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Are My Stories True?

People often ask whether my stories are true, not because they doubt my honesty but because they doubt my memory. I always respond that yes, my stories are true. But given that my stories are spun from my memory and that my memory is a mystery that seems to work independently of me, saying they’re true stories is to flex the meaning of truth.

William Maxwell, the famous editor of The New Yorker, describes this relationship between memory and truth:

‘What we, or at any rate what I, refer to confidently as memory — meaning a moment, a scene, a fact that has been subjected to a fixative and thereby rescued from oblivion — is really a form of storytelling that goes on continually in the mind and often changes with the telling. Too many conflicting emotional interests are involved for life ever to be wholly acceptable, and possibly it is the work of the storyteller to rearrange things so that they conform to this end. In any case, in talking about the past we lie with every breath we draw.’ ~ William Maxwell, So Long, See You Tomorrow

Like Maxwell, I don’t believe in ‘truth’ when it comes to narrative. Even when we profess to be ‘telling the truth’ and believe we’re telling the truth, our minds are selective. We choose, we eliminate, we trim, we enhance, we transition, we tone down, we fire up, and we fill in the gaps. Were my brother, mother, or father alive, upon hearing my stories, they’d say, ‘Oh, no, Dottie Jean, that’s not how it was. This is how it was.’

Storytelling goes on continually in my mind and has for all my life. I tell new stories that have recently gelled into narrative and I retell old stories. I take my stories out and polish them much as I’d polish cherished family silver. This polishing has given some of my stories a patina that makes my life seem more orderly and structured than it’s been. That’s because I’ve resolved the emotional conflicts in these stories.

According to Maxwell, resolving emotional conflicts is the purpose of the storyteller. I agree. Maxwell’s not saying we need to sentimentalize  the story, water it down, or turn it into a Hallmark Card. No, we need to redeem the meaning from the unacceptability of life and present this meaning in our stories. That’s my job in telling true stories.