I love the first chapter of Imagine: How Creativity Works by Jonah Lehrer. It's mostly about Bob Dylan, how he got inspired to write some of his songs, including "Like a Rolling Stone." There's one scene where he rips his notes into pieces and scatters them around the room in frustration. Very authentic, terrific stuff, and, unfortunately, as Lehrer recently admitted--untrue.
Why lie--especially about an American icon--information that can be easily verified or questioned?
Lehrer had a thesis to support about the spontaneity of creativity, and he wanted to tell a good story at the same time--which is what the creative nonfiction genre is all about. But style and substance sometimes don't come together so easily--and so Lehrer took the easy road, which was also the low road. He crossed over the creative nonfiction line and rejected the warning in the title of my new book: You Can't Make This Stuff Up. (You can actually make stuff up, but you might not get away with it, as Lehrer and others have discovered!)
The word "creative" in the term creative nonfiction refers to the use of literary techniques, such as dialogue, description, plot and point of view to present true and accurate prose about real people and events--in a compelling, vivid, dramatic manner. John McPhee, Gay Talese, Atul Gawande, Diane Ackerman are all writers who accomplish this masterfully; they are creative and imaginative--without resorting to fabrications.
The Lehrer-Dylan debacle has been in the news for the past couple of weeks because the book was so amazingly successful--and because Lehrer, 31, was some kind of a wunderkind--a Rhodes Scholar with two other successful books behind him--and a staff writer at the New Yorker, from which he has now resigned with a brief and tragically final statement:
"The lies are over now!"
Jonah Lehrer is the most recent inductee into my constantly expanding Hall of Fame of Literary Fabricators and Fakers. Here's a selection of some of the more prominent members:
"Jimmy is 8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms...He has been an addict since the age of 5." Cooke's feature story, published April 16, 1981 in the <em>Washington Post</em> was awarded a Pulitzer Prize. And so, it attracted attention--people wanted to connect with Jimmy and help him. But when he could not be found, Cooke, 26, eventually caved and confessed. Jimmy was a composite character; there were children like him, no doubt--but there was no actual Jimmy. Her fabrication back then made it difficult for black journalists to break into the news business. In some newsrooms, editors asked black reporters: "Are you Cooke-ing quotes?"
Stephen Glass, fresh out of the University of Pennsylvania, produced powerful pieces for the <em>New Republic, Rolling Stone</em>, and the <em>New York Times</em>. But his most unique talent was fooling fact checkers, covering up lies by creating fake websites, nonexistent sources, phony URLs and telephone numbers. In 2009, Glass appeared on <em>60 Minutes</em> to promote a novel based on his crooked life. (A movie was also made: <em>Shattered Glass.</em>) Glass was contrite when interviewed by Steve Croft, but former <em>New Republic </em>editor Charles Lane, who helped discover Glass's machinations, told Croft: "If it was sunny outside and Steve and I were both standing outside in the sun and Steve came to me and said, 'It's a sunny day,' I would immediately go check with two other people to make sure it was a sunny day."
Reporters doubted that reclusive millionaire Howard Hughes had granted Clifford Irving permission to write his biography. Irving initially resisted being interviewed about his eccentric subject. But with the pressure building--he had received a $760,000 advance from McGraw Hill--Irving relented. And he was great copy. When asked if Hughes wore a beard, Irving replied: "Not a real one." Once Irving brought an associate to a meeting with Hughes. The associate stuck out his hand to shake. Hughes ignored the hand, pulled out a paper bag and offered him an organic prune. Irving told this story repeatedly, and it seemed simply too bizarre to have been made up--but it was. Irving was unmasked when Hughes went public. Irving went to prison for 17 months and paid back his advance. <em>Time</em> magazine named Irving "The 1972 Con Man of the Year."
Frey was an addict and a jailbird. He endured torturous experiences, including a series of root canals in prison--without painkillers. But he rehabilitated himself and wrote a book so moving that Oprah Winfrey featured him on her show as "the man who kept Oprah up all night." The book, <em>A Million Little Pieces</em> (2003) catapulted him to fame and fortune--until The Smoking Gun website published an in-depth exposé, outing Frey as a liar and phony. Frey had not gone to jail for more than half a day, the root canals never happened, and his description of a friend's suicide was untrue.
Oprah was fooled a few years later by Herman Rosenblat, whose manuscript <em>Angel at the Fence</em>, under contract, dramatized a Holocaust love story, depicting Rosenblat's encounter with Roma, the woman who was to become his wife. Rosenblat was in a concentration camp and she, disguised as a Christian farm girl, tossed apples over the camp's fence to him. Rosenblat never forgot this wonderful woman--and when he recognized her on a blind date a decade after the war in the U.S., he immediately embraced and married her. Oprah hosted the Rosenblats twice, calling their romance "the single greatest love story ever written." When it was discovered that the entire story was a figment of Rosenblat's imagination and a scheme to make money, Berkeley Books canceled publication in 2008.
His books have sold more than seven million copies, and when Sedaris performs in person, he knocks his audience dead. But writing for The New Republic in 2007, Alex Heard fact-checked classic Sedaris moments and discovered radically embellished situations and fabricated dialogue, a fact that Sedaris, when confronted, duly admitted. Heard's articles triggered a debate about the latitude humorists are allowed. "Exaggeration and embellishment are what allow humor to suggest larger truths," according to the Raleigh <em>News Observer</em>. But why should humorists alone receive a free pass? I have no problem with Sedaris (or James Thurber, for example, or Woody Allen) embellishing true stories, but let's call them what they are: ﬁction.
"A larger reality," is the way <em>New Yorker</em> writer Alastair Reid justified creating composite characters and rearranging events and conversations in his articles for the <em>New Yorker</em>. In once instance, Reid wrote about being in a "small flyblown bar" in Barcelona" in 1961, where he and friends watched a televised speech by Francisco Franco. But he actually watched on a television at the bartender's house. Reid lived in Spain for many years, so he undoubtedly presented an accurate picture of the bar's patrons and created a plausible and believable scenario of what might have occurred. But he could have reported accurately and made his point effectively without resorting to larger and imaginary realities.
Fakers and fabricators not only make stuff up and cover their tracks, but they also "borrow" from other people. Not long after the Irving/Hughes scandal, playwright Lillian Hellman published her memoir <em>Pentimento</em>, which, among other things, detailed how she smuggled money to her childhood friend Julia, who was resisting the Nazis in Vienna during World War II. The book was made into a movie in 1977 (<em>Julia</em>) starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. But 10 years later, Yale University Press published Muriel Gardiner's memoir,<em> Code Name 'Mary': Memoirs of an American Woman in the Austrian Underground</em>, which was so close to Julia's story that most critics believe Hellman lifted the story from Gardiner. (Photo taken from Lillian Hellman biography<em> A Difficult Woman</em>)
Margaret B. Jones was half Caucasian, half Native American. She endured a lonely, brutal childhood. No one cared about her or wanted her. She was shuttled from foster home to foster home in her brutal gang-invested neighborhood in Los Angeles. But she rehabilitated herself, fought her way out of the ghetto, graduated college and wrote a gripping and heartrending memoir, <em>Love and Consequences</em>. But Jones was actually only Caucasian. She grew up in Sherman Oaks California, attended a classy Episcopal day school and now lives in Portland, Oregon. Her real name is Margaret Seltzer--and she was outed by her biological sister who heard her being interviewed by NPR--and was, to put it mildly, surprised and more that a little bit annoyed that her sibling had conjured up a secret life.