facts vs. truth

February 3rd, 2010 | Uncategorized


Today I spent hours creating a timeline of my life over the past ten years.

That was before I got to this passage in Hermione Lee’s biography of Virginia Woolf, which I just started yesterday. Actually, I’ve been meaning to read this bio for a while but what prompted me to finally undertake it was Joan Schenkar’s biography of Patricia Highsmith, which I’m also reading. Schenkar begins her effort to describe Highsmith’s life by referencing Hermione Lee quoting Woolf on the impossibility of writing biography. Here’s Woolf:

” Facts have their importance—But that is where the biography comes to grief. The biographer cannot extract the atom. He gives us the husk. Therefore as things are, the best method would be to separate the two kinds of truth. Let the biographer print fully completely, accurately, the known facts without comment; Then let him write the life as fiction.”

I feel very dedicated to the project of writing my own biography as nonfiction. But she’s right. Trying to convey the facts AND the true story at the same time is not for the faint of heart.

46 Responses to “facts vs. truth”

  1. Hillary, G.D. says:

    Didn’t you already do that once as some sort of drug-induced art project? Or was that a more general timeline?

  2. --MC says:

    Facts don’t come with points of view. Facts don’t come when I want them to.

  3. bechadelic says:

    Don’t all of us fictionalize our life to some extent when we recount incidents from the past to someone in the present? How often we gloss over the nasty stuff, or embellish the thrill of an experience that in reality lasted just seconds, or leave out the little details that would make an anecdote less funny or interesting, or try to make light of something that had a heavy impact on us, because we don’t want to relive it when narrating it.

    I wouldn’t want to read a pure timeline of anyone’s life, so any fictionalizing by the autobiographer that makes the facts more palatable and funny and less fear-instilling is more than welcome. But that’s just me. I’m totally escapist.

  4. Andrea says:

    That looks like a fascinating document, and also kind of terrifying.

  5. Kate says:

    Oh, huzzah! Have you read the Quentin Bell biography? It has some odd glosses & distortions but perhaps captures her personality and life better on the whole.

  6. Ellen says:

    Some of the most fascinating memoirs these days examine memory and how we view and filter our own lives.

    Every time to cut or keep a part of the telling of our lives, we are shaping our story. Nothing is purely factual. But truth, that is another matter.

  7. sapphicapuella says:

    On the topic of shaping our own stories, I’ve twice made a timeline of my own life; once in a history class at high school (it was pretty naive, all ‘First day at school’ and ‘first trip overseas’) and again as an adult as part of a counselling session; something that came up on the second timeline which I bet didn’t feature on the first one was moving as a child from one side of the country to the other – something I wouldn’t acknowledge to anyone else I was traumatised by until I was an adult could get some perspective on it and see it as ok not to be ok with everything, if you get what I mean.

  8. Hi, HGD! How on earth did you know about my college quaalude-induced art project? Have I been sleep-blogging?

  9. Andrew B says:

    –MC, 2, I remember that line as “facts all come with points of view/facts don’t do what I want them to”. Maybe you changed it deliberately or maybe I’m confused or maybe Byrne used to change the song around in different performances or who knows what, but it’s appropriate that we should remember that particular line differently. (I am intentionally not checking what the liner notes say or listening to the record again.)

  10. Ginjoint says:

    Alison, I gotta say, you are a book tease.

    Andrew & MC, I’ve got the liner notes right here, ’cause I listen to that CD all the freakin’ time! Alison, you may wish to crank this song during dance breaks from your work. What? No dance breaks?

    Facts are simple and facts are straight
    Facts are lazy and facts are late
    Facts all come with points of view
    Facts don’t do what I want them to
    Facts just twist the truth around
    Facts are living turned inside out
    Facts are getting the best of them
    Facts are nothing on the face of things
    Facts don’t stain the furniture
    Facts go out and slam the door
    Facts are written all over your face
    Facts continue to change their shape.

    – Talking Heads, “Crosseyed and Painless”

    I do like “facts don’t come when I want them to,” though, MC. Another line appropriate to what Alison’s going through: There was a line/there was a formula/Sharp as a knife/Facts cut a hole in us. Yup.

  11. Ginjoint says:

    That’s the liner notes. Now I’m going to listen to hear what he actually sang.

  12. Andrew B says:

    For once, that stupid iSight camera has produced a really good photograph. The geological map, a visual representation of a structure that’s dependent on history; the well-defined, focused time line, cutting the image diagonally like a scroll or perhaps a ticker tape; and in the opposite corner, blurry Alison emerging from the darkness.

