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ON TRUTH AND TRUST by Lilace Mellin Guignard


Emily Penrose, the editor-in-chief of the unnamed magazine in The Lifespan of a Fact, has spent her career navigating the demands of art, business, and truth. In this play she is the rope in a tug-of-war that is partially of her own making. She knows the story she wants to publish is really good—deeply moving and meaningful, of the highest literary standard. But does it meet her journalistic standards? And if one is to be sacrificed a bit, or a lot, which should it be?

When I read this play it reminded me of the first day each time I teach creative nonfiction, a genre that includes literary journalism. We discuss truth and the nonfiction writer’s contract with the reader. This is not a lesson where I lay down a strict, unbendable guideline. The lesson is that every nonfiction writer needs to understand the gray area and choose where they draw the line.

What do I mean by gray area? For one, I mean that some details cannot be corroborated by fact. Have you ever disagreed with a sibling about something that occurred in childhood, something you both experienced firsthand? Memory, something many of our facts rely on, is malleable even when the person is being as truthful as they can. And there are some facts that contradict each other yet are from credible sources.

BUT. Many facts are irrefutable and easily corroborated. The quality of sources matters (shout-out to all the librarians out there!). To pretend otherwise is to lose the trust of your readers. Your students. Your community.

Another point this play brings up for me is that nonfiction writers—like mapmakers—must choose what details to put in and leave out. A map that left nothing out would be the same scale as the actual place. And it wouldn’t do its job, which is to help you focus on the details you need. There are many different maps for different needs; likewise every story can be told many ways. How we choose to tell it is part of the story’s truth.

The way the three playwrights tell this story reveals a truth that is not simple but is perhaps more important now than it’s ever been. At least I think that’s what Emily would say.