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History or Fiction? The Value of Truth in Writing

Thoughts about Hemingway and writing in general.

G. B. Shaw once wrote: “All autobiographies are lies. I do not mean unconscious, unintentional lies; I mean deliberate lies. No man is bad enough to tell the truth himself during his lifetime, involving, as it must, the truth about his family and friends and colleagues. And no man is good enough to tell the truth in a document which he suppresses until there is nobody left alive to contradict him.”

Perhaps an odd way to lead in to Hemingway, but thoughts about truth and fiction regarding Hemingway – and about writing in general – have been crowding my mind since I recently finished a book of historical fiction about Hemingway’s first marriage.

Hemingway is famously noted as having written about this first wife: “I wish I had died before I loved anyone but her.” This quote was apparently the inspiration for Paula McLain’s novel “The Paris Wife,” a book exploring Hemingway’s marriage, his first of four, to Hadley Richardson. It tells of their years together in Paris – the years Hemingway immortalized in “A Moveable Feast” – from Hadley’s perspective.

Regarding books that fall under the rubric “historical fiction,” there seems to be two distinct opinions: love or hate. For those who love this genre, the draw seems to be that historical fiction provides a pleasant medium in which to learn about a piece of history. Sure, there are fictional characters, settings, and made-up dialogue, but the heart of the story is based on fact. And the fictional parts help make the historical parts more interesting.

For those who loathe the genre, it’s the line between fact and fiction that trips them up. One friend expressed her frustration on the blurriness of the line as follows: “I hate reading a book and wondering – is this part ‘historical’ or is this the ‘fiction?'” 

Having read Hemingway’s memoir “A Movable Feast” some time ago, I had a pretty good sense, from his perspective anyway, of what his years writing in Paris in the 1920s were like. As with everything I’ve read by him, I loved the terse but powerful descriptions of his fellow expatriate writers – Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Scott Fitzgerald – and life as an American in Paris. And in “Feast,” he wrote movingly of the financial hardships he and Hadley faced in Paris as he struggled to make a living as an unknown writer.

It was only some time after I had read “A Moveable Feast” that I learned that the couple were actually given a large sum of money to live on, and that their impoverished state was largely made up by Hemingway. And while he speaks candidly of the alcohol that flowed like water, he omits any mention of the infidelities that led to the unraveling of his marriage to Hadley. Memoirs apparently lend themselves to distortion.

So what is one to believe, and what is the value of truth in writing anyway?

Hemingway himself once said: “There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.” This has always resonated with me. First of all, the idea that consistent practice is essential to crafting sentences that work well and have effect has always seemed right to me. The more one writes, the more facile one becomes at writing. This axiom applies for many things in life, though try telling this to my kids!

But as for the bleeding, that is a choice a writer makes. Either you’re going to write honestly from the heart and in doing so, allow yourself to be vulnerable, or you’re not. I like to think that I’m not afraid to lay bare parts of my soul in writing. The truth is, sometimes I'm afraid to share so much of myself, but I have simply made a choice to do it. What’s the point of pounding out 800 words on a computer every week, if in doing so I’m guarded and protected? It’s only meaningful, and worth your time to read, if what I write is honest and heartfelt.

What, then, are we to make of Hemingway? Was he authentic himself? Was his regret about Hadley sincere? I have to admit, it feels empty to me, but typical of the kind of regrets we experience toward the end of life. It’s rather easy to lament a part of life you moved on from – when you’ve had your fill of all the advantages you left it for. We’ll never know for sure what Hemingway truly felt, and it really doesn’t matter. 

At the end of the day, memoirs will continue to be sprinkled with fiction and Hemingway will remain, in my humble opinion, among the greatest writers of all time.

Stacey Hammerlind March 25, 2012 at 12:02 AM
Historical fiction makes me crazy! I want to know about real people. But I appreciate the honesty in these columns, Lisa! It's great that you can share so much with so many!
Joanna Dunn March 25, 2012 at 08:37 AM
I never read A Million Little Pieces by James Frey but I know Oprah really struggled with this one! I think historical fiction distinguishes itself from memoir because it doesn't purport to be "remembered." Three works of historical fiction by a Massachusetts author named Sally Gunning really drew me in a couple of years ago: The Widow's War, Bound, and The Rebellion of Jane Clarke. They made the time period and the places (Cape Cod, Dedham, and Boston) come alive for me. Yet the fact that they were fictional was also never far from my mind... they'd never be mistaken for "biography." I also really liked The Dante Club by Matthew Pearl (Thriller/Historical Fiction). I think it's very interesting for a writer to work off of historical material to invent a story. Your article makes me want to read Hemingway again. There are great books that I read as a teenager that I should go back to, might start with The Sun Also Rises.
Robin Cushman Phillips January 14, 2013 at 06:16 PM
Having just finished and thoroughly enjoyed The Paris Wife, I now find myself curious to read Hemingway's writing. Never before have I been interested so this historical novel worked its magic with me. The other historical novel that I devoured was The Red Tent. Both of these books made a period of time come alive for me in a way that I did not expect and truly appreciated.

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