  13. NLC says:

    OK, I give up.

    Where does the story about the “Quaalude-induced art project” that HGD refers to appear? I know I’ve seen it, too; I just don’t remember where.

    I just did a quick flip through “Indelible” –which is where I thought it might be– but I didn’t find it. Perhaps it was in one of the “mini-reminiscences” for Salon or some such?

    (Please help. I need to get back to work and I can’t concentrate until I figure this out!)

  14. Diamond says:

    After reading Anais Nin’s diaries in the nineteen seventies, I was stunned to find out that she had had to cut out all reference to a husband, who was apparently around through long periods where she appeared to be independent and single.

    This gave quite a different perspective on the events she described, and in a strange way made the diaries feel a lot less “true” than her fiction.

  15. “The past actually happened but history is only what someone wrote down.” — A. Whitney Brown

    I’ve been writing autobiography and memoir since I was a child, in every available genre. At this point, since I believe “reality” is an agreed-upon delusion [not so agreed-upon these says], there is no truth, only narrative.

    So now the question becomes, how can I use my narrative to encourage my own growth, to be a tool used by others for their own growth, and to capture a specific idea or moment without rendering it bloodless by dissociation?

    Art and humor works best for me. When I can do it.

    I’m leaving in two hours for the independent physical exam which will determine my disability status. A wonderful hippie fag in a BMW is getting me there and back, and even so, the physical demands will be enough to (a) possibly cause me to faint (yep, real issue) and (b) make me run a chill-percussed fever the rest of the night. That’s the best-case scenario.

    I’m tired of being scared. (Sick and tired of being sick and tired.) But this is a step I take toward a less difficult future. And in terms of immediate gratification, I’ll get a fast food meal out of it, an extremely rare treat. Plus sunlight and human contact. All good.

  16. Anonymous says:

    the quaalude story does indeed appear in ‘Indelible…’ on page 71 or thereabouts.

    If I knew half as much about anything else I would have been employed by now…

  17. Ian says:

    @AB(8): Anon (16) is right – I’m pretty sure I’ve read it too. It’s either in your Coming Out Story novella(?) reprinted in the Indelible, or else it must be in the other novella which I can’t remember the name of, where you talk about your love life and desire for the white picket fence and roses and country cottage. It was in the collection that had a cinema on the front.

    For some reason whenever truth is mentioned, I keep thinking of the film A Few Good Men where Jack Nicholson screams at Tom Cruise “You can’t handle the truth!”

    I don’t know about truth. Right now I’m struggling to explain how the story of Adam and Eve affected gender relations in the Western world in approximately 250 words for an essay. With no source to quote from to back me up. Arrrggghh!

  18. NLC says:


    Ah yes, thank you. I see now. (For some reason I have a very visual memory of this, so I thought it was in a strip, etc, which is what I was looking for. Weird.)

    For other interested parties:
    I took a quaalude once in college, and under its influence carried out a project for my drawing class. The assignment was to present “different views of yourself so as to confront the problems of time and space.” It was a very conceptual calss, and it never ocurred to me to pick up a pencil and actually draw a self-portrait. Instead, I decided to show myself as a product of western civilization by xeroxing a timeline of history that I found in a book in a library, then taping it all together in a fifteen-foot-long scroll….

    [AB#8: You should definitely check out The Indelible Alison Bechdel. Lots of useful stuff in there, I bet.]

  19. Kat says:

    There’s always Dar Williams:
    “Truth is just like time, it catches up, and it just keeps going.”

  20. --MC says:

    Oh, for .. I should always check the lyrics of a song when I post them!
    This has happened to me before. I wrote a story based on “Ramble On” by Led Zeppelin, and got the lyrics wrong, in cold print for the world to see.

  21. K.B. says:

    OK, this is a really lame comment: it’s about something which has been bothering me for a long time, and today it seems to fit with the topic. It’s just my own silly story about how my memory was manipulated. (It was quite an eye-opener for me, and made me feel very foolish.)

    Ever since that DTWOF episode where Jonas destroys Ginger’s computer by downloading “Dancin’ Queen”, I was convinced that that was, indeed, the correct name of the song. I even remembered how as a child I was confused by the fact that it was “Dancin’ Queen” and not “Dancing Queen”. I was so firmly convinced that I even started an embarrassing discussion about it on wikipedia. Only after going back to Germany and checking my old Abba LPs, did I discover that Alison had manipulated my memory with her clever parody of Abba English.

