I took College-English senior year of high school and I never got credit for it, but I should have. Come another, different, senior year—four years later—and I’m still using some of the concepts I learned in Mrs. Marciano’s class. We did Kite-Runner that year, and I struggled through that; you can only imagine my abhorrence when we entered the “Non-fiction” part of the class that would feature another story of the Middle-East, a place that I had absolutely no cares about. I tried to get involved with Three Cups of Tea, by Greg Mortenson, but I just couldn’t. Why do I care about non-fiction? Why would I want to read this? The story is sweet, I guess: Mortenson finds a village of (Savages) when he gets lost attempting to climb K-2, the second-tallest mountain in the world. Mortenson documents how the villagers take him in, nourish him, and then how he spends years trying to build schools and other infrastructure in their archaic village. Really, it’s a sweet story, but my 17-year-old self didn’t want to hear it if there weren’t bad guys getting blown up or good guys getting the girl. I didn’t like it, okay?
My predisposition changed when, after we had finished the book, Mrs. Marciano introduced a criticism of Mortenson’s book called “Three Cups of Deceit,” written by John Krakauer who, we were told, was a very famous journalist. Krakauer’s beef started when he donated to Mortenson’s foundation, Central Asia Institute (CIA), but then later found out that the majority of the donations were used to fund Mortenson’s book promotion, not for the humanitarian ventures he claimed it was for. Krakauer mentioned this, but he also suggested that Mortenson wrote a non-fiction book in which he exaggerated the truth of his heroics and participation. Essentially, Krakauer claims that the basic events in Morten’s story that took place— Mortenson stumbling into the village, Korphe, and promising to build a school there— never actually occurred. Additionally, some of the most intense parts of Mortenson’s sequel Stones into Schools turned out to be fabricated or exaggerated as well. While Krakauer acknowledged that the intention of both books was to help the people targeted by the CIA, he claims that Mortenson did not appropriate allocate the funds received and that the story was a disgrace to the non-fiction genre.
At the time of the lesson, back in 2011, I felt ever-so vindicated. This annoying book was being attacked by someone important, not just my friends and I in the back of the classroom. But here, in a non-fiction class, some five years later, I have to wonder what side I stand on. Of course, if people are donating to a cause it is right to be argued that there money should go to where they are told its going, but, I mean, am I supposed to feel offended by Mortenson’s fabrications. I wonder if I am? I just wrote a non-fiction essay. It would have been a lot easier if I could have plowed through some walls of truthiness. My story would have been better, my writing would have been easier. But I didn’t. I stuck to the truth, mostly, because that’s the point of this genre… Mostly… I stuck to the truth mostly. What does ‘mostly’ mean? Well, you see, I forgot somethings, so I added some details where I couldn’t really remember what happened. I also had to smush some characters together, because I couldn’t fit everyone I ever knew into my three-thousand word essay. And, actually, I smushed some of the plot to make it brisk and interesting too. There’s the part where I skipped years and years and years between parts of my story. Oh! And I made up most of the conversations too… But they happened they just didn’t happen when I said they happened, or with who I said they happened with… if I remember right. But, mostly I stuck to the truth.
The truth is subjective. It’s different in everyone’s mind. It’s told by language— which is nothing short of constant metaphor. Sure, I bet someone out there can prove that Greg Mortenson never talked to This villager at that time, the same way I’m sure my girlfriend could tell you how most of my story is substantively and chronologically inaccurate, but that doesn’t mean it’s not true. It’s true because I say it is, and you can only prove otherwise if you care so much that you act on the things in my story. In Mortenson’s story, people didn’t walk away with a beautiful tale in their hearts, they walked to their cell-phones and started donating. They did that before they did their research, and then got mad after they had made bad decisions. Mortenson’s story is a story, and we should treat it like one. We have to remember that non-fiction, the way we talk about it, is created by artists and not reporters. While artists sometimes have rhetorical moments, they are not necessarily sources of truth.
Of course, as a reader you’re allowed to avoid the un-truthers. That’s your prerogative. But remember that every story, no matter how true, is grounded in some kind of fiction.