Here’s a question that often comes up these days among writers and readers of nonfiction alike: Is it okay for a writer to “make things up”? Interestingly, at least one critically well-received travel writer thinks it is not only okay to make stuff up, it is essential to do so if the writer is aiming for not mere truth, but that far headier concoction, “poetic truth.”
The writer in question is Sara Wheeler, author of such travelogues as Terra Incognita: Travels in Antarctica and Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile. She is also the author of a biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, the English explorer who won fame for not only being the sole survivor of Scott’s disastrous expedition to the South Pole, but for writing a stunning book about the experience, The Worst Journey in the World.
Wheeler was understandably taken with Cherry-Garrad’s morose epic, given that she had been to the same continent herself. Cherry: A Life of Apsley Cherry-Garrard came out in 2002, to excellent reviews. Two years later, writing in The Times of London, Wheeler confessed that she had, uh, well, made some things up.
But only little things! As she put it in her article, titled OK, so I made it up:
What about crossing the line? Is it ever all right for a nonfiction writer to make it up? I think it is, at least in small ways. In my biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, one of Captain Scott’s men and the author of the polar classic The Worst Journey in the World, I was chronically short of primary material and, as a result, had to work extra hard at conjuring the background against which my man moved. If I found out what the gentlefolk of Hertfordshire were eating in 1919, and wrote that Cherry-Garrard one day lunched on eggs hollandaise and gooseberry tart, how could it matter if he did not actually eat that specific meal? I was attempting to convey the poetic truth of a person, a time and a place.
Not too bad, eh? It’s just lunch . . . it’s not like such details really matter. Besides, it’s not like Wheeler doesn’t have her standards: she goes on to explain that for nonfiction writers, including travel writers such as herself, there is a fine line in what you can and can make up; lunch is OK, but certain other things are off limits:
You must never make up dialogue, for example. If you do, you are a novelist. . . . it is all right for Beryl Bainbridge to put words into the mouth of Captain Scott, or of a passenger on the Titanic — but only if she calls her book a novel.
Very good, very good. Except here is the kicker to Wheeler’s admonition: It turns out that in “Travels in a Thin Country: A Journey Through Chile,” she not only made up dialog, she made up the character who spoke that dialog. And she also made up the character’s entire family. I found this out while reading a copy of the out-of-print book A Sense of Place, a collection of interviews by Michael Shapiro with more than a dozen famed travel writers, including Wheeler. The book was published in 2004, so presumably the interviews were conducted in 2003 – which would place the interview with Wheeler prior to her assertion in The Times that “you must never make up dialog.” Here is the relevant excerpt:
Shapiro: Moving on, it seems your trip to Chile was inspired by a strange travel suggestion from a man you met who said, “Why don’t you visit my country?”
Wheeler: I made that up.
Shapiro: You did, really? Well, it gave the book a nice start.
Wheeler: That was the idea.
Shapiro: So where’s the line in travel literature between reporting what you see and creating a character, as you did in the Chile book?
Wheeler: Well it’s not a line. I think that most writers who do the kind of thing which I do, which is not being a reporter, it’s the opposite of what reporters do in a way; we’re trying to convey a poetic truth, and the tools that you use in order to achieve that poetic truth or to try to . . . I don’t see it as a line. . . .
We all manipulate material – it’s a very controversial issue, and readers always want their money back when they learn this.
Shapiro: But did the person actually exist or did you create him from scratch?
Wheeler: I created him.
Shapiro: So who were his family that you meet down in Chile?
Wheeler: I made them up as well.
Fancy readers wanting their money back! Don’t they know that poetic truth is better than real truth?
For comparison, let us examine the work of one of the fuddy-duddy reporters whom Wheeler mocks – the sort who is so burdened by the ball and chain of facts that he can never achieve her ideal of “poetic truth.” The pathetic dweeb in question is Richard Rhodes, who won a Pulitzer Prize for his 1986 history, The Making of the Atomic Bomb. In his book How to Write: Advice and Reflections, Rhodes describes his painstaking efforts to write his history vividly, yet without making anything up. He uses as an example the book’s opening paragraph, which describes in a “you are there” style the moment that the Hungarian physicist Leo Szilard conceived of a critical bit of bomb-related theory while crossing a London street in 1933.
First, here is the paragraph in question:
In London, where Southampton Row passes Russell Square, across from the British Museum in Bloomsbury, Leo Szilard waited irritably one gray Depression morning for the stoplight to change. A trace of rain had fallen during the night; Tuesday, September 12, 1933, dawned cool, humid, and dull. Drizzling rain would begin again in early afternoon. When Szilard told the story later he never mentioned his destination that morning. He may have had none; he often walked to think. In any case another destination intervened. The stoplight changed to green, Szilard stepped off the curb. As he crossed the street time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future, death into the world and all our woe, the shape of things to come.
And now here is Rhodes’s explanation of how he researched and wrote it:
All the details in the opening paragraph are accurate. Szilard left a taped oral history describing his irritation that morning at an article he had read while sitting in the lobby of the Russell Hotel. He said he threw down the paper and went out walking. I found the weather for the morning of September 12, 1933 in the London Times, on microfilm at a university library. The last sentence in the paragraph is editorial comment, so to speak, but the tradition of historical narrative allows room for such comment. Szilard had an idea as he crossed the street for what he called a “chain reaction,” the basic energy-producing mechanism of nuclear reactors and atomic bombs. “Time cracked open before him and he saw a way to the future” seemed to me a reasonable metaphoric description of so pivotal an insight. Since I was writing a tragic epic about humankind inventing the means of its own destruction, evoking Paradise Lost – “death into the world and all our woe” – seemed appropriate. “The shape of things to come,” as I revealed on the next page of the chapter, was the title of an H.G. Wells novel, reviewed in the Times twelve days before Szilard’s walk, which concerned the state of the world after a destructive nuclear war – something futuristic, I thought, to set against the antique invocation of Milton.
It’s interesting to match up Wheeler against Rhodes. She makes up people as she wishes in order to achieve what she calls “poetic truth,” but has apparently encountered readers who don’t approve of this tactic and want their money back; Rhodes writes a final sentence to his opening paragraph that he intends poetically, but which refers not to anything made up but to a chillingly real truth – a critical moment in the invention of the atomic bomb.
Which of these two writers would you trust to write your biography?
My own personal take: It is fine to imagine, invent, etc., to whatever degree you prefer – so long as you let the reader know what you’re up to. In books this is easy with forwards, afterwards, etc. – these allow you to qualify or explain your motives and methods. In magazine pieces it’s harder, because there is no designated slot for such information.
What dismays me about Wheeler is not that she made up a lunch here or there – or even, necessarily, that she invented a character; it is her apparent desire to conceal the extent of her fictionalizing from her readers. That disparaging comment about readers “wanting their money back” really rankles.