Selling out and truth

The most important aspect of creative nonfiction is truth, which is closely followed by honesty. Without these two requirements, nonfiction would cease being nonfiction and become fiction instead. The difficult part of writing with truth and honesty is that life is very messy. There’s no way to approach something in a clear cut manner, and if the event does seem clear and simple, the author isn’t digging into it enough. As Joan Didion said in the opening of Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “writers are always selling somebody out.” The use of this quote in the introduction helps frame the reader in the knowledge that the writing will not always be clear or what they might expect. It serves as a reminder that creative nonfiction focuses on real people and real stories.

Creative nonfiction writers must look deeply into the lives and events that they write about. They have to write the whole truth instead of just the nice truths. And in doing that, they inevitably will sell someone out. They’ll show the good side and the bad side of a person. Take “John Wayne: A Love Song” for example. Didion shows multiple sides of him. She starts out the piece by talking about how she idolized him. She says, “He determined forever the shape of certain dreams.” In her childhood, John Wayne was a near-perfect human being. Didion isn’t selling Wayne out her, but she is selling herself out slightly. She’s admitting to a childhood crush, something that most people will try to hide and never speak about. She tells us this information with the knowledge that we’ll understand her. Most people have had a childhood idol and can relate to what she’s saying. Then near the end of the essay she says, “We had a lot of drinks and I lost the sense that the face across the table was in certain ways more familiar than my husband’s.” Here Didion sells Wayne out, in a way, because her current image of him is no longer the one that matched her childhood image. In doing this, she also changes the reader’s perception of him. She sells him out by showing the truth of who he is now. It isn’t mean really. Selling him out was more of a matter of making the person who he is clearer than the person the reader imagines him to be.

I think that it’s essential for writers to sell people out in this way. For a reader to truly get the full experience and truth of a creative nonfiction piece they have to learn about the entirety of a person: the idolizations and the not-so-lovely truths. Inevitably, all writers must do this to commit to their pieces and to make those pieces complex. Writers must sell both other people and themselves out, and expose their insides for the reader.

3 thoughts on “Selling out and truth

  1. Simone Louie

    Yeah that’s what I was thinking too. If you’re going to tell the truth, then there’s going to be both good and ugly sides to it, and by showing the ugly sides to the reader it would involve “selling someone out”.

    Do you think there are situations where it’d be wrong to “sell someone out” for the sake of telling the truth, though? Sometimes, would there be more harm done than good, especially when the truth the author writes about is subjective? I’m thinking about Jay Wilds from Serial, and how people have actually found his home address and spied on him, just because they listened to the podcast and formed their version of the truth. Did Koenig sell Jay Wilds out? Did she sell everyone out in the podcast (including herself since she doubts herself a lot too)?

    1. Bridget Dooney

      I agree, there is a fine line between selling someone out and stating a fact to help someone though so I don’t necessarily think it would be wrong to sell someone out but it may be beneficial. In Didion’s case, she is selling people out for a story and to get a bigger picture of California. I like how you connected Serial and Slouching towards Bethlehem.

  2. Bridget Dooney

    “Selling somebody out” in my opinion, also serves as a warning from Didion to the readers that her essays may not be the complete truth, and they are subjected to her biased opinion of the people she is writing about in that essay.


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