I recently read an essay in The Journal, the literary magazine at Ohio State University, and it set off a tirade of my own:
I am an award winning essayist, and I have a lot of problems with the way Mike Daisey presented not only his facts, but his excuses for changing them. I think there's a big difference between changing a line of dialogue because you don't remember EXACTLY what a person says and absolutely flat out lying. Mr. Daisey didn't want NPR to know who his Chinese interpreter was so he lied about her name and cell phone number. He lied about how many factories he visited, how many people he interviewed. He made up a man with a mangled hand. He made up underage workers. (http://www.npr.org/blogs/thetwo-way/2012/03/16/148761812/this-american-life-retracts-mike-daiseys-apple-factory-story)
I think his attempt to improve the working conditions of Chinese workers in Apple factories was noble. But why not just tell the truth about the problems there? Why embellish? Could it be because he is an actor and lost sight of the fact that his reporting would be identified with real people? Could it be that he was trying to make HIMSELF stand out? Oh, look at me, noble one, interviewing these wronged people. Well, you got our attention, Mr. Daisey and you made creative non-fiction writers look bad again. Thanks a lot, pal.
We're back to the James Frey garbage - you can say you were high, got held by the police, and you can even probably get away with imagining the dialogue your crack-addled brain missed. But you can't say you hit a police officer, and spent 87 days in jail when you got held for 5 hours.
My husband accuses me of remembering big. My kids say I exaggerate. My friends laugh hysterically at my stories. But there is a difference between being creative and lying. It's not the difference between a little lie and a big lie - it's the difference between the truth and a lie.
I don't think it's that difficult to figure out. Making up a line of dialogue that is similar to what was probably said, and even maybe possibly um could be uh taking out some of the uh, extra stuff in it is, you know, creative non-fiction. Pretending you were involved in a train accident in which two high school students died when you weren't on the train (Frey) is sleazy. Claiming you were fed by a young girl while you were in a concentration camp and then you later married that girl (Herman Rosenblat) is corrupt. Making up a man with a mangled hand who petted your Ipad is downright immoral.
If you want to be that "creative," call it fiction and be done with it!