I just got back from seeing the play, The Lifespan of a Fact. I keep turning it over in my mind. It appeals to me because it addresses (though indirectly) the very subject of this blog, the benefits and pitfalls of the compulsive personality style.
One of the pitfalls is that if we try compulsively to get everything just right, we may miss the point of whatever it is we’re working on. Even the dry-as-dust DSM-5 manual of psychiatric conditions describes people with obsessive-compulsive personality disorder as “missing the point.”
While missing the point in writing is the subject of the play, it’s really about much more.
While the play itself takes great liberties, it is based on a true story. In 2002 a teenage boy killed himself by jumping off the observation deck of the Stratosphere Tower in Las Vegas. Respected literary non-fiction writer John D’Agata (played by Bobby Cannavale) wrote an essay about the suicide–and what we might learn about living from it. Jim Fingal, an earnest and eager young intern (played by Daniel Radcliffe of Harry Potter fame), was assigned to fact check the piece.
Yes, the essay was beautiful and moving, but how much of it was true? The battle they engaged in about Truth is detailed in their book by the same name, and more recently dramatized in the play.
On first blush it didn’t seem to me like it was exactly going to be a cliffhanger, but I ended up finding the play really gripping, and, judging by the standing ovation at the end, it seems most everyone else did too.
It’s about the facts, right?
Fact checking John’s piece is Jim’s first serious assignment. He’s determined to prove himself and comes up with 130 spreadsheet pages of questions for the author.
And that, as my teenage daughter would say, is really, really extra.
Only someone with a compulsive personality style would go that far.
While we only get a limited view of Jim’s life, I see him as having compulsive traits because he’s extremely attentive to detail and he insists that things should be a certain way. He’s also controlling: he spares no effort to ensure that things are as they “should” be.
But even if he is compulsive, his argument seems solid: Truth should not be compromised in any way for the sake of a good story. To compromise it undermines the message of the story. That makes sense, right?
Well, maybe not completely right.
Conveying the point and the experience
The author, John, argues that altering minor facts and using more colorful prose to convey the deeper truth to the reader experientially is far more valuable than absolute, historical truth, and that he should not be constrained by petty details, such as whether the bricks at the scene of the suicide were red or brown.
And he’s convincing, too.
John wants to move people with his writing, to get them to question what we live and die for, by exploring the story of a young man who decided it was no longer worth living. That, he argues, has more benefit than a dry recitation of the facts of what happened in Las Vegas that day.
While Jim (the intern) comes off as the more attractive character (and it’s not just because he used to be Harry Potter), it’s hard not to be swayed by John’s counterargument.
John’s point reminds me of something one of my first clinical supervisors used to say about the results of “perfect” therapeutic technique: “The operation was a success, but the patient died.”
Not Getting In Trouble
The magazine editor, Emily (played by Cherry Jones), is afraid that they could be sued for inaccuracies. This is prudent to some degree, and looking ahead to consequences is one of the benefits of the compulsive personality style.
But this kind of concern can also go too far. Trying to stay out of trouble is a very limiting motivation in life. It can keep us from pursuing the juicy stuff. Like writing a really moving essay.
Also, many people with a compulsive personality style may feel a need, as Jim did, to use their capabilities to prove themselves and diminish their sense of insecurity. That’s when compulsive traits become unhealthy.
What I came away from the play with is that while my natural tendency to make sure that I seek the truth and “get it right” has its merits, if I want to convey something deeper than historical truth, I may need to allow myself to be more flexible and creative, and to consider what will help people feel the truth, not just hear or see it objectively.
Is my mission simply to tell history, or to give the listener or reader an experience that helps them to understand what that history is really about? The danger is, I get caught up in accuracy and lose sight of the point because I worry about being accused of being lazy or sloppy.
But of course it shouldn’t be just either one or the other. Good writing is accurate and moving.
Emily values both Jim’s insistence on historical truth and John’s vision of moving people with a “deeper” truth. She tries, as Jung often advised us, to hold the tension of these two “opposites” together. She symbolically sits them down on the couch on either side of her and reads part of the essay out loud.
Missing The Point: It’s Not Just About Writing
Consider a woman who tries to make a good home for herself and her husband by keeping it impeccably clean and organized. True, a clean and organized home can be more enjoyable, but she might get so militant about it that no one can enjoy it.
Consider a father who wants to make a good life for his kids. True, they need to see their shortcomings and understand how tough the world can be, but he might destroy their self-esteem in the process.
The next time I find myself “fact-checking” maybe I’ll ask myself, “What’s the point?”