Posts Tagged: truth

ethel merman, bay street suits and other layers

The other night I’m walking down Adelaide Street toward home and can hear bits of song in a woman’s voice hurling through the air in pieces.  On advancing a half a block it’s clear to me it’s the wild-eyed but otherwise attractive, middle-aged woman standing in the middle of the sidewalk ahead.  She’s looking back in the direction I’m coming from, waving her hand toward the bank towers and the new Trump hotel in that kind of drunken-like joy you’d see in schmaltzy old musicals.

“I love this towwwwnnnn!”  she bellows in her best Ethel Merman.  Her voice sounds pretty good actually, and I love where she has placed herself in her mind.  I love schmaltzy old musicals.  More – I envy her ability to convey this Ethel Merman aspect of her self-defined truth out there for the world to enjoy with her.  Granted, many people are crossing the street to avoid her not seeming to want to share in her truth, but there it is.  Despite my own wariness, I like it.  Anyway, it reminds me of my sister who has been known to do a very funny Ethel Merman; but I’m pretty sure she wouldn’t share it with the Bay Street suits on a Tuesday afternoon. 

“I love this town too” I think as I skirt by her, and listening to her bellowing behind me I wonder if maybe her gestures at the bank towers and the hotel with the famous rich guy’s name aren’t of irony rather than joy.  But joy sings more often than irony does and I’ve never heard Ethel Merman being ironic have you?

It gets me thinking about a discussion I’d been having with my current batch of writing students on ideas around authenticity and expressing one’s truth.  I put it out the idea of the human capacity for people to re-invent themselves, and how this is usually a person’s way of redefining a personal truth, or bringing forward one or more layers of a personal definition and pushing other layers to the back, for whatever reason.  Personal writers do that with words. 

So many times I have seen mentally ill people in the city streets that seemed desperate to share elements of themselves, some truth that strangers are not interested (or comfortable) in knowing.  I wonder about the other layers of that lady – the layers underneath Ethel Merman.

It’s kind of like earlier in the week when I’m having an afternoon tea break in a large food court area near my office.  I'm watching a guy, who is sitting by himself, practicing for a job interview.  He reviews something on sheets of paper on the table in front of him and then verbally practices a response to the imaginary person sitting in front of him.  I know that layer he is pushing to the front; knowledgeable, competent, confident, intelligent.  A Bay Street Suit.  Beneath the table his hands practice their corresponding gestures: purposeful, passionate, trustworthy. 

I silently wish him luck as I walk by, imagining a celebration with a significant someone on his great new gig later that night.  I get more engaged with my imaginary version of his reality than with the one he is assuming.  But then I don’t find Bay Street Suits and the truths they convey all that interesting.  I'd rather know what's going on at his kitchen table.

All week I've been thinking about they layers of me I push forward, and those I push to the back – both in my physical aspect and my writing, wondering how I can use them to enhance or grow the latter.  I hope my students are thinking about that too.

image from

a magpie question: what’s your story?

This is a response to Willow's latest Magpie Tales visual creative writing prompt.  Visit Magpie Tales and find all kinds of wonderful writers and poets and their takes on the prompt and giving hearty support to each others' creative efforts.  Give it a try! A creative challenge is good for you!

"Some may think that to affirm dialogue–the encounter of women and men in the world in order to transform the world–is naively and subjectively idealistic. There is nothing, however, more real or concrete than people in the world and with the world, than humans with other humans."  ~Paulo Freire

Once, when I was a teenager, I was away from home for a weekend with my family, and my [now former] stepfather kept repeating statements like “Jen is always so grouchy when she wakes up, ”or “ good MORNING grumpy!”  It was when he started to mock my “miserable” face I thought, how do you EXPECT me to feel?  I didn’t recall ever being grumpy or monstrous when I woke up in mornings, except, maybe, when my sister was hogging the shower and I was late for school.  What made me grumpy and irritated was being told over and over again that I was miserable.  And if I was miserable, I can assure you, it had nothing to do with the process of waking up; it was about someone else creating what I felt was an unfair and inaccurate picture of me and me feeling helpless to change it.

We understand our world through stories.  Family stories, history books, religious parables, pop songs, news reports, art, employee manuals, report cards, mathematical theories, police reports, gossip, family photo albums, fashions, magazine ads… a mosaic of stories creates the backdrop to our perceptions and helps to form the way we see things.  It’s up to you to decide if these things represent the reality of your experience.  And if they don’t – it’s up to you to tell your story in a way that does. 

When I was in university, I analysed lots of media.  I intensively read papers and watched news shows and movies and deconstructed and compared and scrutinized and examined and questioned, and to my naturally critical and questioning mind I was in my glory.  But more and more I was shocked to find the stories that were being used to define my community, my gender, my nation and my own role in my family were not how I was experiencing them myself. 

