Truth and lies in narrative non-fiction

I have no idea whether it is a good idea to be putting the finer details of my personal life up for public scrutiny in a 400-page book. I am worried.

Things exist in this story that a big chunk of my ego does not want anyone to know. And I know I’m going to be judged for things I did and decisions I made.

Nevertheless, what I have been writing towards for the last two years is the unravelling of complicated truths behind complicated times. To write anything less than a brutally honest account would be an insult to myself and my readers. There is enough cherry-picking and fact-twisting amongst self-aggrandising adventurers already.

But here’s the funny thing about honesty: my book departs often from scientific accuracy. I have changed not just names and locations but the very order of events, sometimes by weeks. I’ve invented conversations that never happened. I have combined many people into a handful of composite characters. I’ve omitted periods of time measured in months.

But I’m not intending to deceive or exaggerate. I’ve told a story that is truer than a laborious scientific record. I feel no shame for doing so. Writing this book has been as creative an endeavour as a work of fiction. The goal — to produce a distilled version of events that entertains and enlightens and carries meaning — has guided every editorial decision. I never quite understood what was meant by ‘artistic license’ until now.

It’s also been of personal importance that I write this book, whether or not anyone else reads it, because the film, while a lovely rendition of the tale, is nevertheless somebody else’s rendition. The book is my own telling.

It’s been difficult to share this story so candidly, but being judged is an occupational hazard in all creative work, and I still believe in the saying that ‘honesty is the best policy’. It helps us learn a little humility and self-reflection. And it ultimately makes for a truer, grittier and more enjoyable story.

Janapar is now available as a paperback and Kindle edition from Amazon.co.uk.

7 Responses to “Truth and lies in narrative non-fiction”

  1. Ben

    Tom – I’m sure Janapar is going to be a great read but this is slightly confusing to say on one hand: ‘This book is full of lies’ and on the the other this book is “a brutally honest depiction of a young man’s quest to find meaning”. Just don’t want to see this undermine the sales push as I for one am a big fan of real life adventure stories – not one’s with names, places and narrative changed to keep the reader engaged. Looking forward to seeing the DVD

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Hi Ben.

      It’s a grey area, for sure. As I said, I’ve changed names and places (to protect people’s privacy), and in a handful of cases changed the order of anecdotes or recreated conversations to tell the same true story in a more engaging way. I’d not be a very good writer if I didn’t achieve engagement with the reader.

      I think it’s important to be transparent about artistic license. And I think the critical thing is the spirit in which it’s done. Is it to provide a readable version of what is ultimately the same story, one which is dynamic and moving and meaningful? Or is it to falsely make claim to achievements that you don’t deserve? Both occur in the world of adventure. My motives are of the former variety.

      I hope that won’t stop you from reading the book. I wouldn’t have written it any other way!

      Reply
  2. Ben

    no worries Tom – didn’t want to cause you a headache! Was just a bit confusing and I want to see your story spread. Always good to be transparent if poss (privacy excepted)…most important thing is to tell a great story though! Right, you’ve distracted me from work.. sign of a good author 🙂

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      Ha-ha! I do appreciate you pointing out the confusion, though. I might have shot myself in the foot today otherwise. Lucky I’ve got two feet…

      Reply
  3. Alastair Humphreys

    All the right notes, just not necessarily in the right order: http://youtu.be/-zHBN45fbo8?t=39s

    Reply
  4. Antisthenes

    Ah, the Bruce Chatwin controversy. If you have not read his work, you must.
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bruce_Chatwin

    Reply
    • Tom Allen

      That’s really interesting. I particularly like the quote “He tells not a half truth, but a truth and a half.” That’s about the thrust of it.

      I think I must have given the idea that my book is now a work of fiction. It’s not!

      Reply

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