01/10/2013 04:22 pm ET Updated Mar 12, 2013

What Is True?

Here is a dialogue that came out of my kitchen during a family meal. I was recalling an event that had occurred recently in a coffee shop I frequent. I was into the pace and pathos of my anecdote, the sadness of a stranger I had lingered to talk to, when my plucky 26-year-old daughter remarked, "Dad, you made up that dialogue. The woman never said that!" Everyone laughed. I argued that she was wrong. Wrong! I became a little angry. I knew what the woman said, after all. I was there and I could still feel the moment coursing through me. My kids, daughter-in-law and wife, laughed at me -- they all know that I am a "creative" storyteller and they like to poke fun at me -- even the four-month-old baby, captain Jack Waitzkin, laughed at me until I smiled back at him.

For me, a good story must be true. By this I mean the emotional connections between characters must be legitimate and hopefully powerful and interesting and inviting, but also surprising. In a story or novel I won't leave a scene in if it doesn't pass this test: Is the connection between characters emotionally alive for me? Has something like this or reminiscent or analogous to the moment ever happened in my life (Does it smell familiar like the sheets of my dad's bed when he was on the road?) -- something that I can rely upon as a barometer of the truth. And yet, poetic truth is almost never exact duplication of what happened in life, or the precise words and sentences that were spoken, although this may seem counterintuitive -- in fact, duplication, whenever I've tried it, reads like an awkward fiction.

On her website Isabele Allende muses about "what is true" in a way that feels just perfect. She says, "People often ask me how much truth there is in my books and how much I have invented. I could swear that every word is true... [And yet] I can no longer trace a line between reality and fantasy." But how does one reconcile the idea of truth-telling with an inability to differentiate between reality and fantasy? I think that question goes to the essence of great fiction and poetry making, and also perhaps to the uncanny power of dreams.

Dreams are deeply true visions, although they may seem bizarre and incomprehensible. But look closely. They are born from pedestrian moments that may bloom into epic landscapes of secret passions and dark impulses that we cannot bare to look at. Dreams make us sweat and yearn and they haunt our days like the best stories. When I was in my 20s, I recognized that dreams could be turned into quirky resonant stories. But I didn't understand how to build prosaic life moments into resonant dreams. Marquez's novels are like dreams, but how could they be more true?

Here is a little story about one of my books, The Last Marlin. When I set out to write the story of my life, it seemed like it would be an easy job. It was my life after all -- I knew what happened. I started writing about my father's terrible illness when I was 10 years old. But what came next? There was turmoil in my home. I felt a dark hole. I couldn't remember. I asked my mother a few questions. She filled in some of the gaps. But she hated my father and I didn't trust her. So what was true? I couldn't recall great stretches of madness or the runs of pleasure -- because surely my childhood was a happy one. I listened to some of the music mom had played on the hi fi in our Long Island home to lift her out of sadness from a loveless marriage, Gerry Mulligan, George Shearing, Monk, Dave Brubeck. I scratched away at scenes that did not seem to fit together. I picked up my old drums and pounded out a few rhythms.

I don't know what the magic was, but one day the door opened and my life appeared before me. There was no explaining it. I was back in Great Neck as a 10-year-old boy with my dad dying in the hospital -- I was terrified, and mortified. How could I go to play in softball league without a dad? I could smell his sweat and bowels mixing with the smell of mother cooking Gribines on the stove. I watched my mother make crazy abstract paintings, which I hated, while she despised my dying father and his world of bullshitting salesmen. I could smell porgies frying down below, while our 29 -foot cabin cruiser heeled over in a beam sea off the Montauk lighthouse. They were delicious. I could taste them. I was no longer remembering. I was afraid of losing my dad, and of catching his diseases, and terrified that my parents would soon divorce, listening to jazz, playing conga drums in Alvin Ailey's dance class on Saturdays, kissing the luscious black girl on the mouth, and then running away from her, fearing her full soft body but not as much as dad's scorn and censure. A negro! For more than two years I lived it -- I wasn't remembering. Some days I didn't write. I watched, I smelled it all over again, this miracle second chance. There were no gaps of memory. The infidelities, treasons, the jazz and paintings, pay-offs -- all of it spilled out of me. It was the truest thing I'd ever written. But was the chronology of revenge and illness accurate, the precise order of deceits -- did I have it right? -- the actual dialogues of malice and passion as they were spoken, were they the very spoken words? What is true, really true?