Oprah, please don’t apologize. Please don’t talk about the liar ever again. You are better than this.
It is beneath you to spend so much time on someone who could not disclose that his complicated story was not a cautionary tale, but a fairy tale altogether. And fretting over his insincerity causes me a million little anxiety attacks.
I don’t watch Oprah in the mornings not because I don’t want to watch Oprah in the mornings. When she airs in my market at 9 a.m. , I am either in the car on the way to work at Northwestern University’s Medill School where I teach journalism students to write the truth, or I am already standing in front of an auditorium full of students, talking about reporting,writing and telling the truth in multimedia platforms.
So I watch at 11 p.m. for many reasons, and not the least is because I am a big fan. A big grateful fan.
So I squirmed through her interview last night with James Frey, the author of the made-up A Million Little Pieces, who purports not to care much for the truth. In his Oprah interview, he sounded all Midwestern English adjunct professorish with his interpretation of reality and his Tropic Of Cancer accolades, talking about how he was really like Picasso who didn’t really look like his distorted self-portrait and that he only agreed to say it was a memoir so he could get an advance from the publisher.
What a bunch of baloney.
In spite of his writerliness, Frey tells a million little lies in the book that apparently caused Oprah her biggest headache in 25 years. And he does not look or sound like a man filled with remorse.
But the truth is telling the truth is not hard at all.
My first book, a memoir, came out in 1999. It took me three years to write the painful story of my experience with my husband who was violent.
Having been a journalist for 20 years by that time, I was excruciatingly mindful of the need to perfectly articulate the truth, as a journalist, with the details, the facts and indisputable realities bolstering my story. The publisher had lawyers. I had a lawyer. I had documents for every claim.
And my ex-husband was a litigating attorney. So I had to be sure to get it right.
Every description was accurate, every moment recalled was double-checked with another source. The idea of telling a story that was not truthful would ruin my career as a journalist, professor of journalism and slay my integrity and credibility.
It is not that I dared not. It never occurred to me to even try.
I was extremely lucky to be a guest on Oprah’s show in June 2002 discussing that book and my writing book as well. The path to Harpo Studios was lined with dutiful and diligent producers and lawyers. I took tough questions in scores of interviews over the weeks, months and years from 1999 to 2002 to earn the chance to have Oprah ask me questions about my books before an audience of millions.
I cannot fathom getting to that point on the tails of a big fat lie. But that is me. Some authors and journalists apparently consider misrepresentation a marketing plan.
In my classes I tell my students about the dangers of fabrication and plagiarism, about how each journalist needs to fiercely protect the brand that is his or her own byline. I tell my students to be proud of every word that goes beneath their names and to be able to defend it vigorously. Because your words live forever.
Be genuine in your writing, I tell them, whether telling the story of a fire or telling your own story.
I also give writing workshops, mostly on memoir, and have one slated for this summer through Northwestern. And I tell those writers eager to publish their stories that they own their own history.
So here is what I know. About writing, as a journalist. As a memoirist: You own your truth. You own the right to tell it, so you do not have to be intimidated by anyone who attempts to thwart your storytelling. Because as I wrote in my second book, writing can save your life.
But no one can save you if you lie. You don’t have any rights to lie just so you can get a contract.
It is not tricky at all. It is a simple truth. So go ahead. Tell it.