writing is realigning reality

The day I knew writers were liars

“You have to show your dad this story,” said la señorita Ana María. “He’ll love it.”

She handed me the page with the big fat A underlined three times in bright red color.

The teacher had asked the whole class to write about our dads. I described mine coming back home from a business trip. Oh, how I’d missed him… I brought him his slippers, and we all sat around the fireplace listening to his tales, me at his feet with my head on his lap, and him caressing my hair.

But Dad never went on business trips. I never brought him his slippers. We never sat around the fireplace talking.

He was a reserved man, who didn’t say much except around the dinner table, and even then he would mostly listen to us ten siblings’ racket. He never hugged us, caressed us or expressed affection in any overt way.

I had concluded that he loved his dogs more than he loved us. How was I ever going to show him that story?

I’d had no problem showing mom the previous ones: a day in the life of a Cro-Magnon family; the adventurous journey of a piece of bread going through the digestive system; a flight to the moon.

They were fantasy, and fantasy wasn’t a lie. It was a parallel world. Writing stories that came only from your head was allowed in this make-believe universe.

But as soon as my parents read this piece they would know I was a liar, spreading falsehoods about our family life.

Today I think that, had they read it, my parents may have dismissed this pretend family as just another harmless fantasy. Or, on the contrary, they may have realized how much I missed the tender connection that the child in the story shared with her imaginary dad. Not that this would have changed the real one. At most, Dad may have said “Gee…” and grazed my cheek with a hesitant finger, before hiding again behind the enormous printed pages of La Vanguardia.

I did not share the story with him. In a family where displays of emotion and contrary viewpoints were often met with bewilderment, anger or scorn, it felt too dangerous to reveal the dreams I carried inside.

García Marquez on Truth in Fiction

Ever since then, when I was 12 years old, I’ve been preoccupied with the concept of truth and lie in writing. Now, since I write memoir, I’m more concerned with the impact of telling the truth, as opposed to the fear of being chastised for distorting it.

Gabriel García Márquez says that even if literature is a virtual reality, as opposed to journalism, which needs to be rooted in facts, they both share the same imperative: they need to be “verosímil”.

The Latin root for the first part of this adjective —”vero”— is the same as the root for “verdad” or truth: verus. While the second part, “símil” comes from similitudo, which means “quality of similar”. So fiction needs to be “similar to truth”. An approximate English translation for this word would be “true-to-life” or credible.

Even our most imaginative pieces are rooted in our personal reality, because it has formed the obsessions and viewpoints that mold our writing. When we can translate our underlying magma in a powerful and credible story, no matter if it´s science fiction or naturalistic, we achieve what Albert Camus stated:

“Fiction is the lie through which we tell the truth.”

At 12, I was too young to realize that the happy Cro-Magnon family was expressing the same hidden anguish than the picture-perfect Dad.

García Marquez on Truth in Memoir

García Márquez prefaces his wonderful memoir “Live to Tell the Tale” (Vivir para contarla) with this sentence:

“Life is not what one lived, but what one remembers and how one remembers it in order to recount it.”

Reality is subjective. For memoir writers, life not only drips through the sieve of our unique individual perception, but also through the leaky net of our memory. More is scattered in the ocean of oblivion than trapped in it. Whatever is caught looks completely different to each person who participated in the events.

We still need to strive to mold subjectively lived and chosen facts into an honest and true-to-life story that allows our readers to recognize themselves.

As for me, truth is now my guiding star. In fiction or memoir, the urge to bring out what I’ve buried inside allows me to pierce the wall of my fear.

READ NEXT: “The naked truth in memoir—Two approaches to facing your fears.”

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