I was flipping through O, the Oprah Magazine, April 2007, and an article caught my eye called “Bernie Mac’s Aha! Moment.” It’s a lovely story about a little boy who wanted to become an entertainer. “I’d make up stories at the drop of a hat, then sometimes get a whipping because they’d say I was lying.” This point has interesting implications for memoir writers.
Truth is one of the ethical rules of society. If we all lied, we’d be on shaky ground. Truth stabilizes things and lets us share our world. And so, of course parents try to instill in their children a respect for truth. And in the process, they try their best to weed out fantasy, exaggeration, and outright prevarication. But there’s a problem with too much truthfulness. It interferes with storytelling. In fact, one of the familiar admonitions parents give to children is “Don’t tell stories.” And so, while parents are hard at work, diligently weeding the lying out of us, they are also squelching the fluidity we need to tell stories. Good stories need shaping. An experience might make a better story if you could switch the order of events, or exaggerate to make something stand out more. But for most of us, our ability to tell stories was beaten out of us during our truthfulness lessons.
So when you want to start writing memoirs, one of the things you have to deal with are those overtaught, overly enforced lessons. We become so sensitized to “is it true” we lose sight of the entertainment value. I’m not saying that it’s okay to lie. But I am saying you have to lighten up on the truth police, or else you will be in such a panic you won’t be able to describe a room. Say I try to describe the room I’m sitting in right now, even if I were to photograph it, diagram it, and spend hours describing every sensation, you would still not be in the room with me. It’s just an approximation, like any story must be. So of course when I describe a room I was in 20 years ago, even if I remember it “as if it was yesterday,” it’s really not truth. It’s only an impression.
Dialog is the same way. I don’t remember the exact words someone says, even seconds earlier. I have this problem regularly. When I interview someone I record the conversation and then transcribe it later into text. During this process, I often type a different word than I heard just seconds earlier when I was listening to the tape. So how could I remember exact dialog 20 or 30 years ago? In fact, I can’t. So I remember the sense, and then create a dialog that tries to convey that sense. A memoir is our best recollection, and that’s okay. It’s a story. A goal of a story is to convey the best impression of events, while keeping it compelling and entertaining.
Fortunately for Bernie Mac and his satisfied audiences, he was able to overcome the training, and learned to be entertaining despite his beatings. Hopefully, we can all learn a lesson from his experience, or perhaps two lessons. The first one is, if you want to entertain, learn to work with truth as raw material rather than feel imprisoned by your rigid notion of it. And second, don’t teach your kids that exaggerating is “bad.” Help them understand where it’s appropriate and where it’s not by giving them a story hour every once in a while, during which it’s okay to exaggerate or bend the facts in order to share a lighter, more interesting and engaging view of their world.
For another look at the interplay between truth and fiction, see this article about a writer who turned her memories into short stories, Xujun Eberlein. I talk about her book and interview her about how she steered between truth and fiction.