Show me history untouched by memories
and you show me lies.
Show me lies not based on memories
and you show me the worst lies of all.
- Carlos Eire
I’m a pediatrician and medical educator. All day long, I hear and tell stories: patient histories, professional anecdotes, cautionary tales. My patients, students and I rely on memory: We trust one another to tell stories that are truthful. We hope they’ll be revelatory as well. Not all are, of course.
I’m also a writer of nonfiction. Ditto everything above.
A series of literary scandals recently brought questions of truth and storytelling to public attention. In 2006, Oprah gave James Frey and his publisher a double-dose of televised humiliation over Frey’s falsified memoir “A Million Little Pieces.” About the same time, New York magazine exposed Laura Albert’s elaborate, long-running hoax in which she wrote as -- and staged public appearances of -- a “transgendered, sexually questioning…drug addict and male prostitute.” Less publicized was the unmasking of Nasdijj, a chronicler of Navajo life who was, in reality, a white, male author of gay porn.
Conversations among writers and readers of memoir sometimes grew heated following this trifecta of exposed literary lies. While almost no one defended such impostures, there were debates about the reliability of memory and how even the best of us shave details in our personal narratives or spin past behavior in the best possible light.
In thinking through these issues as I write, I often return to Patricia Hampl’s 1999 essay, “Memory and Imagination.” In it, Hampl first tells a fragment of a remembered childhood episode -- her first piano lesson -- then describes ways in which her telling is flawed: composite memories, suspiciously certain details, words choices that strike her as more effective than accurate.
Yet -- and here’s what sets Hampl apart from the imposters -- she acknowledges her fragmentary tale is only a first draft, in need of further attention, indeed of further contemplation, before it reveals any meaning. For Hampl, the real trouble is that, “…the piece hasn’t yet found its subject; it isn’t yet about what it wants to be about. Note: What it wants, not what I want.”
For most of us, granting this sort of agency to stories is counterintuitive. They’re our stories, after all, told how and why we want them: to make a point, as reinforcing illustrations, to top or complement the story the other guy just told. And in this way we are all artists. Though we may not paint, compose or design, we all make, and among the things we make are narratives, each as peculiar and mysterious as its teller. The way we tell stories, and the kind of stories we tell, is as revelatory as their content.
Even I, an introvert, sometimes catch myself telling stories for no immediate reason, as if the thing itself wants to be told. But I also shape my tales, and every story based on memory -- that is, anything short of pure fantasy -- selects some remembered details while omitting many others. Telling all, if it were even possible, would render a story confusing, boring and shapeless. Like a visual artist removing unnecessary lines, storytellers tell less than everything, not to deceive but to clarify.
I also decide, as I narrate, when and how to share events and motivations. I color details, bringing some into bright relief while others lurk in shadow. It’s tempting to dress things up more than necessary, mistaking fashion or prettiness for beauty, but such aesthetic errors generally betray themselves. I may fancy myself “objective,” but the reader or listener ultimately decides if I’m trustworthy.
As a physician, I know when to adopt a hermeneutic of suspicion. Patients presumably visit doctors to stay healthy or get better, telling their stories as best they know how, highlighting particulars they consider crucial. I not only teach my students to listen for the telling detail in a patient’s history, but also to listen for clues that the story demands corroboration, that the patient’s telling may be heavy-handed.
Patients often under-report eating or alcohol consumption and over-report exercise. Many fathers admit to smoking, but insist they do so “only outside” (whatever that really means), presumably to protect the baby from second-hand smoke. It’s up to me to decide if that makes any difference. A teenage girl comes to me with weight gain and vague abdominal pain. No matter how many times she says she’s “waiting for marriage,” I’ll still check a pregnancy test.
My point is this: our stories suffer when neglected or abused. While ours may not be, as some medical tales truly are, matters of life and death, we are nonetheless responsible for them. If every story is a form of art, remember the artist’s traditional duty: to make one’s art as good, true and beautiful as possible.
That’s not to say that fiction isn’t true -- it’s often truer than any nonfiction. Even today, there are readers of those disgraced former bestsellers who love the power and music of their prose, and if the authors had presented their work or identities as fiction, they might be rightly honored. It’s their all-too-easy and self-serving separation of truth and goodness from beauty that makes them despicable. In pretending their work was something it wasn’t, they forfeited our trust.
Storytellers -- and that includes you! -- pay attention to the stories you tell. Don’t be afraid to ask what they want from you, what truths they want to reveal. Respect them for the mysteries they are.
Attend to the details, not to ensure slavish accuracy -- you’ll never achieve it -- but with clarity in mind. Watch how you shade and color; there’s a subtle line between bending details and breaking trust. If you stretch details or wander into tall tales, leave a clear trail back home. If you want to refine a good story from the ore of memory, be sure it serves truth and beauty as well.
Honor a story’s integrity the way a carver respects the grain in a piece of wood. If you force your materials to do something unnatural, it will show. Tell the best story you can, then let it go. What happens after that isn’t up to you.