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?

    6 Comments

    1. Reply
      Reluctant Blogger May 2, 2010

      The snapshots thing is fascinating. I remember all sorts of curious things and my mother is always exasperated that I do not remember the things that I “should” ie those events she contrived to make special. Instead I remember odd things.
      There are only two things I claim to remember vividly – one of which I clearly don’t because it happened before I was born and the other I can only assume I dreamt since everyone so vehemently denied it happened. But the memory is one of the most vivid I have and I often ponder whether it did happen and why people would claim it did not.
      I might try and flesh out some snapshots – never thought to do it before. Who knows what I might discover.

    2. Reply
      Jennifer May 2, 2010

      If a memory is that vivid Gina, it’s got to have SOME substance. I hope you explore your snapshots, and I hope I get to hear about them.

    3. Reply
      Susannah May 3, 2010

      Yes, I found the snapshot thing fascinating too and have just sat here at my computer re running some really random (mostly long forgotten) snapshots. . . definitely a subject worth exploring more, very interesting what we remember and why.

    4. Reply
      Jennifer May 4, 2010

      ooh I bet the random ones are especially enlightening! I hope you explore more and tell me about it!

    5. Reply
      Biff Barnes May 4, 2010

      I agree that the snapshots can be moments of personal epiphany where a whole new understanding of the world opens to you. They may indeed be unique to you and later others who may have been present don’t recall them. That is indeed the stuff of memoirs.
      However, if your “personal truth” deals with family controversies in which what happened is disputed or which other family members would like to remain untold, you face a different situation. As an editor who works with a lot of people writing memoirs I would caution you to discuss what you intend to write with those involved before publishing. Consider the impact on family relationships, particularly if there are children involved. When you decide to publish “your truth” make sure you have thoughtfully considered the possible consequences first.

    6. Reply
      Jennifer May 4, 2010

      Thanks for visiting Biff and I agree with everything you say. I was remiss in leaving this aspect from the piece, especially as it tends to get discussed at great length in the classes. It’s the family relationships that are always of the most concern to writers. Ultimately I feel that compassion should always be at the core of a memoir story. Understanding that another’s reality or “truth” is a separate thing than yours is fundamental to sustaining compassion.
      Anyway, even though the “Mommy Dearest” telling-the-story-at-all-costs kinds of stories are titilating and juicy to some audiences, most readers can see right through the limited view expressed and they’re left disappointed.

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