Life would be simpler if the questions it poses were all true-or-false, like the quizzes your first grade teacher used to give you. (True or false: the picture above is of our dog, Leo … )
Unfortunately, while some of life’s most important questions really are simple, a great many others are not. And often, we’re better served by asking “how creative is this nonfiction?” than “is this true or false?”
Truth in Job Hunting
Consider, for example, the predicament of the hiring manager–a predicament I’m currently living at work. In this role, I’ve recently posted a job description online and begun to receive resumes from dozens of interested applicants.
I know that each of these resumes tells only part of the truth about the candidate it claims to represent. Even assuming that the statements within a particular resume are factually accurate (which is hardly a given), each resume still amounts to a collection of details carefully selected and creatively composed to sell me on the candidate submitting it. The resume is not, by any stretch, the candidate’s full story; it’s just the parts she wants me to know.
In fact, a resume is only ever “true” in something like the way the picture above is “true” to our dog Leo. It captures some real and endearing aspects, and it evokes the appropriate impressions, but it’s ultimately just a snapshot of a far more complex critter.
That said, I’m confident that many of the resumes submitted are true enough as resumes go. That is, they contain the actual highlights of a person’s career and experience, the entries aren’t simply fabricated, and the overall picture they create isn’t fundamentally misleading. The applicants have basically followed the rules of the resume game, which all of us understand. Or, to put the point another way, they’re writing in the recognized resume “genre.” And that’s all I’m really looking for.
From Straight Dope to Utter Fabrication
In assessing each resume as a whole, then, I never ask the question “true or false?” because I know it doesn’t really apply. But I do ask a different question: “Where does this piece land on the spectrum from straight dope to utter fabrication?” Or, as I put it above, “How creative is this nonfiction?”
And this question doesn’t just apply to resumes. I can fruitfully deploy it whenever people summarize their pasts–whether in autobiographical blog posts, college applications, or everyday conversations. I can also use it on every news story I ever read, as well as every magazine article, book, or documentary that covers past events.
In each of these cases, a person telling a (purportedly true) tale selects important details from a store of possible facts, arranges and describes those details to highlight certain traits, and thereby pursues desired effects. In each case, we can–and should–assess the validity of the resulting account by asking a series of questions: Are the details actually factual? Is their selection and arrangement fair and appropriate? Does the work as a whole meet the standards of its “genre” and/or play by the rules of the relevant social game?
If the answer to all of these questions is “yes,” then what we have is a work of informative nonfiction–a work that can help us understand and make decisions, even if it’s not the all-encompassing truth. If the answer to any of these questions is “no,” then we should view the work with serious skepticism. It’s too close to utter fabrication, a.k.a. outright fiction.
I don’t mean to suggest that there’s anything wrong with outright fiction, or even with being creative in the construction of a resume or other nonfiction account. My point is that what differentiates useful nonfiction from “fake news,” bunk, and all sorts of other nonsense is that the former is factual, fair, and consistent with shared standards. Within those constraints, creativity is a good thing.
In the case of my resume review, for example, I’m not just looking for a laundry list of facts. I’m looking for a well-crafted work of nonfiction, from the genre known as “resumes.”
Working wisely within that genre, a truly excellent applicant can tell me a comparatively complex tale in a mercifully short time. And she can show more than just the facts: She can convey communicative style and the right amount of creativity. She can whisper between the lines about her own unique intelligence. She can show me a person who both tells the truth and tells it well.
In the end, that’s what I’m really after–not only in a person to hire, but in an author to read, a filmmaker to watch, a media source, and even just someone to talk to.
It’s also who I hope to be. Most of all to each of you.