During that time a new provincial government came in that lowered taxes by way of reducing welfare benefits and education funding and punching other holes in the social safety net. 

This government knew the power of a story.  Suddenly, there were attacks on certain groups in the media, such as, coincidentally, teachers and single mothers.  I can tell you, this single mother did not enjoy being stereotyped as a lazy, beer swilling, cigarette smoking couch potato on welfare who fed her kids pancakes for dinner every night because didn’t know how to manage her grocery dollar.  One notorious politician of the day graciously gave welfare mothers tips on how to stretch their reduced budget by buying dented cans of tuna and day old bread.  Lots of people bought the stories these politicians were telling.  Lots of us didn’t. 

Whenever I speak with someone who is considering telling a personal story of any kind, I feel like something important is happening.  Because I believe that when a person tells her own story, she is taking ownership of it – she is claiming her history.  I believe that when someone tells his story, he is empowered to think critically about his place within his family, community, society, world.  And when a person is empowered, opportunities for change arise, both personally and socially.

Maybe a group can alter the history represented in a text book, or a politician can take advantage of stereotypes to create a new community understanding, or a family member can try to paint a picture of you.  But not one of them can change your story if you tell it.  It’s up to you to determine how you fit into the grand march of history.  

“Yes, as through this world I've wandered
I've seen lots of funny men;
Some will rob you with a six-gun,
And some with a fountain pen”. 
~From Pretty Boy Floyd, Woody Guthrie

talkin’ truth (and a journalling challenge)

For a long time I’ve been fascinated with the idea of what I call my inner “snapshots,” the idea that I carry with me certain scenes and images from my life of experiences always, while most other events are forgotten.  That famous quote from Cesare Pavese seems to echo this idea: "we don't remember days, we remember moments."  Teachers of memoir will tell you that these are the memories to focus on – that there is always a lesson in the inner “snapshot."  That these are the moments marking the times when your life changed somehow, and if you really take a good look at these moments you’ll find they mark some point of learning or new direction. 

A few of my earliest personal “snapshots” include:

  • Being in the backyard with dad who is retrieving flowers for my Aunt Martha’s wedding from the back shed. I see and remark on a “hairpane” in the sky and am taught the real pronunciation of airplane.
  • Me making little sculptures from leftover pie dough to go in the oven with mom’s pie.
  • Sitting in my friend Helen’s backyard at the picnic table while her dad cuts up warm peaches for us fresh off the tree.

Years ago I wrote a personal story based on one of these inner snapshots, which was eventually read by CBC Radio storyteller and author Stuart McLean on his popular show the Vinyl Cafe.   The story is about a man who, for a time, showed up at public ice skating sessions in the small town where I lived when I was a kid; a man of a visible minority rarely encountered in that town. 

Some of my friends and family members who heard the story on the radio said to me later they didn’t remember that man at all.  And even though the memory is still distinct in my mind – after all he was so startlingly out of place in that town – I started to question it, and ultimately the veracity of my story.  Did I dream it?  These kinds of questions have come up again numerous times after writing other stories and I wonder sometimes, why do I question my own truth?

And these questions are not unusual – they come up all the time in my memoir and non-fiction classes:  “What if someone I write about denies something happened?  Or denies it happened the way I remember it happening?  Am I still allowed to write it?” 

Yes.  Because memoir and personal stories are just that – personal.  They are about discovering and writing YOUR truth, and honouring it; they are about recreating experiences and finding how these events changed you and helped to create the person you've become. 

In discussing memoir, writer, author and teacher William Zinsser echoes the significance of these moments for writers when he says the writer should look to “small self-contained incidents that are still vivid in your memory. If you still remember them it's because they contain a universal truth that your readers will recognize from their own life.” 

Zinsser says, “Your biggest stories will often have less to do with their subject than with their significance — not what you did in a certain situation, but how that situation affected you and shaped the person you became.”

Indeed.  After writing the story about the man at the skating rink, I discovered that what I really learned were lessons about compassion and the value and universal need for community and fellowship.  Maybe some of the people I know don’t remember that man because the experience of him didn’t carry any message for them.  But even if their memories don’t sustain the experience of the ice skating man, they DO share an understanding of a universal truth I uncovered in my memory.

My own belief is that the idea of “truth” cannot be labelled as one singular, universal concept.  Truth is a personal, maleable understanding; it contains many layers and there are many factors which contribute to its existence.  And I believe that in acknowledging these layers and levels of truth, writers will tell stories with more compassion – not only toward others but themselves.  And if you write YOUR truth with both honesty and compassion, I can assure you, you'll be blown away by its power.

  • a journalling challenge

    • Have you ever had a personal memory or version of your history that differs from that of your family or friends? What do you make of it?
    • Are you compelled to revise your own version of that truth because other people say "that's how it happened?"
    • What's the difference between “truth” and “fact?”
    • What are some of your inner snapshots?