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  August 17, 2003

Northeastern Ohio Life

 Guest Columnist:  Kelly Ferjutz

Our changing words

The recent 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!" Pages/courseexpectations.html

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 experience. 

Creative non-fiction? 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  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.

Kelly Ferjutz

(All opinions 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.



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