Sidestepping the Facts for an Image-Based Past

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God loves an interesting plot.   —Sandra Cisneros, Caramelo

I was dismayed to read about the dispute between John D’Agata, self-described nonfiction fabulist, and a fact checker by the name of Jim Fingal. Mr. D’Agata wrote an essay about the suicide of a teenager in Las Vegas published in The Believer magazine in 2010 titled “What Happens There” in which he took liberties with facts for the sake of his art, liberties to which the magazine’s fact checker Mr. Fingal took exception. Editors at the original commissioning magazine would not publish the essay when it was originally submitted in 2003 after fact checkers there alerted them to the article’s “factual inacccuracies.”

A collaborative book “The Lifespan of a Fact” followed and chronicles the pair’s prolonged argument. Mr. D’Agata, faculty member in the nonfiction writing program at the University of Iowa, claimed his facts were “image-based rather than informational.” Mr. Fingal’s rather unpleasant response: “What exactly gives you the authority to introduce half-baked legend as fact and sidestep questions of facticity?”

Personally, I agree with Mr. D’Agata. I’ve been working on becoming a woman with an image-based past. Not that I don’t have one, but I’ve got it on good authority that God loves an interesting plot, and I’d sure hate to disappoint when I arrive at the pearly gates. Besides, I figure my chances of becoming a woman with a future improve in direct proportion to every liberty I take in revising my past. What’s more, these delicious creative image-based accounts sustain me in the present.

I suppose I’ve become something of a fabulist myself in my efforts to become a woman with a past. To Mr. Fingal and fact checkers everywhere who yearn for accuracy over artistry, I say, let the plot thicken.

In my current project, establishing a provocative, mysterious past, a past so tantalizing that heads turn and whispers follow wherever you go, is not as straightforward as merely “sidestepping questions of facticity.”

What gives me the authority to introduce legend as fact as I go about becoming a woman with a past? Simply put, Mr. Fingal et al, reality is overrated, and things just aren’t what they seem to be, nor what they used to be. The secret is not in the details you give. Instead, it is all in the innuendo you produce, the suggestion you make, by not telling it at all. I’m certain Mr. D’Agata would agree.

It is in the extended pause before you finally say in a voice that rises from a hollow place deep within you, “I used to know a man from there. But that was before he…before we…”

Coffee houses, especially those in cooler climates, are the perfect stage from which to live out an image-based past. Sit outside, wrapped in a wool coat, mid-calf length, with a muffler ready at a moment’s notice to defend against life’s next cold wind. You needn’t worry about what you wear beneath the coat; a woman with a past never reveals her soft underbelly.

Drink plain coffee or espresso. Decaf is okay only if caffeine causes excessive nervousness. A woman with a past is not quick to nerves: she’s seen it all before.

Cigarettes, although inarguably bad for your health, can serve as a helpful prop. A half empty pack on the table in front of you is a fair substitute if you can’t bring yourself to actually smoke. A word of advice, do not smoke unless you’re willing to inhale. No one will believe you had a past if you don’t take the smoke all the way in, down to a place deep in your lungs where it would kill you if only you could smoke enough to do the job.

Eyeglasses are impossible for two reasons: one, women with a past have no need to see what is happening in the present. They are, if well-revised, prisoners of their pasts. And two, women with a past obviously weren’t able to see what was coming when they could focus which is, after all, why they qualify as women with a past in the first place. Sunglasses, on the other hand, are always an asset especially when worn on dark, dreary days.

Make-up, yes. And lots of it. Your total make-up look must suggest, “It can be great fun to have an affair with a bitch.” Jewelry. Wear lots, wear none. It’s up to you. It depends entirely on how your unique past is going. But never wear a time piece. Time is always relative to a woman with a past. Carry a man’s pocket watch if you must. It’s best if the crystal is slightly scratched and there is some kind of illegible engraving on the back.

To smile or not to smile. This is a question for the ages. Some options to consider: there is the smile of the damned. A good option, as long as you keep it lopsided and instill a trace of the Buddha’s last teachings: All things are impermanent and everything decays. Another high-dividend smile is the “Breathing in, I calm my body; breathing out, I smile” smile. Always a good choice. Be certain, however, that this smile has not more than the merest upturn at the corners of the mouth. Another worthy option is the unsuppressed chuckle—brief, rare, and poignant.

Lockets suspended on long chains serve a similar purpose. The locket should contain a picture of a man or child; sepia-toned photos have an added benefit of built-in nostalgia. Fingering the locket while staring off into space as you sip a demitasse of espresso, a languid exhalation of smoke encircling your head, will capture the attention of just about anyone, and certainly anyone who is similarly gifted or inclined toward the creative. With some practice, you might choose to blend in a woeful whispered comment such as, The heart has its reasons which reason knows not of.

I have sidestepped, well, really vaulted over, any question of facticity. Like Mr. Agata, I’ve “taken liberties . . . here and there, but none of them are harmful, ” and I am now well on my way to becoming a woman with a past, and I hope you’ll agree establishing an interesting plot.

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