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.

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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.

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“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.

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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.

***A late-night Twitter conversation with two amazing women inspired this post. Nichole’s blog is In These Small Moments and Kris (who named her blog for the very concept I’ve written about here) blogs at Pretty All True. Go now and soak up some of their bloggish fabulosity.
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18 thoughts on “Apologia

  1. I recently read Tim O'Brien's The Things They Carried, which speaks to many of the same points you've made here. The chapter "How to Tell a True War Story" says, "In any war story, but especially a true one, it's difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way." I've been thinking about this a lot lately, the space between truth and fact, and I appreciate hearing your thoughts on it, in this serendipitous meeting of topics. May you continue to tell the truth, and thank you for all you've told thus far.

  2. I've been enjoying your blog so much since I've found it.

    Thanks for writing another thought-provoking post!

    This post is making me think about how I tell stories on my blog. It is always a challenge to share a story while revealing just the right amount of personal detail. I think leaving some things unsaid actually creates more interest.


  3. You remind me of something I read once. A 5-year-old boy, presumed to be far too young to understand the concept of term "myth" by One Who Knows These Things, answered, "A myth is a story that is not true on the outside but is true on the inside."

    And something that I think must be true because it pops out as consistent over and over: We all share a single language and we're all born fluent — emotion. Some become better speakers, some try to deny their first language, and some abuse it (those who speak it to us to convince us to hand over our power and/or our treasure infuriate me". I think this language is the truth in the inside of the story.

    And then there's this that I was referred to recently: http://www.bostonconservatory.edu/s/940/Bio.aspx?sid=940&gid=1&pgid=1241

    Ant Judy

  4. You and Kris obviously have huge amounts of awful things that you have to deal with, and you both seem to be using writing to heal. I follow you both on twitter, and eavesdrop on your conversations. I am one who also has had tons of things to deal with, most of all having to nurse my husband back from a massive stroke, and then having to come to grips with remaining married to the "new" husband I was left with. I dealt with this with laughter. YOu both are more honest and raw. I salute you and send love. molly

  5. The absolute beauty of your writing never fails to amaze me.

    My father was violently and senselessly murdered when I was small and I recall others asking how I was, while visibly holding their breath, hoping I would smile and tell them I was just fine.

    No one wanted to know that I was sad, lonely, and fearful, that I thought too much about real life horrors that I knew first hand could come true. I don't believe that they didn't care, but rather, they just didn't know what to do with the pain that I so desperately wanted to hand to them so I could take just a small break from its weight.

    I wish I would have been able to be honest, to ask, "Why did this happen to me and will I be okay?"

    But, instead, I kept it inside and smiled and followed the script. The stigma of being the daughter of a man who was murdered in a small town was just too much for me to make sense of then.

    There is true beauty in honesty; this is our family mantra. We strive to foster safety in honesty and can only hope that our children are one day amongst those few who truly want an honest answer when they ask you how you are.

    Thank you for yet another beautiful post and for referencing our converstaion, which planted many seeds of thought that I hope to cultivate one day. I went to bed feeling invigorated and alive. Thank you for that as well.

    With love,

  6. I have passed along the versatile blogger award to you. Check it out! From the May 17th post. xoxo

  7. I was reading your post, and thinking, "This is exactly how I feel! Exactly!" Which I think is so lovely, given that you were making the point about finding commonalities and connections through story-telling.

    I have made the point again and again and again on my blog that my stories, while TRUE, may not be 100% accurate. These are my stories, from my point of view, and everything I write goes through the interpretive filter that is me.

    As an example, I wrote about a childhood celebration at which my father exploded into a rage over a gift we had given my mother.

    I spoke to no one in my family about writing it.

    After it was posted, I spoke to my mother, who remembered some of the details differently. And I spoke to my sister, who reminded me of details that I had forgotten. Both of their versions of this event would have been slightly different than mine, but their versions would still have been TRUE.

    There is no one version. No complete and total accounting.

    Interpretations of an event depend upon the chair in which you sit to witness the event. The chair in which you sit, and the mind which sits in you.

    Another lovely post!

    And I am so grateful and pleased to have connected with you.

  8. First time here and I'm so glad I found you (thanks to andygirl). You're writing is beautiful.

    Thank you so much for sharing your not so unique truth.

  9. "I eviscerate myself in public because the truth that spills out of me is the only real power I own."

    Adrienne, that's the loveliest thing I've read in a long time.

    I hope that sometimes, amid the exhaustion, it helps to remember that that truth spilling out of you is in fact having an impact. A lovely one, and a wide one. That you're leaving good ripples – and a little healing, with them.

  10. I just read your story in Brain Child and cried until it hurt, and felt better than I have in such a long time. You are brave and honourable, and your truth heals us who have walked a similar path. thank you, thank you, thank you.

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