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Posted at 09:35 PM ET, 04/18/2011

Greg Mortenson’s three cups of tea — creative nonfiction?


Greg Mortenson with his wife and daughter at the Khyber Pass, from the book "Three Cups of Tea"
Was it really just three cups of tea?

It was the book that everyone in every book club, everywhere, insisted that you read. Not just read. Read, commit to memory, and tattoo in braille on your lower back. Now everyone’s talking about it for a different reason: Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea is coming under fire for possible inaccuracy.

“60 Minutes” and Jon Krakauer, author of “Into Thin Air,” have been investigating Mortenson’s claims from the book, for instance that after failing to summit K2, he staggered into a village, was nursed back to health and vowed to build a school there. It turns out that maybe this is a condensation of events that occurred over the course of a year. Which is, to be honest, basically the same. It’s how I managed to complete seventh grade in a single day, if you condense the events of a year! This in itself is not irremediable — collapsing time is sometimes necessary to tell a better story.

But it also seems that he might not actually have been held captive by the Taliban, as he claimed. And this investigation is sure to raise even more questions. How many cups of tea did Mortenson really have? Eight? Two? What about those schools CBS visited? Why were they empty?

Now Viking has announced that it is going to look into this. Now? After it’s sold thousands upon thousands of copies? That’s like learning that your cookbook is condensing the cooking time, or that your Bible does not accurately depict the way the Earth was formed.

Amazon.com readers are already feeling cheated. “If you’re going to lie, at least make it interesting,” Tstash complained. “One million cups of bull,” quipped Big E.

Which brings me to my point: I had no idea they were fact-checking memoirs so lightly. I thought that after “A Million Little Pieces” they had devised a rigorous system where they cross-checked everything with our memory chips.

This revelation is going to make my memoir a lot easier. I have been wanting to write one for a while, ever since I heard that Bristol Palin, George Bush, and Justin Bieber were doing it, but I was worried about the onerous process of going through and sorting all my remembered experiences into piles of Things I’ve Actually Done and Things That Are Just Scenes from the Star Wars Trilogy. That was going to require a lot of concentration and leave me anecdotally destitute. For instance, that story I tell at parties about the time I exploded the Death Star after growing up on a desert planet with an absentee father turns out not to have actually happened to me. Instead I had a normal adolescence on a planet with only one sun, surrounded by people who seemed to like me. It was the kind of stable childhood that can only serve as a crippling impediment to a career in letters. “Be more dysfunctional!” I urged my parents. “Don’t you want me to make it as a writer?”

But Mortenson has set me free. Why be limited by the way things actually transpired? A condensed story can inspire millions to build schools, or give Mortenson money that is supposed to be used to build schools, or — well, what’s the real difference? After all, no one denies that Mortenson has been a powerful advocate for a good cause. Now he’s defending what he has written. But what’s a few stretches among friends? Maybe he should have gone bigger instead, as Tstash suggested.

Well, I’m willing to go where Mortenson would not. Here’s an excerpt from my new memoir, provisionally titled “Eight Hundred Billion Cups of Magic Tea.”

I was climbing K2 in giant strides when a rabid and, I assume, Taliban-affiliated mountain goat pursued me for several kilometers and urged me in Urdu (I’m fluent in Urdu! Maybe) to found a school. “No,” the goat said, pensively chewing on my rucksack. “Eight schools. Don’t sell yourself short, Greg.”

“My name’s not Greg,” I said.

“We both know that’s not true,” the goat replied. He then led me to a bodhi tree where I received enlightenment several times but it turned out to be the wrong kind and I had to send it back.

It was then that I understood: I was the real Kate Middleton.

There’s more where that came from, but I’ll need a book deal first. Don’t worry, it’s for a good cause: me.

By  |  09:35 PM ET, 04/18/2011

Tags:  three cups of tea, memoirs

 
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