More on honesty and deceit in travel writing

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I remember reading an early draft of Andy’s book some years ago and complaining that events I witnessed alongside him were sometimes retold in a slightly different order. I was annoyed because he’d deliberately altered aspects of the truth, however tiny, to suit the telling of his story.

Camping under the stormclouds in Mongolia

Having now written my own book, I can understand very well why he did this. (Sorry, Andy!)

Since my last post’s unintentional controversy I’ve been thinking more on the topic of honesty and deceit in travel writing. I can think of at least two big motives for the reworking of selected events in a non-fiction narrative.

One is for purposes of self-aggrandisement (also known as willy-waving) and involves deceit. The other is to do a better job of telling a story that remains true.

Why an author would need to remould the truth to tell a better story is tricky to explain, and this is where I went wrong yesterday (and may go wrong again today).

It’s done to create an effective overall story arc; to ensure characters develop, to evolve a narrative perspective, to provide dramatic tension. It’s not done to falsify the facts of what happened but to shape what happened into a reading or listening experience that connects the author to the audience.

In short, it’s a fundamental part of a well-told story. I could not have told you this two years ago before I began writing my own.

The most common way in which truth is remoulded is to remove material to leave a condensed version of a story. It’s impossible not to do this; four years would not fit into 400 pages any other way. If it’s balanced and done in the spirit of honesty, there’s nothing wrong with it. It’s also known as ‘editing’.

Problems occur when the author omits details to deliberately create a misconception or exaggeration for reasons other than communication alone — to heighten achievements or to avoid admitting to weaknesses or mistakes. This happens much more frequently than authors would care to admit, and these lies are essentially undetectable.

Composite characters, or characters who bear no identifiable resemblance to the real people on whom they’re based, are also common. An example might illustrate why:

Say the narrator meets two characters, months apart, and each of these characters has something to say which leads the narrator to the same realisation later on in the story.

If there is only room in the narrative for one of these characters (who by having his or her details changed is already fictionalised), is it wrong to put the words of both real-life characters into the mouth of the same fictional one?

Everything said was said in reality. And the narrator’s character develops in precisely the same direction as a result. Given that there is nothing identifiable left in the new, fictional character, I’d argue that it’s truer to have done this — to have included all of the ideas that had an effect on the narrator, rather than omit half of them for the sake of ‘reality’.

I have done my best to write a portrayal of four tumultuous years of my life with ‘brutal honesty’ (to paraphrase my own book’s sales page). It’s always been my aim to do this.

But should a true story not be judiciously strengthened in ways like those described above? Authors (I know you’re reading this), what do you think?

Comments (skip to respond)

10 responses to “More on honesty and deceit in travel writing”

  1. Al Humphreys, from his most recent book’s author notes (quoted with permission):

    I wanted to describe any day on the road, from any journey like this. It could have taken place anywhere, at any time since people began taking on these questing adventures. This is why I have removed all dates, time frames and names. Everything in this book is true. I have only re-ordered the incidents to build up my “day”. It’s a bit like Morecambe and Wise. They defended their terrible piano playing by saying they had “all the right notes, although not necessarily in the right order.”

    While mine is nowhere near as abstract as Al’s book, his is certainly the kind of story-moulding I’d rather encounter in a retelling than a dry journal of events.

  2. Artistic license and editing is ok, maybe even required, to produce a compelling read. Sticking to chronological sequence of events may be boring. Recounting too many details may miss the point the author wants to make.
    Self-aggrandisement or other forms of “bending the truth a little” to make things sound more impressive are ill-advised. In non-fiction there is no room for that. A success story that does not include any hardship, mistakes, flaws, or other human shortcomings likely is either not challenging enough, or just not honestly told. On the contrary, writers who offer their own doubts, problems, weaknesses and limitations make for more authentic stories and are probably the more likable characters.

    In my own Panamerican Peaks book’s epilog I muse a bit about the fact how the memories of our experiencing self and our remembering self are often different. Even though we may endure hardship and suffer during the experience, we may remember it much more joyfully. It isn’t wrong to report from the remembering self. But if you have kept your daily notes or other recordings from the experience at the time, it may be worth pointing out those differences.

    1. I agree completely with your point about writers offering their weaknesses. It builds empathy and likeability. Casting oneself as a superhero is usually done in defence of insecurity.

  3. In the book “The great railway bazaar” Paul Theroux writes about meeting a Birmese hotelier on a train. During the railway journey the man tells Paul about a number of events that had happened in his life. 

    A number of years later a BBC crew filming a “Great railway journeys” program visited Birma and the film presenter ended up meeting the son of the Birmese hotelier that Paul had met. They asked him if Theroux’s story was true and the son replied that Paul had written the truth about his father’s history but that the conversation had taken place in a hotel and not during a train trip. 

    Should Paul have changed the location of the conversation? I don’t know. Even after knowing about his use of ‘artistic license’, he still he remains one of my favorite writers. Once I start reading one of his travel books, I can’t put it down until it’s finished.

    1. If the train journey provides a temporal/geographical structure for conveying the important ideas (what was said by the hotelier) and turns the stories into a real journey, I think it sounds like a very clever device. Perhaps it was an oversight, however, to leave him identifiable in real life?

  4. I do not have any issue with condensing and rearranging material in order to give the reader a clearer picture of how you felt. Sometimes important truths/revelations become lost in extraneous detail when authors try to stick to every little fact and chronological order (and there is no room anyway). In truth, our own mind often jumps from place to place, leaves out some memories, and links up others when we form overall impressions and make decisions. By tweeking your writing you are helping your readers to see the past as your mind processed it and not as a machine would. In reality our memories are a mish-mash of emotions and we selectively focus more on certain things than others. It is possible that by tweeking the content you are actually giving the reader a better insight into the most important truths. Best wishes.

    1. I wish I could have written something that clear myself 🙂

      Thanks for your comment!

    2. Well said Jane. I’ve often had trouble writing travel stories for that very reason. Thank you.

  5. andy welch avatar
    andy welch

    Thanks for the book plug!

    1. No problem. What are your thoughts on this topic?

Something to add?