2010

The credibility of the story

By David Heinzmann

When I was invited to talk to my kid’s kindergarten class last week about being a reporter, I decided the best way to explain journalism to a bunch of six-year-olds was to tell them that I tell stories for a living.

But not just any kind of story, of course. I told them there are two kinds of tales in this world: those that are make-believe and those that really happened.
As a reporter, I tell the ones that really happened.

I showed the kids my digital voice recorder (always use a prop of some kind when trying to hold the attention of the shorties) and told them I use it so that the words of people in my stories are down just exactly as they said them. No foggy recollections of what was said. Nothing made up.

When I asked for an example of a story they know that really happened, one little girl raised her hand and blurted out “The Titanic.” Excellent. However, given that my own 6-year-old is pretty sure that certain heroic events really did happen A Long Time Ago, in a Galaxy Far, Far Away… I probably should have asked them for an example of a story they knew was made up. That’s harder. We all want to believe on some level that these stories we hear or read could really be true, right? Otherwise, who cares.

By the way, bless these children—and their parents—because when I asked for a show of hands if an actual newspaper gets delivered to their front door every morning, nearly all of them went up. (which says more about my zip code than the future of print journalism. But still.) I was presently surprised by the notions they’ve formed at such a young age about the nature of stories.

After drilling them on the importance for a journalist to make sure everything it true, I figured it better to not open any cans of worms about the fictional side of my writing life. I had only twenty minutes with them, and their desire to hear their own voices played back on my fancy little digital recorder had created a bit of a frenzy ten minutes in.

But I’m always pre-occupied with this issue of make-believe and factual reality, and how they mix in writing. Both as a writer and a reader. Can a nonfiction book that takes liberties to “reconstruct” conversations and events really be regarded as truth? And does a novel really benefit from a writer’s care to get some facts of the real word just write in the book? In crime stories, I think the geography should be right, for the most part, and the criminal justice system should be represented somewhat accurately. But maybe the reporter side of me is fooling the novelist side about what really matters.

Part of me wants to believe this level accuracy helps a story reflect some central sense of truth. It’s not just make-believe. But then again, truth isn’t dependent on the accuracy of the street signs or cop nomenclature. Real truth in fiction comes from characters readers can believe in.

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