  22. Jaibe says:

    I’m pretty sure you know about the Tristram Shandy paradox. But have you ever read Tonio Kröger? I think there’s a conversation in there about the difference between honestly reporting what you see, and making your audience see what you see.

  23. Therry and St. Jerome says:

    @Maggie, determining your disability status is a harrowing event. I remember writing up my Social Security application for disability status and crying the entire time, I was wearing a flannel nightgown and sitting at the dining room table in our house in Maine, trying to remember the difference between ataxia and apraxia. MY heart is with you as you go through this grueling process.

  24. i’m home, safe, and about to drift away on hydrocodone. copying in what i put up at FB w/o proofreading.

    welll…short version, one of the hardest fuckind days in months. started off good, lots of sleep, energy up, ready for my outing. then while trying to get dressed i leaned on my walker the wrong way, it collapsed underneath me in a narrow space, and there was no way i could get up. i was bucked naked and helpless. … when sheldon came to the door, i yelled for him to call 911 because my deadbolt doesn’t have a key to the outside. paramedics came but so did the creepy apartment maintenance guy who, despite the paramedics and sheldon telling him to back off, copped a long look at my spread-eagled and naked. i unloaded on him. i had to be dead-lifted upright. managed to make my doctor visit, despite a tweaked shoiulder (very stiff and hurting now), severe chills, high BP amd low pulse. the exam was rigorous. the doc was distant, said my belly looked okay but didn’t want to discuss my recent panic attacks or whatever they are. i’ve lost more muscle and nerve function than I knew about. i had violent diarrhea after the exam and sheldon said no going out for x-rays today, he’ll come back for that. he got me home and in bed with everything i need. i just freaked out all over jesse on the phone. now for pain meds, gatorade, comforter, and sleep with dinah.

  25. Anne Lawrence says:

    I reckon there is no real need to worry. You have the luck to work in the world of comics, where everything created is an abstraction. Nothing in comics is as it is in reality. No matter how realistically something is drawn, it is always warped by the artist’s perspective.

  26. Ginjoint says:


  27. Andrew B says:

    –MC, 20, you should have told us you deliberately changed the lyrics in order to comment ironically on the instability of memory and the dubious value of facts in limning one’s inner life. I’d have bought it. ;^>

  28. Brazenfemme says:

    Sleep well and thank goodness for friends like Sheldon

  29. Ready2Agitate says:

    Maggie, those independent examiners are PAID to be remote, clinical, distant, and well, useless to the patient (in other words, not ‘doctors’ in the typical sense in that they are not there to help you, but rather, to be a sort of intermediary medical bureaucrat). In other words, DO NOT TAKE ANYTHING in the report to heart. Do not take it seriously. Ignore the comments. And yes, hope that the doctor checks the correct box to start your disability benefits asap.

    Good luck recovering. So sorry about the hassles en route to said exam!

  30. Kevin says:

    Oh my god, I was trying to just get to the gym in Hillcrest today and it was not for the faint of heart! Keep up the good work!

  31. Sean Robinson says:


    I don’t know if you’ve heard RadioLab yet, but it’s an NPR science show out of WNYC that tackles various themes each episode. They put out an episode focusing on memory last year, and it has seriously affected the way I judge my own recall, and changed the way I frame stories when I’m telling them to people. You should check it out, but it might be a bit of a mind fuck.

  32. hairball_of_hope says:

    That must be so odd indeed, to have total strangers know intimate details of one’s life, and to have no recollection of having published those details.

    It would make me feel very naked, very vulnerable. How do writers, artists, and various famous people deal with the “Oh my god, you’ve STUDIED my life? There’s a college course on me?” realization?

    I understand why Salinger hid in New Hampshire, although I think it’s actually easier to be anonymous in a large city, to hide among the masses, or at least to be left alone. Sort of like hiding in plain view.

    Speaking of artists pulling a Garbo, The Cleveland Plain Dealer ran a short interview with Bill Watterson, described as “… the first interview with the reclusive artist since 1989.”


    Quoting from the article:

    Because your work touched so many people, fans feel a connection to you, like they know you. They want more of your work, more Calvin, another strip, anything. It really is a sort of rock star/fan relationship. Because of your aversion to attention, how do you deal with that even today? And how do you deal with knowing that it’s going to follow you for the rest of your days?

