If we knew each other’s secrets, what comforts we should find.
~John Churton Collins
I chose that quote as a tag line for my blog not because it’s pretty (It IS, but there are prettier ones.), but because it’s what I believe and the reason I write. I believe in the power of truth. I also believe in the power of Truth, but that’s not what we’re concerned with here, not the Truth of religion and philosophy, but the truth in ordinary stories told by ordinary people. Speaking of that with which we are concerned, forget about facts.
Truth ≠ Facts
We’ll come back to that.
Let’s start with the power of bullshit. Not the “How are you?” “I’m fine, thanks” pleasantries of daily life. If we dropped all of those and got honest every time we bumped into someone we knew or were face-to-face with a bank teller, the world would grind to a halt. There is such a thing as an overshare. We’ll come back to that, too. (Come back to it with respect to the written word. Across the counter from your bank teller? You’re on your own.)
No, by bullshit I mean the protective armor that we wear to protect our deep wounds, the kind of armor that is so impenetrable that the people around us have no idea there’s anything under our surfaces but sunshine and fairy dust. That bullshit isolates every one of us until we’re no more connected to each other than the rows of canned vegetables on the grocery store shelves. We all have mushy, salty, half-healed (or mostly healed, or not-at-all healed) wounds inside, but damned if we’ll show them to the world.
So we all feel unique. And uniqueness is utterly, terrifyingly lonely.
When the issue of Brain, Child Magazine that had my story, “Love with Teeth” in it came out, I expected to get a few letters of understanding, a great many messages of pity, and a smattering of hate mail (because you don’t use the words “regret” and “hate” in reference to your own baby without ruffling a few feathers). Instead, starting two weeks before I even laid eyes on the magazine, the messages flowed in like water:
“Thank you for putting words to what I was feeling.”
“I can’t believe I’m not the only one!”
“I thought I was a bad mother. Thank God someone else felt the same way I did.”
Number of haters who wrote to me: zero. Number of “oh, you poor, poor thing” messages: zero. Number of supportive, understanding, thank-God-someone-told-my-truth letters: dozens and dozens.
(We’ll just skip right past the number of advice-giving letters I received. That part makes me weary.)
Many of the parents who wrote to me or came to this blog because of that article still read and comment because telling the truth creates communities and builds relationships. Storytelling creates a bond whereby we are not connected by thoughts but by feelings, not by brain but by blood and bone. Truth is the heat and the texture in any relationship, the thing that draws us back to others again and again, even though it’s much safer to hide inside our armor.
I was so scared of the response I might get to that article, when it was time to submit it Brian had to press the “send” button. I couldn’t do it. In spite of what I wrote about the parents’ groups and the sharing being so healing, I still felt alone. I felt unique when I wrote The Lessons My Bullies Taught Me, too, and was again surprised by an outpouring of “Hey, me too!” messages. Apparently, this uniqueness thing is my curse. I am grateful to have such abundant evidence that I’m mistaken.
“But I’m an honest person! I stick to the facts; I never lie!”
Yeah, well, when it comes to storytelling, all the facts are in the eye of the beholder and in the words of the storyteller.
This is not to say that it’s OK to bend a story to one’s own purpose by deliberately misrepresenting events. You won’t catch me defending James Frey. But any trial lawyer will tell you that eyewitness testimony is notoriously inaccurate because memory is malleable. We look at the world through lenses created by our experiences and ideas and inborn personalities. What is salient to me might be unimportant and therefore entirely overlooked by you.
This is a concept with which every writer of creative nonfiction must grapple. The truth I tell is only my truth and no one else’s. I take pains to get my facts straight (and to make it clear when I know the facts may be inaccurate), but ultimately I am a human being, not a computer. Objectivity is impossible.
Just because a story is inaccurate does not mean that it’s untrue.
Just because a story is accurate does not mean that it’s true.
(It’s also best to have this concept firmly and confidently embedded in one’s psyche before sharing stories about one’s life with the other people who were there. Otherwise? Big, big mess. HUGE mess.)
Objectivity doesn’t draw us back for more. For all the value our culture puts on “facts” (called truth, but I hope I’ve made my case that, though related, they aren’t the same thing at all), and as important as those facts may be in some circumstances, they’re not what we really seek. Would you read this blog if I wrote the facts? “Carter woke at 6:48 this morning. He spoke of his fear about the school day in a whiny voice. He is nauseous due to constipation so I helped him insert a suppository.” I mean, who gives a shit about something as mundane as a bunch of facts?
But what about the internet overshare? The references to memoir as “navel contemplation” or worse? To hear the media discuss it, you’d think this was a scourge on the face of our culture, a destructive force akin to fascism. Some seem to view the telling of personal stories as the ultimate in self-indulgence.
Yes, there are lines, but the beauty of the written word (and, to some extent, face-to-face communications) is that we get to choose the limits for ourselves, both as writers and readers. I chose to share about giving my grandmother a manual disimpaction because I think it’s profoundly illustrative of how I think about and experience love. It’s gross, yes, but there is a larger meaning, a purpose. I didn’t share the gory details, but if I saw a good reason to do that, I’d be willing. And if you were reading that and felt your stomach doing flip flops and thought to yourself, “I don’t even care what her point is; this is disgusting and I’m never coming back here again!”, you can leave. And if you choose to write a blog post about how the internet overshare is ruining the world, you can do that, too.
(For the record, I am not going to discuss in any way, ever, my positions on pornography and hate speech. I’ll just state that my opinions about those two things are different from what I wrote above and leave it at that.)
I suggest that the naysayers have never felt horribly alone with an experience or feeling and then discovered the joy of discovering that they are not alone at all. If no one takes that step of putting the story out into the world, how will any of us ever know that we are not isolated and adrift?
The way one conveys other people in writing is always sticky and I’ll refer you to Lee Gutkind and the other masters of the genre for deeper discussion. Ultimately, every storyteller (journalist, memoirist, blogger, or back fence gossiper) must make an ethical decision about how much of other people’s stories to tell. We can’t tell our own stories without telling bits and parts of other people’s stories, but be clear: the truth belongs to the storyteller. When I write about Carter (or Brian or my parents or anyone else), I’m writing about how I see, understand, feel about, and relate to Carter, and reveal infinitely more about myself than him in the process.
This is my apologia. My purpose in every word is lay down is to tell my truth, and I always do it with a little prayer that you will share some of yours. The facts are only a framework, and a mushy one at that. My heartache over raising a little boy with emotional and developmental difficulties might speak to your pain about a sister who was born with spina bifida. The funny in my day might help you see the funny in yours. I eviscerate myself in public because the truth that spills out of me is the only real power I own.