In her compelling essay on faith and poetry Mary Karr recounts the way in which a love of language bonded the members of her family. She talks about each of her siblings and parents in turn, describing a tempestuous mother whose love of poetry seem to fit her fiery nature and a sister whose experience of J. Alfred Prufrock bordered on the erotic. Karr ends by describing her father, a Texas oil worker who despite hardly ever picking up a book was taken by his youngest child’s passion and delighted in the works of Kipling and Frost that she selected for him. It’s a scene to tickle the heart; the incendiary mother, the over-worked, barely literate father, both rejoicing in the sublime delights of the Word. A down on their luck family huddling next to the steady glow of literature’s clear flame. A warm scene.
Warm like the bowl of water you put your brother’s hand in while he’s asleep so he’ll wet the bed. Pleasant at the time, even pleasurable, but ultimately a choice you have to question. My initial response to Karr’s portrayal of her family was to think; “No, I’m sure your dad didn’t actually love Robert Frost.” Or, maybe not “no your dad didn’t,” but he hardly ever did. He spent most of his time wasting away in that oil refinery. And then he came home and did whatever it was that he did at home which was probably about 1% swooning over “Mending Wall,” and 99% drinking Shiner Bock and watching the Longhorns on TV. None of this is to assault the integrity of Mary Karr in general, or any member of her family specifically.
Rather, I’m interested in my reaction to what I assume is her idealization and that reaction’s mirror-like function in forcing me to reflect on my own tendency to embellish, aggrandize, fudge and extrapolate. When I take in Mary’s portrayal of her family I can’t help but hold it up like foolscap to the powerful light of my own self-knowledge. To the awareness, that is, of how often I’ve portrayed things in a certain way when in fact they were substantively different. When I do that I can see right through it like a counterfeit twenty.
Yet all retelling of story is fiction. We can never relive or return to the past. Instead we must cobble together what it was that happened or did not happen by pumping the bellows of memory in order to coax the flame of approximation, or story itself. Could it be that the fact that our reconstructions are freighted with emotional meaning (which sometimes only became attached to the memories later) is inherently part of what serves to make those reconstructions accurate? The word fiction may not be the best one for describing this process. Construction perhaps. Or enlanguaging. Maybe it’s just storytelling.
When I was a kid and my dad used to ask me if I was going to have any French fries with my ketchup after I would dump half the bottle on my plate. These days I feel like I take salt with a grain of something instead of the other way around. I mean that I have become so aware of my own tendency to embellish and so convinced of that tendency in others that I a kind of wariness has grown up in me that smells a lot like skepticism. And skepticism is a sibling of cynicism. And cynicism will be the death of one if it isn’t constantly, ruthlessly exposed and rooted out.
The reality is that we do all construct our own versions of what really happened. It’s a necessary byproduct of the nature of the human experience of life in a vast and endlessly complex world. As Jonathan Safran Foer rightly observes, we can only recount so many details from any one given story unless we continue writing or speaking forever. At some point we have to stop. By the same token, when we tell a story from our own life we tell the version of it that is ours to tell, which is to say that we recount a story as it happened to us. This includes the emotional impact of a story, the component that often made us want to recount the tale in the first place and the thing which interests our listeners.
So what of embellishment? And what of, gulp, truthfulness? They are inextricably linked. When we embellish we do so with a combination of the material that is available to us (what “really happened”) and the endless fodder provided by imagination and desire. I tell a story about going to jail while an undergraduate and I am immediately reconstructing that story in light of how I want the listener to hear it, consciously and unconsciously. There is of course a huge difference between a retelling that attempts to be factually accurate and one made of parts willfully conjured from thin air. It’s something we all intuitively understand, the kind of difference that makes swearing on a Bible before giving testimony in court meaningful.
There is a “true” version of what happened to me on a Los Angeles night in the spring of 2005 when fifteen squad cars surrounded my little sedan and I was handcuffed, read my Miranda rights and deposited into the Norwalk jail’s drunk tank along with a handful of gang bangers and winos. But there are an endless combination of ways to get at that version, each leaving out huge parts of what “really” happened. Because I’ve heard the other guys I was arrested with tell that story so many times, often questioning or outright scoffing at their memory of certain details, I now assume that Mary Karr’s father must not have been as stoked on Robert Frost as she wants me to believe he was. She must, I assume, have an end which my believing that image of her father will serve. A story into which that version of his character fits. Does that make it wrong for her, or any of us, to tell a story in a way that serves our needs? Can we avoid doing that? Is a commitment to cold hard facts, as measured by a kind of scientific accuracy, a moral necessity for good storytelling?
Of course not. We understand this when we hear any story that is ostensibly being told for the sake of pleasure. A big fish story, the tale of the night our grandfather asked our grandmother to marry him, our best friend’s version of how he was almost disemboweled by a junk yard dog. Other stories, like legal testimony, we understand and expect to be different. There we want “facts.” What of those places where the lines blur? What of the witness who is simply telling their own version of what happened, something that contradicts starkly with another (Roger Clemens and his trainer)? What of the simple story, told not to regale or amuse but to inform? What to do with the knowledge that all stories are inevitably only partially complete, colored and informed by the personality, history and perception of the one now recounting it?
I just started an internship counseling individuals who I do not know from Adam before they walk in my office. It’s the perfect lab for grappling with these questions. I’ll likely never hear any version of the events my clients describe other than the one they tell me. I’m sure there are other versions, the ones that the siblings, partners and co-workers of those sitting across from me would tell. Does that make the stories I’m hearing untrue? How much responsibility do I have to correct for the margin of error so to speak? My gut is that I have to shoot for this ambiguous, ambivalent space between skepticism and gullibility, cynicism and naiveté. It’s something we all experience, everyday. How much do I believe the story you are telling me? How much do I believe the story I am telling you? Maybe the question is whether we believe IN the stories we tell. In their power to reveal, to expose, to edify. But hey, my dream is to tell stories for a living. Take me with a grain of salt.