Our changing words
journalistic disgrace of Jayson Blair and the New York
Times will live forever in the annals of newpapers
world-wide. And well it should. Writers everywhere, of every
and any type could learn a useful lesson from this mess. Words
are important to all of us—using the right word or words at
the right time is only the beginning.
When I was growing up,
there were mostly only two categories of writing; fiction and
non-fiction. Fiction was something you made up in your head,
and non-fiction was truth. Non-fiction was honesty. Everyone
knew the difference. Didn't they?
About twenty years
ago, mainly because of the mass media becoming even more so,
especially the rising influence of television followed soon
thereafter by the ubiquitous and sometimes infamous World Wide
Web, crossed genres became ever more popular. We began to hear
new words like 'edu-tainment' or 'adver-torial' or 'mock-umentary'
and drama-tory'. Blurred words, blurred techniques, blurred
everything. Especially morals.
I wanted to open this
essay with a quote, but I wasn't sure I could remember it
accurately, so I turned to the web. Google, in fact, one of
the major search engines. I entered the last half of the
quote, about which I was reasonably confident. " . . . doomed
to repeat it." My goodness! There were some 10,000 plus
responses, so it seemed that I'd found exactly what I needed
(more than that, actually) on the first page listing ten
entries. The five I chose to illustrate my point here all use
their idea of the original saying (and at this point I wasn't
100% sure of the original version, either) and all five are
different. (Note: I did not insert the quote marks—they're
from the web-site if originally used. Also, I did not visit
any of these sites to study the usage or if it was
subsequently restated otherwise.)
"Those Who Forget
the Lessons of History Are Doomed To Repeat It" ... Summer
1996 (Vol. 18, No. 2). pp. 54-62.
"Those who do not
learn from history are doomed to repeat it."
"Those who do not
remember the past are doomed to repeat it."
Those Who Ignore
The Past Are Doomed To Repeat
If we forget our
past, we are doomed to repeat it.
So, what's the
difference, anyway? The meaning is the same, isn't it? The
difference is, none of these statements are acknowledged to be
a paraphrase of the original. Only numbers two and three of
these five list the original author's name before the quote.
George Santayana, born in 1863 in Spain, and died in 1952 is
known as an American poet and philosopher, and these words are
his. Well, perhaps not quite. According to The Columbia
World of Quotations (1996) he said:
"Those who cannot
remember the past are condemned to repeat it." The entire
attribution is Life of Reason, “Reason in Common Sense,”
ch. 12 (1905-6).
Well, 'condemned' is
the same as 'doomed' isn't it? Back I went to Google once
more, to find only one such entry using the word 'condemned'
in the first ten. And—it's incorrect, as well.
"Those who forget
the past are condemned to repeat it!"
To be sure of
accuracy, I then called the library, and from a print version
of Bartlett's Quotations, the above attribution was verified.
(Please note: I said the 'attribution was verified". Not
having been present when Santayana said whatever he said, I
can't verify absolutely, without possibility of quibble,
exactly what he did say.) The citation, however, is still
Santayana, from "Reason in Common Sense."
Ahah! There's the
answer. Those last two words. Common Sense. If only
sense was common and everyone had some. If that were
so, then everyone would know right from wrong, and fiction
from non-fiction. Wouldn't they?
In the Sunday edition
of the Plain Dealer for May 11, 2003, there was what appeared
to me to be a similarly anachronistic situation in the
Books pages. Because what I read there bothered me so
much, I wrote to Books Editor Karen Sandstrom about it. Her
column was about a young man who went beyond the bounds,
'creating' reality, and writing about it. After he was caught,
he promptly wrote a novel about the experience, using his own
name for the protagonist in the novel! On the opposite page
was the review of an 'enhanced' biography by an apparently
respected teacher of 'creative non-fiction'.
This latter term was
new to me, and I questioned it. She responded, very promptly,
with the following.
Your question about
"creative nonfiction" is a good one and I think the answer
might not be as sinister as you imagine. Legitimate creative
nonfiction brings the tools of the novelist (drawing scenes,
using extensive dialogue, shaping a story in a narrative
fashion) to bear on a reported subject. Good creative
nonfiction, as far as I can tell, does not permit the
invention of "facts."
In fact, newspapers
in general don't use this term. They call this kind of
reporting "narrative journalism."
Okay. I can agree with
this definition. Two of my favorite non-fiction writers happen
to be at the Plain Dealer. I am convinced that Connie Schultz
deserved the Pulitzer Prize for her series about Michael
Green. In addition to accurate reporting, it was written in a
very heart-tugging fashion that I believe had to have touched
everyone who read it. Ms. Schultz is also a poet and she may
even write fiction for all I know, but I also know I can
believe—and enjoy—every word she ever writes. This is because
it's interesting, in addition to being factual.
Same with Steven Litt,
the architecture writer for the Plain Dealer, who, (again in
my opinion) should have the Pulitzer for criticism. I've
learned so much about architecture in the years he's been
writing locally, and it's been a perfectly painless and happy
Making up facts? Enhanced non-fiction? Faction?
Could it be that to
some people, non-fiction is frequently thought of as 'boring'?
Why not, if to some people, fiction is thought of as 'froth'
or 'silly' or 'time-wasting'?
So. What, exactly, is
'creative non-fiction'? As a published writer of both fiction
and non-fiction, I hadn't quite realized there is an allowable
blending of the two into something else. But yet, I have been
doing it myself, most notably when writing reviews, including
last week's review of the concert featuring Michiko Uchida and
The Cleveland Orchestra, posted at ARTSCleveland.com. The
first paragraph is:
In the deep of
night, when dreams are of 'what might have been', a wishful
pianist would surely be able to play with the muscular
command, tender finesse, lyrical capriciousness and passionate
intelligence displayed by Michiko Uchida tonight in her
dazzling performance of Burleske by Richard Strauss.
The Hamburg Steinway would always shine so brilliantly one
could mistakenly think it was made of black patent leather.
And the music . . . ah!
Granted, this is only
one person's opinion, but the facts are there, and accurate,
but subject to interpretation. Oh, I get it now! Like all
reviews, it is subjective, as opposed to objective
which is more accurately applied to factual reporting, as in
describing a football game, for instance. I've come to the
conclusion during these last two weeks that all of us need to
better understand the words we choose and use. Although
'condemned' and 'doomed' may well be synonymous, I'm not so
sure about 'creative' being applied to non-fiction, which is
traditionally thought of as being not so much created as
reported. Maybe 'enhanced' would work better? Create means to
'make or bring into being'. Enhanced, on the other hand, means
'to make better'. Maybe.
Actually, I quite like
'narrative journalism.' I think I'll stick with that concept.
Unless and until something better happens along.
expressed above are strictly those of only myself, and do not
necessarily represent those of anyone else.)
My thanks to Karen
Sandstrom, who gave me permission to use her name and quote
from her letter to me.