Tuesday, October 7, 2014

Nothing but... So help me, God...

Recently I went to an art opening featuring the work of my friend Genevieve Barbee. For those who don't know, Genevieve, in addition to being an artist, runs an amazing podcast called the AP Collector. I've appeared on the show twice; once to talk about my own own work and once alongside Marcel Walker to discuss the Chutz-POW! Comic.

Genevieve calls herself a collector of stories. When I arrived at the venue I saw that her podcast recording equipment was set up. After greeting me she asked a simple question (a question she asked everyone at the event).

Truth or Dare?”

I chose Truth. We sat down at her makeshift studio and she said, “Tell me one true thing about yourself.”

I could have said something like, “I like bacon,” or “I have brown eyes,” and that would have been the end of it. But I wanted to say something more meaningful than that. I think I failed. In that moment, wanting to be honest and truthful, I found it very difficult to say something really true, something meaningful. I suddenly felt like anything I could say was just too private. I ended up saying something like, “I'm a writer, all I do is lie. Maybe that's the answer... one true thing about me is that I'm a storyteller.”


My reaction surprised me, mainly because if you asked me in less formal circumstances I would tell you that I'm an open book. Apparently that's a lie I've been telling myself as well. Although, maybe I am an open book, but it's a book that just happens to be fiction.

This morning when I finally decided to write about this after ruminating about it for weeks the following quote was posted by a friend on Facebook.

"That was my father's final joke, I guess. A man tells his stories so many times that he becomes the stories. They live on after him. And in that way he becomes immortal." – From the movie Big Fish.

Our lives, our personalities, are a the result of what we have experienced, of what has come before. But those events are gone, consigned to the past never to be repeated. All we have of our past experiences are our memories, and Memory is a notoriously unreliable narrator. Our memories are not exact replicas of the facts. We never really have access to the truth of what happened. Our memories become the stories we tell ourselves, not a representation of what really happened.

So what one true thing can any of us tell about ourself that isn't in some way, inadvertently or not, a lie?

Stories grow and change in the telling. Every time we replay a memory or tell a story from our life we are reinforcing the narrative that exists in our mind, which may bear little resemblance to the actual facts of what occurred. No two people experience any event the same way, so the memories they have of it, the stories they tell, are different.

This feeds on itself. As we experience more of life and discover more and more of who we are we tell the stories that reinforce our self-image. You would think most of us would want to present ourselves in the most positive light but that's not always the case. Think about it... we all know those people who describe themselves as unlucky, or bad with money, or hot-headed. Their life usually illustrate these descriptors. They have become the story they tell. In many cases people are told these stories, are convinced they are true, when they are too young to know who they really are. It is far too easy, even as an adult, to become trapped by someone else's narrative.

I'm fascinated by this dichotomy between history and memory, fact and fiction. They overlap and create new patterns and become the story of the world.

This tension is something I play with in my novel Bedivere:The King's Right Hand. Bedivere is one of the knights of King Arthur. Now old he is telling the story of his life. He is very aware of not only his failing memory, but also of the fact that the tales of King Arthur and the knights are already becoming legend.

If I may quote myself:

Historians have come to me since I have taken up residence here... They want to know specifics... I cannot answer most of what they ask. For all their focus on details they miss the most important element, the human one. No matter how much they are able to chronicle and reconstruct, they still get it wrong.

The bards touch on the heart of matters, but they could care less about the actual truth of events. Tales of dragons and enchanted knights are more interesting than lists of supplies and the minutiae of running a kingdom. For all of their insight into human nature, like the historians, they too get it wrong.”

In one part of the story Bedivere is discussing Sir Tristan, who in my version is as much a bard as he is a warrior. Bedivere says that Tristan is “a liar, the way all the best storytellers are.”

All of which may be an overwrought way of justifying why I couldn't reveal something really personal. Those who know me well know that I am comfortable sharing intimate details of my life. The older I get though it seems that there are fewer and fewer people who really know me well. While I meet new people and make new friends easily they rarely achieve the depth that older friendships did. Maybe that's age. Maybe the old friends are the people who were there when I was figuring out who I was and now that I have a much better idea of who that is I don't feel the need to share as deeply. So many of the most significant stories of my life, those that truly form the person I am, are far enough in the past as to be completely unknown to newer friends.

And in some cases, in some of the most important cases, my story overlaps with other people's stories. Overlaps in a way that prevents me from telling it. Part of it is not my story to tell. Some of the most true things in my life involve others and to tell them would be a betrayal of those people. I'm sure the story I would tell would surprise them, and be very different from the story they would tell of the same events. There is truth in both versions, but they are separate truths.

So what have I learned from this wrestling with the truth? Maybe I'm not as open as I think I am. Maybe I'm not as honest, primarily with myself. That there are more parts of me that I still feel a need to protect than I thought. That I'm still vulnerable. That I can be very open and honest but I'm picky about who I choose to share with. That I am protective of others as well as myself. That a simple question can still send me off soul-searching.

But even though I'm aware that my memories are unreliable and that my stories have changed the past, I will keep telling them. With age comes new insight. The stories change as I do. So do their significance. In the end all we really leave behind are the stories others tell about us.

What do I want on my tombstone? I used to think the simple words, The End would suffice. Now I'm happy with To Be Continued...

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