    Ah, the life of a newspaper cartoonist — how I miss the groupies, drugs and trashed hotel rooms!

    But since my “rock star” days, the public attention has faded a lot. In Pop Culture Time, the 1990s were eons ago. There are occasional flare-ups of weirdness, but mostly I just go about my quiet life and do my best to ignore the rest. I’m proud of the strip, enormously grateful for its success, and truly flattered that people still read it, but I wrote “Calvin and Hobbes” in my 30s, and I’m many miles from there.

    An artwork can stay frozen in time, but I stumble through the years like everyone else. I think the deeper fans understand that, and are willing to give me some room to go on with my life.

  33. hairball_of_hope says:

    I think this is the episode of Radiolab that Sean is referring to in #31:


  34. Pam I says:

    First glance at that photo, I though Alison was wrestling with a demonstration of a Mobius strip.

    What goes around, comes around.

  35. Junia says:

    Speaking of the reliability of memory, has anyone had any luck with the “DTWOF Trivia” questions? I’ve managed to answer about 1-1/3…

  36. judybusy says:

    Maggie, I do hope you’re feeling better today. Getting disability is such a help, but it’s awful to go through the process. I hope you get approved the first time ’round! If you don’t, do you know of any advocacy group(s) in your area? Here in Mpls, there is an agency that helps people apply, and assists with appeals.

  37. for all those commenting on the applying for disability gauntlet, yes, it’s a debilitating and deliberately impenetrable process, one that had defeated me before. but when i went into the hospital for emergency surgery, diverted by an act of g*d (or mama) to the best hospital in austin by an overflow at the indigent hospital here, a brilliant caseworker there named jesse garza showed at my bedside with a two-inch stack of forms (not exaggerating) while I was still on dilaudid and asked me kind, clear questions, filling in ALL the initial paperwork for me to get both disability and medicaid. it was/in the hospital’s financial interest to make this go through correctly — otherwise, they’re out an unspeakable amount of money — so i’m in the best hands possible. but jesse’s demeanor and professionalism have made it a pleasure to get my weekly check-in calls from him.

    as i’m now working on food stamps and other assistance, the contrast is stark. and folks, i’m coherent, linguistically adept, and bureacracy savvy — so if it’s this hard for me, just imagine…

    the only people who find it easy to bilk the government are blackwater and other corporate “persons”.

  38. as for how i’m doing today, pretty good, nursing my shoulder, feeling loved. i’ll copy over the update i put at Facebook earlier:

    strategy, strategy, and keeping true to my voice. it’s a day for that.

    smokejumpers who drop into parched woodlands to fight infernos too far away for watertrucks to reach them carry two essential pieces of equipment: a pulaski and a “shake and bake”. the former is a doubled-bladed tool with an axe on one side, a pick on the other, which you use to cut safety zones and fire breaks. hasn’t changed in decades.

    the “shake and bake” is the tool you hope to never use, a fire-resistant body cape you pull over you at the last minute as raging flames run you down. you kneel, try to make sure it’s tucked around you tightly so the high winds of blazes don’t rip it off you, and try to time your breathing so you do NOT breathe in at the instant the wall of fire reaches you — because if you do, your lungs will melt from the inside out. very few people — less than a handful, i think– have hunkered into a shake-and-bake and lived to describe it afterward.

    they weren’t available at the mann gulch fire. there the only survivors were wag dodge with his spur of the moment back-fire and two young men who miraculously ran up a near vertical slope, on a 100+ degree august day after they’d been running for miles, and hid in bare rock on the other sidee of the ridge. one more survived less than a day, his hands and feet burned off, his eyeballs liquified, but he had morphine and human contact at the very end.

    shake-and-bakes were in use at the storm king fire, and i can’t remember if anybody crawled out of them alive. some did not, i do recall, including at least one woman.

    so i’m sharpening my pulaski and eyeing my shake-and-bake today.

    barbara is sending me info from her agency about emergency alert systems. i’m working on a letter to my apartment manager. have calls in here and there. i feel clear and connected and actually pretty good about myself.

    okay, so here’s the comic relief. let me preface it by saying dinah has an abhorrence of contact with bare human flesh, except for petting she controls strictly. she will not come near me when i’m naked, says it’s icky.

