As writers, we invite readers into a virtual world composed of words and images and the readers’ interpretations. Nothing quite shatters that world like the reader discovering a glaring falsehood. I am not talking about differences of opinions, but misstatements of verifiable fact.
For example, years ago I devoured LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ Christian novel Left Behind — until I reached the part where his civilian pilot character is hired to fly Air Force One. I had just retired from the military unit where all Air Force One pilots are selected and groomed. LaHaye’s and Jenkins’ depiction of how someone is selected to fly Air Force One was ludicrous, especially considering how much information was readily available in the 1990’s about how the pilots are actually chosen. PBS had a special on Air Force One, aviation books discussed Air Force One, and the Public Affairs offices, both at the White House and Andrews Air Force Base, freely distributed fact sheets about Air Force One and its pilots. By the way, they are all active-duty, military, Air Force officers. Even though I tried to suspend my disbelief to enjoy the rest of the fast-action novel, the authors had lost my trust. I found myself doubting them on areas that I am not an expert, such as their interpretation of the Book of Revelation.
In my ignorance and naivety, I thought that writing a memoir in the first person, based on my own diary, would allow me to skimp on the amount of research I need to do. Not so. Again and again, I discover, after a simple fact check, that I made a grievous error.
My latest example came today. I looked up the spelling of the last name of a person who was my Cadet Squadron Commander during my doolie year at the Air Force Academy. I already wrote the postscript, talking about how he was just as anti-woman, but much more clever, when he served as the squadron commander of a flying unit I belonged to during the ’90s. Boom! My flying squadron commander had a similar last name to my Cadet Squadron Commander, he had the same insincere smile, and he himself had been a Cadet Squadron Commander my doolie year, but of a different squadron. In other words, the person I wrote about in the postscript is a completely different person than the cadet I discuss in my diary!
Now here is the really tough thought: was my contentious working relationship with the flying squadron commander due to his chauvinism, or due to my false memory of how he (actually the other cadet) had treated me twelve years earlier? Writing is such an act of humility.