Sunday, June 13, 2010

Telling It True

Once, many years ago, I was asked by a reporter if I had ever lied for the company I then worked for. Most of my career has been spent in public affairs or public relations, and given what many think of as public relations, the question was understandable.

I could truthfully answer no. I had not then, nor have I ever, lied for a company I worked for or a client I’ve represented. First, my faith says it’s not an option. Second are the general ethical considerations. And third, the fact is that your credibility and reputation are all you have when you’re in PR. Blow that once, and you’ve blown it forever. And the field is littered with examples.

What the reporter didn’t ask, however, was if I had ever been asked to lie. Now that would have been an interesting, and complicated, answer. No one has ever asked me to "Please lie about this." But I have heard "Don't bring that up," "There's a problem there," "Tell them not to ask that question," or some other variation. I've never been directly asked to lie, but I have been asked not to tell the story -- the whole story.

This week, I was reminded of that reporter’s question so many years ago when I was reading Julia Cameron’s The Right to Write: An Invitation and Initiation into the Writing Life. She has a chapter on honesty in writing, and while she never mentions public relations, the same principles apply.

“The emotional courage of an artist counts for a lot with me,” she writes. “I can live with the rough edges, with an occasional wince as something cuts too close to the bone. What I do not want to live with is writing that is false, slick, or processed like the faux marble that is used to tone up nouveau riche hotels.

“There is something about the truth – like something about a great plain pine table – that has a beauty and clarity that shine for me beyond the frequent artifice of High Art.”

When I write – no matter if it’s for work or for myself – I’m mostly concerned with telling the story. Readers (or listeners, if it’s a speech) can usually tell whether a story is true or not – and I mean “true” in the sense of resonating with human experience. People may or may not know if a story is factually correct, but they usually know if it’s true to what they know and understand.

A good example of this is the stories told by Billy Coffey. I read his stories, and I can’t tell you they are factually correct, because I don’t personally know the people he writes about. But I can tell you that his stories are profoundly true, because I recognize them from what I know and understand about people. Billy doesn’t write like “faux marble;” he writes like that great plain pine table, straight from the heart.

That, to me, is what honesty is writing is about. It’s not only the story you’re trying to tell. It’s also telling it true, from the heart, allowing it to tell itself.

Over at the High Calling Blogs, Laura Boggess is leading a discussion of Cameron’s The Right to Write. Take a look and see what others are saying, commenting and posting. Last week’s discussion was about credibility, place and happiness. This week’s discussion is about making it, honesty and vulnerability.


No Matter What by Nancy Kourmoulis.

Cassandra Frear's The Edge of Glory.

Sandal-Walls by Monica Sharman.

Jessica McGuire's Pink Elephant.


Kelly Sauer said...

This is a good one, Glynn. I don't like to read my own writing if it doesn't come from an honest place. Even now, I shudder reading some of my old writing, knowing what was behind it, what I was hiding.

"It's also telling it true..."

Without embellishment. Without trying to make it happen. "Allowing it to tell itself."

I like that.

S. Etole said...

And that's why I keep coming back ...

Anonymous said...

interesting about the reporter and how, with a small change on the question, he could end up with an entirely different and even more interesting story.

Maureen said...

I think we're seeing an example of not telling the whole story in the BP oil crisis. This morning's op ed pages had an interview on whether BP had planned for worst-case scenarios. According to BP, it had. But the interviewee maintained that the company never believed the scenarios and so had not "planned for" them as part of its risk management.

You've written an excellent post about an important distinction between fact and truth and how each might be used by a writer. Billy's a wonderful exemplar of writing universal truths we don't know are facts. One of the great examples of such writing, is Truman Capote's "In Cold Blood"; what we wrote about was fact-based, but he told the story so it read as a novel and in his telling he captured some important truths about human beings.

Kathleen Overby said...

Coming home to your good read is good. Well spoken as per usual. :)

Anonymous said...

So...with the comment you made about Billy's stories, I think I hear you saying that something can be, for all you know, factually "false" and still be "true."

So are you saying that a person can be dishonest about facts in a real life story (as opposed to something overtly presented as fiction) and still be "honest" if the heart of it is true?

Laura said...

When I come here, Glynn, I feel stronger as I leave. Thank you for holding your standards so dear and for sharing your stories with us.

Sherri Murphy said...

We can completely identify with the truth- and it is so appreciated-even while reading fiction.


Sandra Heska King said...

Telling it true. That's what I want to do.

Michelle DeRusha said...

So clearly and eloquently said, Glynn.

When I first started writing a friend who read my early work noted, "It's good...but you're missing. You're not in there at all -- where are you in the story?" I had thought I was there, and even when he mentioned the criticism, I couldn't see what he was talking about.

It's taken several years to realize he was right, and to begin to write myself away from that emptiness and into a place that is more authentically me.

It's hard work, and scary too -- because I am the kind of person who craves approval. I want people to like me -- and being authentic, genuine and vulnerable doesn't always make for likability!

Anonymous said...

Ann's question above is interesting. I think fiction is often truer than non-fiction, because the writer is writing from a place of honesty. Call it nonfiction when it's actually not, however, and you've lost the truth AND the honesty. We've seen this as "scandal" in a lot of journalistic and artistic blunders by writers recently.

I hadn't really thought about this chapter on honesty from a PR perspective . . . this was really helpful.