    except yesterday, when i lay twisted in my aluminum walker on the floor, realizing i was wedged and could not roll to my side, even — she came at a gallop and circled me, meowing interrogatively. i said “I’ve done it this time, i can’t get out of this.” whereupon she climbed onto my giant white ass with her fastidious paws and began yelling at the top of her lungs. she wouldn’t stop, despite me trying to reassure her and at least persuade her not to use her claws for traction on my sweaty bare flesh. she screamed her head off until the paramedics began hammering at the door, then the window. she vanished at that point, not to reappear until i was back home hours later and sheldon had just left. she returned then to sit on my (appropriately dressed) chest and rumble for reassurance.

    i think she was calling for help, i really do. poor kitteh, she has trying circumstances to live with and does her best to keep me okay. now she has to contend with the fear that i could fall down, worthless lump that i am. what to do then? sit on its big soft summit and get the attention of other humans before going to hide.

    along with sheldon and those sweet, burly paramedics, dinah is my hero today.

  39. Acilius says:

    Good luck, Maggie. Three cheers to Dinah, and to Jesse.

  40. hairball_of_hope says:


    I think you’ve aptly demonstrated how to mesh facts with truth in the telling of your tale of woe enroute to the disability doc.

    Hope you’re doing better. The universe was indeed watching out for you that day. You could have just as easily fallen and gotten stuck on a day when you weren’t expecting a visitor to show up, and who knows how long you might have been there. Definitely get the home alert system.

    Dinah surely understood the situation in the way that felines seem to know this stuff. They hate change and unusual events; you plopped on the floor with the walker wedging you in place qualified as an upsetting change. One sniff of your anxiety-laden pheromones (and perhaps you telling her that you were stuck) convinced her there was an emergency to be heralded in cat-screams, ignoring her own dislike of bare human flesh for the greater emergency of “Mama has fallen down and can’t get up!”

    Thanks for the story behind the Pulaski. I didn’t know it was called a Pulaski, I always called it a fire axe.

    I first saw a Pulaski in someone’s office in California. One of the folks in that building told me about an earthquake that had him trapped in his office. The doorframe had bent into a trapezoid and he couldn’t get the door open to escape. So now he kept the Pulaski by his desk, just in case.

    I also have a Pulaski in my office; heavy black forged steel head, red wooden handle, about 3 feet long overall.

    I originally used it as a prop in a presentation. I held up one of those little glass fire alarm pull boxes with the red hammer that read, ‘In Case of Emergency Break Glass.’ “Forget about the little hammer,” I told the audience. “In case of stupidity, break heads!” and I whipped out the Pulaski and took a swing. It got laughs and definitely got their attention.

    The Pulaski has moved with me to a bunch of offices since then, with a practical purpose. None of the offices I’ve worked in have windows that open. Post-9/11, that could be the difference between survival and death, although I hope I never have to consider jumping. In my current temporary office, I’d end up falling only a few stories to another rooftop, definitely survivable, likely with some broken bones.

  41. Pam I says:

    I have a crowbar beside my bed in case of axe murderers. Feels more useful than anything more pointy, somehow.

  42. hairball_of_hope says:

    @Pam (#41)

    Imagine how different Raskolnikov’s story would have been if he had encountered you with the crowbar!

  43. --MC says:

    I’d’ve been Raskolnikov, but mother nature ripped me off. (That’s a song lyric I can post without having to look up.)

  44. Minnie says:

    Dear Maggie I hope you are healing from your fall, the exposure, your difficult day.
    Hugs from this westcoast stranger.
    And, gooood kitty!

    Thanks for this blog, Alison and Mentor.

    I have a crowbar by my door in case an earthquake shifts the wooden door-frame a wee bit and jams the door so I can’t get out.

  45. JO says:

    From Janet Malcolm’s “The Silent Woman: Sylvia Plath and Ted

    “In a work of nonfiction we almost never know the truth
    of what happened. The ideal of unmediated reporting is regularly
    achieved only in fiction, where the writer faithfully reports on what
    is going on in his imagination…We must always take the novelist’s
    and the playwright’s and the poet’s word, just as we are almost always
    free to doubt the biographer’s or the autobiographer’s or the
    historian’s or the journalist’s…Only in nonfiction does the question
    of what happened and how people thought and felt remain open.”

  46. Social comments and analytics for this post…

    This post was mentioned on Twitter by faunawolf: http://dykestowatchoutfor.com/facts-vs-truth I think I’d like to make a timeline of my life to date. Might be fun. http://bit.ly/9Ks0xu