“Life is messy. People, generally, suck.” –Christopher Moore, The Stupidest Angel
I’m on a plane as I write this. WiFi is available on this flight, but it costs extra, so I won’t be able to post this until I touch down. Bummer. Can you imagine how awesome it would be to blog in mid-air? I don’t get excited about too many things. People ask if I’m excited to be getting my master’s from Columbia, and I’m not, really. As an undergrad, it was my dream school. I find it humorous that out of the nine schools I applied to (all of which were big names), I got into all of the non-Ivy League schools and was rejected from all of the Ivies. Now, as a grad student, I have been accepted into my first-choice program. That’s pretty awesome, but like the insanely ambitious person that I am, I want more. Why stop with studying at one of the best universities in the world? I want to rule the world. Of course, if I ever accomplish that, I’ll probably set my sights on space. I’m picky that way.
Taking over the world is like solving a Rubik’s Cube, except that instead of a cube, it’s the entire world. I’ve been trying to take over the world since I was a child. It’s really hard. Like, really, really, really, really, really hard. I’m not sure if I can put enough “reallys” in that sentence. Just pretend that it goes on for seven pages and you’ll have a rough idea. I’d be a much happier man if I could just get rid of this pesky conscience. Somebody whose name I am currently unable to look up once said that making a lot of money isn’t so hard if all you want to do is make a lot of money. I’d agree with that. Similarly, if all I’d cared about was getting into a good grad program, I’d be jumping for joy. But we all know that that isn’t what this is really about. I’m hungry. I want to learn everything that there is to know and then some. What’s changed is that now I have some idea where to begin.
I’ve never mentioned this on my blog before, but I’m a regular listener of This American Life. I think Ira Glass is an incisive and fair journalist and many of the stories on that show—fictional and nonfictional—are well worth hearing. There was a controversy a couple months ago when one of the stories—taken from a monologue by Mike Daisey called “The Agony and the Ecstasy of Steve Jobs” turned out to be partially fictionalized. It is not unusual for a supposed “nonfiction” story to be somewhat embellished. David Sedaris has been accused of making a good story better on occasion, and while he isn’t an author, Louis CK has admitted to making up parts of his standup comedy. What makes Mike Daisey different? Simple: he didn’t need to do it. For those of you who haven’t heard it, his show details a visit he made to the Foxconn factories in China where Apple products are made. He reported on the abominable conditions that employees were forced to work under and asked just how guilty we should feel for using devices that were made by people who are scarcely better than slaves. It was a powerful hour of radio, and the podcast became the most-downloaded in TAL history. So you can imagine that when Ira Glass discovered he’d been had, he did not respond kindly. He devoted an entire show to retracting the story and, in a long, awkward, and strangely cathartic interview, took Mike Daisey to task for his deceit.
I’m not going to claim that I saw any of that coming. I will say, however, that as moved as I was by Daisey’s monologue, something about it bugged me. It seemed overdramatized somehow, as if he were reaching just a little too hard for effect. Even if it had been presented as fiction, parts of it wouldn’t have been believable. Usually, when outed as a liar, a so-called memoirist, journalist, or other nonfiction writer claims that it may not have been the literal truth, but it was the emotional truth. In Daisey’s case, I don’t buy that. Parts of his story are simply laughable. There is one moment in which a factory employee who has constructed thousands of iPads sees one in its finished form for the first time, turns to Daisey, and says, “It’s a kind of magic.” What happened then, did Freddie Mercury jump out and do a musical number?
The funny thing about my writing is that it is either 100% true or 100% false. I do not muck around with the grey area in between. I wrote an essay in high school about the death of my dog, and while there were no outright fictions in the story, there was a fair amount of collapsing events to make them read more smoothly, polishing the rough edges, and so on. It was one of the best pieces I produced during that era, but I’m not going back down that road again. Even though the feedback was very positive, I couldn’t help but feel uneasy. There are many things that I am not sure of, but here is one that I believe as strongly as I believe anything: I will never fabricate. If I say that a story is made-up, that means it’s made-up. If I say that it is true to the best of my knowledge, it means that I went over it with a fine-toothed comb to correct even the most minor and insignificant error. My stories are either mundane or fantastical. There is magic in both.
It’s difficult to compress a real-life story into something that is digestible to an audience. Then again, we do it all the time, telling stories at dinner parties and the like. Try not to get too hung up on the facts. Think about what you want people to take away. If you want them to be entertained, make it entertaining. If you want them to be moved, make it poignant. But don’t try to make them feel guilty. That’s not what they came for.