There is no absolute truth in the truth that one seeks from presumably truthful people—i.e, responsible sources, candid confessors, even the curious interviewees who are divulging their own personal experiences, those writing and publishing their autobiographies or memoirs. The truth is at best vague, debatable, and shaded by perceptions that are half-recalled and guided by self-protectiveness and an idealized sense of self. This is not to suggest that such individuals (either those doing the questioning, or those doing the answering) are necessarily guilty of deception or deceit. It is just impossible to know how exactly to measure the whole truth and nothing but the truth, as the saying goes in the courtroom.
While journalism espouses to get to the truth of the matter, no newspaper really does. On every page of a newspaper (or magazine, or a book of nonfiction) there are choices made by the writer: personal decisions that reflect the totality of their experience. The notes are tainted; the information is incomplete; and the final process—what to print, how much to print, where is the printed matter displayed in the periodical (highlighted on Page l? Buried on the bottom of Page 37?)—all of these decisions are made subjectively, not objectively. There is no such thing as objective (total, indisputable) journalism or nonfiction writing.
If fact-writing is not “truthful” in totality, then what is the point of writing it? I write non-fiction because I am trying to get as close to the truth as my form allows. Creative nonfiction was the new and exploratory form in the l960s and ’70s, practiced not only by such distinguished contemporaries of mine as Tom Wolfe and also Hunter Thompson, but by many other writers, namely Norman Mailer, Truman Capote, Joan Didion, who had first made their names in “fiction” and were then drawn to what I called the “art of reality”: the desire to describe in story-telling form the lives and situations of people who drew us to them, or that we ourselves pursued out of self-interest and obsessive curiosity.
Many writers—and I am one of them—have “double” lives: they are what they write, and they are witnesses to what they write. They dwell within and outside of themselves at the same time. They have “distance” from their own interiors. They also have double-relationships with their literary subjects: they are “dating” them, “courting” them, “painting” them, “molding” them, escorting them out into the public arena where they (subject and writer) present themselves for review and understanding.
Back in l962, after I had spoken to a prize fighter named Floyd Patterson many times, I finally got him to describe what it is like being knocked out in a boxing ring. I went over his words again and again, as he described it to me—the act of collapsing in the ring, falling on your back, being conscious of your condition, and of thousands of people seeing you in that embarrassing and humiliating condition; his description is as alive today, in 2011, as it was when it was first described to me back in 1962.
Nothing in fiction can match this nonfiction account, I suggest to you. Why? Because it is true. It is true to me, and true to Floyd Patterson (who confided it to me, and then confirmed that I had actually described what he’d experienced); and it is true to readers even now, who read this half-century old story in anthologies today.