Tall Tale

nantucketYears ago, I was sitting at a café telling a story to a few travelers I’d met in Rome. In the middle of the story – about a Jesuit priest who wore a shirt reading I am the Man from Nantucket – one of them pointed at me and squinted.

“That’s my story,” he said. “I told it to you a week ago.”

I will not describe the spiral of embarrassment that followed. Needless to say, the word “busted” is an understatement.

I have always loved telling stories. I’d come home from family vacations with grand exaggerations to real occurrences to wow my friends with. While others dealt with the occasional jellyfish at the Jersey shore, I had a kerfuffle with the far more rare peanut butter and jellyfish. Thousands of children meet Mickey Mouse in Disneyworld, but very few get invited into Disney Castle for sushi.

I guess early on I found the difference between telling a good story versus telling a true story. Who cares if you saw a jellyfish, I want to hear about the near miss, the danger. So I learned to enhance my stories to the fullest degree allowable before it became science fiction. They were totally exaggerated tall tales. And even though my friends knew that half of the story was completely made up, they were still hanging on my every word.

As I got older I learned and realized a few things. In the first place, I found this thing called “fiction” which quelled my daily need for tall tales. Also, I found that in creative nonfiction, I could keep the integrity of factual events while placing the exaggeration in my perspective. I am not alone. When asked how much of his stories were true, David Sedaris replied “Enough of them.” That’s because he knows how to tell a good story as opposed to a true story.

People put themselves in a story they’ve heard and that’s because it’s far more fun and interesting to hear a story about having a whiskey shot with Bono rather than a story about a guy you know who had a whiskey shot with Bono. John F. Kennedy’s PT109 (patrol boat) is now the thing of American history lore, and if as many guys served on board the patrol boat as have claimed over the years it would have been the size of an aircraft carrier. It’s always a better story if you exaggerate or put yourself into it.

So when I read about NBC journalist Brian Williams’ transgressions last week, I knew exactly what had happened. If you have been hiding under a rock on the moon, then you might not know that Williams claimed to have been on a helicopter in Iraq that was struck with an RPG (rocket propelled grenade). When his claims were contested by the people who had actually been on the helicopter that was hit by a grenade, he made a hasty apology and said that he had been mistaken. He had actually been on the helicopter behind the one that had been hit.

I have never been in combat (thank God), but I am fairly certain that one knows the difference between being in an aircraft that has been hit with a missile and one that has not been. It’s pretty clear what Williams did and why he did it. Being on a helicopter that’s been hit by a missile is a far more dramatic story than being on a helicopter that landed safely and without event.

Unfortunately for Williams, the veracity of some of his other stories was then questioned and it became clear that Mr. Williams was one hell of a bullshitter. He says he “conflated” the stories, which means to mix up two things. But that’s only true if we say that he mixed up the truth with a lie. He put himself in harm’s way to make a better story, but the harm was fictional.

While I do not blame him for trying to tell a better story, he is a journalist and he broke the rules. In this case, the rule he broke was that he is not the story; the story is the story.

This is one reason I hated being a journalist. I didn’t lie and I didn’t exaggerate, but I had no room to play. In my view it wasn’t telling a story, it was relating facts. And when you’re a stringer at a small town newspaper who’s sitting in zoning board meetings, it was relating boring facts. I’d jot notes and think about how I could spice up the story. Well, maybe if I added a killer octopus to the well, this forty minute discussion on the well’s depth wouldn’t be as cranium crushing boring. But I couldn’t, because it was breaking the rules.

Williams is surely not the first journalist to “conflate” the facts to make a better story. But while people may be able to forgive him in the future for that, it’s the other rule he broke that might haunt him longer. Williams lied about being in combat and those who have actually been in combat seem to take that to be a very serious thing. With good reason. And I don’t know if he’ll be able to repent enough for that transgression.

In the meantime, if he tells a story about a peanut butter and jellyfish, don’t buy it.

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